The greedy web

Ben Hammersley invented the lazy web, a way of asking people if they’ve already solved your problem. It’s flashy, and seems to work for a small subset of highly connected geeks but it’s never going to solve the real problem of software for individuals, which is that there’s no market. There’s only monopoly or free.

Within large companies, this doesn’t matter. They can always build their own in house solutions, and that, obviously, is what most programmers are employed to do. Increasing amounts of that stuff is getting built with open source software, or using one of the Scandinavian licences (Qt, mySQL ) which say, ‘this program is free unless you’re trying to make money from it, in which case we want money too’.

But these are toolkits, or means to an end. Most small businessmen wouldn’t have the faintest idea what to do with them. The fairly ambitious open source projects which produce stuff in theory usable by anyone tend also to have ferociously anti-commercial ideologies. There’s no simple way for the small preferences of thousands of users to add up to a medium-sized incentive for one competent programmer to tweak a piece of “free” software in the way that’s supposed to be so easy. Yet there are hundreds of thousands of more or less disgruntled users out there, and thousands of competent programmers.

I was put in mind of this by a student in Australia offering to put up $50 for a decent word count in OpenOffice. There must be thousands of people who’d put up $5 or $10 for that: the web page where I put up a bad word count macro gets at least 100 hits a day.

So what we need is a way to put them in touch with each other: what we need is a greedy web, where people can post requests for little hacks to Open source software, and what they’d be willing to pay; alternatively, if they see a request already made for a feature they’d like, they could vote for it by offering some more money. It’s a sort of auction for something which doesn’t exist until it’s put on sale. Of course, you would need mechanisms to prevent exploitation: there would have to be escrow payments, deadlines, public commitments, and some way of resolving disputes if the software doesn’t perform as expected. But if a hundred people are putting up $5.00, and they get a word count that is slightly inaccurate, they won’t feel half as ripped off and resentful as one man might who had put up $500. And since the money is not paid over until the software is delivered, there’s no scope for scam artistry by the authors.

Any software or hacks produced under this scheme would of course have to be freely available under the licence of the original progam. It would be a nice touch if the commissioners got their names in the comments.

Of course, I couldn’t begin to build such a thing. But it might be incredibly useful. It might even pay for itself if one charged an upkeep fee off the top of the transactions. So I suppose I am appealing to the lazy web to build the greedy web.

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