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Holding software to ransom

By Chris Williams. Published: 17th Jan 2006, 22:49:24 | Permalink | Printable

Sounds crazy but could it work?

Editorial Imagine the following situation: A collection of computer users draw up a wishlist of software they'd really like to see developed. These end users then begin to donate money to projects that they'd individually like to see appear. A programmer then goes about creating an item from the list that has donations attached to it. Once the project is complete and enough money has been raised, the author can collect the cash and release the software. Finished code is withheld until enough money has been donated.

RISC OS and moneyThe notion of holding freshly written software to ransom sounds dramatic but it's mostly to make the job of writing headlines easier. There are a number of variations on this theme; the author could collect cash as it's donated and release new versions of the project as it progresses. A programming team might choose to embark upon a new application only until the kitty has sufficient money in it. These are all ideas that could help in some way to motivate and massage would be developers into working on new software, or to port existing programs to RISC OS. How such a scheme would eventually pan out is still up for debate, but it's interesting nonetheless.

Peter Naulls and Martin Wuerthner have run very similar initiatives for Firefox and Gimp-print respectively, and maybe the enterprise could be adopted by other developers. If the mild yet noticeable recent rise in interest in writing RISC OS software were the warm glowing embers on a camp fire, a method to get cash directly and easily into the hands of programmers could fan these promising flames. In a process that has a slight whiff of democracy, the users get to choose the wishlist, and the more money donated to a particular wish, the more appealing it will be for a passing programmer to adopt. Furthermore, if a coder takes up a project of which similar endeavours already exist or is just plain unpopular, it's unlikely to attract financial support.

The team behind the niche computing platform SkyOS run such a code ransom programme to pimp calls for an open office port, instant messaging software and other typical wishlist ideas. SkyOS, like RISC OS, is a minority closed commercial operating system and, also like RISC OS, is gradually building up its software stockpile with the help of ported applications from other more open platforms. A campaign to get Firefox ported to AmigaOS has also seen close to $10000 raised to fund such a daunting task.

SkyOS user and third party developer Peter Speybrouck says he had been interested in contributing software and took up a code ransom wishlist item that requested a utility that could report on the current and forecasted weather. The tool currently has about 35 quid in its pot.

He said, "I had the impression that the weather service was rather do-able, so I started investigating how this could be done. I gathered some bits and pieces, tried to make them work together and with the help of Robert Szeleney [lead developer of SkyOS], I managed to get everything done in a SkyOS way: a service plugin that makes it easy to configure and a client library that makes it easy to integrate weather data in client applications. The fact that it was a code ransom with money as reward gave a little extra push to work on it, but I think I would also have started this project if they asked for a weather service without reward."

Adding that he would like to help out an effort to produce a file archiving application outside of the code ransom scheme, Peter said: "The code ransom has at least attracted a lot of extra people that are interested in developing for SkyOS, although many of them have not shown any results or projects they are working on. It does help with getting people's attention for SkyOS. For small operating systems, these code ransoms are a good thing to stimulate development and interest."


Comments? News? Ideas for more software comparisons also welcomed

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Sounds like a really good idea to me.

As with all "pre-pay" schemes, one of the difficulties is paying for something without knowing what the quality of the final outcome will be.

I'd still say it's a good idea though, and the effect of putting control into users' hands (or at least those who are willing to pay) is an especially nice feature.

 is a RISC OS Userflypig on 18/1/06 12:40AM
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How useful is it that such schemes must necessarily be very public and that might ensure that two teams of developers don't work on similar projects that end up with too few purchasers?

 is a RISC OS Userjc on 18/1/06 12:58AM
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How about extending an existing project - Javascript on Netsurf?

 is a RISC OS Userjlavallin on 18/1/06 1:35AM
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People seem more willing to donate money to projects, when they've had a chance to see and try the software for themselves (UPP and MW have both been to many shows and user club meetings to demonstrate their software).

Maybe developers could offer a preview service, where potential donaters can try the software over a VNC or RDP connection. In most cases an old RiscPC, connected to the internet via a router wich is set to keep the connection online and update a dyndns.org domain could probably do the job.

 is a RISC OS UserJGZimmerle on 18/1/06 2:17AM
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There is a significant difference between what Martin and Peter did and the use of this system for new software projects.

GIMP Print and Firefox were both ports of existing software. People knew what they would get (more or less) before they pledged money. Of course, they didn't know how good the finished item would be, but they did have something to look at before work started.

With a new peice of software it might be rather more difficult as people would (presumably) be asked to pledge money based on a "concept" and "feature list".

