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My colleague Justin attended an interesting meeting yesterday where one of the subjects of discussion was how transparent Microsoft can (and should) be about its business models, particularly as they relate to subsidized or free products for consumers. According to Justin, the mood in the room was divided, with some participants favoring openness as a way of building trust and others feeling that consumers either wouldn’t be interested in the complexities of our business models, or would be angered to learn of some of the ways we make money out of software that we don’t charge for directly.

This latter position is understandable – some of Microsoft’s deepest woes have been related to subsidized software, specifically Windows and the OEM deals that attracted the Justice Department’s attention in the late 90s. Just how open do we want to be? Isn’t that asking for trouble?

In the part of Microsoft I inhabit, almost all the software we are producing is given away for free, with the money coming through the sale of advertising on our network. Gatineau is no exception to this. We’re not planning to charge for the service itself, because we hope that (amongst other things) users of Gatineau will become advertisers in our adCenter network, because they’ll be able to leverage the integration between Gatineau and adCenter to build really great campaigns, based upon the insights they get from the analytics.

We really owe it to our customers to be open about this, not least because there will be aspects of the product’s functionality that will address our need to monetize it (hateful word) as well as making it a great general-purpose web analytics service. A good (and fairly obvious) example of this is integration with adCenter. Strictly speaking, if you don’t advertise with adCenter, and have no intention of doing so (though shame on you if that’s the case; go check it out), then this feature is of no interest to you, and of course that means we could have developed something else that you’d have found more directly useful. But of course helping people to discover the benefits of adCenter is a key reason we’re building this service.

It occurs to me, reading this post back to myself, that it could either be read as a coded rant about all the compromises we’ve had to make to Gatineau’s functionality in order to kow-tow to the bean-counters, or as a way of getting my excuses in early about the functionality of the software. Neither is true – though now I’ve written them both down, I’ve probably seeded one or other idea in your mind.  Damn.

The point of this post is really just to give you an insight into some of the inherent tensions involved in developing free software, particularly when that software’s source of revenue is at one or two removes from the software itself. Gatineau is being developed primarily to appeal to people who run commercial websites (though the definition of ‘commercial’ I’m using can include  a blog which earns a few bucks of Adsense revenue a month), partly because we feel that the business people in this audience are less well-served by web analytics tools, and partly because we hope that these are the sorts of people who might come and spend money with our ad network. Is it so very wrong to say that?


*there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch