Okay, so this is entirely new to me. Sparrow
is was an email client for Mac OS X and iOS (and Windows), which brought a decent Gmail experience to these platforms – as opposed to Apple’s own not-so-good Gmail support and Google’s Gmail iOS application which, well, is just a webpage. Google has now acquired Sparrow, and basically all hell has broken loose, to the point of Rian van der Merwe writing that ‘we’ lost “faith in a philosophy that we thought was a sustainable way to ensure a healthy future for independent software development, where most innovation happens”.
The result of Google buying Sparrow (for $25 million) is that all major development on the email clients is to end – only security and bugfixes from now on. The Sparrow team will find its way to Googe’s Gmail team, and will, hopefully, work on future native Gmail applications (instead of glorified web pages). As a small, starting business, it makes perfect sense for Sparrow to accept this offer – their financial future has been secured, and they get to work at Google without the pressure and stress of working at a small startup.
And then the web weighed in, and many people are, apparently, angry. They feel betrayed, because a product they paid for will no longer see new major versions (only incremental updates). Sparrow supposedly “sold out”, because instead of sweating away as a small startup with an uncertain future, working on a developer-hostile platform (in this specific case, that is, because Sparrow cannot be set as a default email application on iOS), with limited funds, they decided to opt for the big bag of money, financial security, and the joys of working in a secure environment (Google).
Any one of us would have made that choice. Let’s not delude ourselves.
Rian van der Merwe took all this a step further, and argues that “the real issue is the sudden vulnerability we feel now that one of our theories about independent app development has failed”. I was curious right away – which theory? It’s explained on a Pinboard post titled ‘Don’t be a free user’:
What if a little site you love doesn’t have a business model? Yell at the developers! Explain that you are tired of good projects folding and are willing to pay cash American dollar to prevent that from happening. It doesn’t take prohibitive per-user revenue to put a project in the black. It just requires a number greater than zero. […]
So stop getting caught off guard when your favorite project sells out! “They were getting so popular, why did they have to shut it down?” Because it’s hard to resist a big payday when you are rapidly heading into debt. And because it’s culturally acceptable to leave your user base high and dry if you get a good offer, citing self-inflicted financial hardship.
Uh, I don’t get this. You paid money. You got an email client. The email client works. It will still work tomorrow. It will be getting updates (unless you act like a spoiled child). In other words, you got the product you paid for, and it will perform the same functions tomorrow as it does today. Stop whining. Nobody is left ‘high and dry’.
Instapaper’s Marco Arment further clarifies this new (to me) theory. “If you want to keep the software and services around that you enjoy, do what you can to make their businesses successful enough that it’s more attractive to keep running them than to be hired by a big tech company,” he explains.
Van der Merwe continues this line of thought, and adds “But… That’s what I did. I paid full price for every version of the Sparrow app I could find. I told everyone who would listen to buy it. I couldn’t have given them more money even if I wanted to. So, as a customer, what more could I have done to keep them running independently?”
This is new to me. Up until a few years ago – and, on OSNews, up until, uh, right this second – the only true way to ensure your preferred software will never die is to use open source software. If you use closed source software – be it for-pay or free – you are always at the whim of the developers. If they decide to abandon the project, for whatever reason, you won’t be getting new versions, and quite often, you won’t even get security and bug fixes.
The one, only, and true way to ensure this doesn’t happen is to use open source software. If the code is out there, the original developer’s changing whims is of no material concern. Had Sparrow been open source, we’d have several other people starting forks right away.
The idea that just because you pay for an application you’re ensuring its survival is so incredibly naive I can hardly believe this is actually a thing in the first place. I can only assume this is coming from people who didn’t experience The Focus Shift first-hand – you lose future versions of an email client, well, boo-frickin’-hoo, I lost my favourite operating system that I still consider to be the best ever made. The same would have applied to BeOS: had it been open source (or released as such before Be went under), we wouldn’t still be waiting on Haiku (and I’d have my unicorn damnit).
If there’s one thing Be’s infamous Focus Shift taught me, it’s that when you use closed source software, you always run the risk of what happened to Sparrow this week. No amount of money thrown around is going to change that. You can be reasonably sure software from large companies won’t be abandoned overnight, but even there you’re never sure. How the small amounts of money small application developers make should secure the future of your favourite closed source applications is beyond me.
An application’s survival does not depend on free vs. for-pay – it only depends on closed vs. open. I thought this was elementary, but alas.