Last week I attended Drupalcon Chicago 2011. Acton Institute’s website runs the Content Management System called Drupal. It is a highly customizable website publishing tool that powers around 1.7% of the Internet. Drupal scales: you can use it for a personal website, but very large outfits use Drupal including the White House and Grammy.
As you may know, open source software is free. Anyone can download the package and begin using it or view the internal code. Open source also means the software is coded by programmers who are not paid for their work.
How can such a model exist? It exists because customers hire developers to support and implement their websites using the platform. At this point, the “free” software can require a substantial investment of money and staff time to tailor or customize the open source software to an organization’s specific needs. Still, the model promotes learning for aspiring developers because they can dig into the system early on without paying to see if it is something they’d like to pursue. If it is something they like they can program, design, or provide consulting using the platform for clients willing to pay for it. If the developer doesn’t want to continue working with the platform they are free to stop without having sacrificed money figuring out they don’t want to work with it.
While attending Drupalcon I didn’t expect to find much related to Acton’s message. However, I was surprised to find a lot of what you might call ethical questions discussed throughout the conference. Web developers attended sessions seeking the right way to approach problems people have building websites. One session included a panel consisting of the Lullabot team speaking openly about what standard Drupal development rates are. All of the sessions at Drupalcon were aimed at empowering developers to do things the right way and to improve the way the web is presented.
There is a healthy competitive market in the Drupal community. Many vendors promoted their web hosting and development services on the exhibit floor. The biggest sponsors had session rooms named after them and their logos were posted everywhere around the conference. Because Drupal is open source, there are few barriers for new development shops to use it which increases competition. Seasoned firms compete for the business of high profile clients that receive millions of web visits a month.
There is a competitive ecosystem in not only the Drupal community, but in the open source web development community overall. By making the tools used to create the web free, more technical people are created who can fulfill the needs of organizations willing to pay for services. And a lot of thriving for-profit businesses are formed within this ecosystem.
If you’re interested in the Drupalcon keynotes they are available online.