Having said that, it could be very useful for projects like David Buck's new program which have reached the stage where a "proof of concept" already exists and where a pledge system would help him to decide how much serious interest there is and hence how much time and effort he should put into it.

 is a RISC OS Userapdl on 18/1/06 8:40AM
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I'd pay good ransom for Java in Netsurf.I'd also pay for a flashplayer

 is a RISC OS Userhighlandcattle on 18/1/06 8:53AM
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jc: "How useful is it that such schemes must necessarily be very public and that might ensure that two teams of developers don't work on similar projects that end up with too few purchasers?"

What's with the pessimism? Come on! Give it a chance - there are serious software holes now and everybody needs one or another addressed. What good is it if people have to use another, less liked, OS to get a job done?

What hurt can it give if users simply vote for an app they'd like released, like the article suggests? It's then up to an ambitious programmer to see if it's realistically manageable. If a given program does not convince, users can be free to not buy it, but since there's quite a decent software standard in RISC OS I have plenty of faith it'll work out. I'd say if a lot of users vote for a particular software project, it should provide particular motivation for a programmer or even team of programmers.

I'd vote for a port of GAIM, ( [link] ), since R-Comp has again reverted to silence regarding their (apparently) stagnant Grapevine project, despite hopeful expectations a release could be made around Christmas...

 is a RISC OS UserhEgelia on 18/1/06 10:08AM
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highlandcattle: since Firefox already has excellent javascript support I'd prefer to see efforts concentrated on finishing it (adding print support, style compliance etc), and adding Flash support if possible.

As to the next big porting project, my vote would be for a port of RealPlayer, assuming our hardware could cope (Iyonix/A9home, not necessarily RPC).

 is a RISC OS Userbucksboy on 18/1/06 10:09AM
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In reply to bucksboy: Of course, Firefox already has excellent javascript support, but the entire program is so sluggish, even on an Iyonix, that I never use it. I'd love to see javascript for NetSurf, the lightning fast, clever and genuine RISC OS browser - a real gem, I say.

 is a RISC OS Userdelink on 18/1/06 10:22AM
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hEgalia: "What's with the pessimism?" What pessimism? I just don't want two teams working on two versions of X when we could have one doing X and the other Y. Do you want two new databse programs or a database and a spreadsheet? I'd say that now is the time we want new/updated programs over as wide a range as possible.

 is a RISC OS Userjc on 18/1/06 10:34AM
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so far for me:

Javascript for netsurf (so far the firefox port is too slow on Iyonix/A9)

 is a RISC OS UserEasyKees on 18/1/06 10:52AM
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I'd be willing to donate to get a good RISC OS code ransom website set up.

Oh, that's a bit of a Catch 22 situation, isn't it ;)

 is a RISC OS Userflypig on 18/1/06 11:04AM
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SkyOS looks good ;)

 is a RISC OS UserPete on 18/1/06 11:31AM
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hEgalia - can you please stop berating Grapevine without first finding out? Version 2.10 (release) was submitted to us by the programmer yesterday. It has a lot more features than the originally promised update, and as a free update to a 2 year old program, it is rather tasty. Or perhaps I should make it ransom-ware.... (gotta make the post relavent to topic!) Actually, I think a normal release is just fine.

 is a RISC OS Userarawnsley on 18/1/06 11:42AM
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arawnsley: That's great news! Appy-polly-logies! Thanks for continuing work on it :) Perhaps you could participate in the 'ransom-ware' idea by offering a GV3 with a minimum of xxx votes for it to get a green light?

jc: "What pessimism? I just don't want two teams working on two versions of X when we could have one doing X and the other Y."

That's why it's a public vote. So we're all aware who's aiming for what. When a programmer goes up for the challenge, he or she may announce it to prevent doubling of efforts like we've seen in other instances. It could also let programmers join one effort and afterwards split the rewards.

"Do you want two new databse programs or a database and a spreadsheet?"

That depends on the features offered. Though if you mean two new database apps with roughly identical functionality I'd have to say no.

"I'd say that now is the time we want new/updated programs over as wide a range as possible"

Totally agree.

 is a RISC OS UserhEgelia on 18/1/06 12:07PM
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Basically I think the idea can work ... if you know the programmers behind it and thus can be pretty confident that the have a good chance to manage and perhaps the quality of their work and you know the amount of money/ransom to spend in advance.

The examples mentioned, that is Martin Würthner and Peter Naulls with Gimp-Print and Firefox, do definitively fall into that category with Martin even going one step further stating that all he wanted is commitments but no money before his first release. On the other hand there are examples where the pay-in-advance for some more-or-less defined thing expects regular payments (i.e. a subscription) and delivery is much overdue thus the result quite a bit more expensive than promised since the next year subscription is to be paid.

But in any case I think some wishlist with the option to state some amount of money the user is prepared to pay would be good since perhaps that can help freeware/shareware/... programmers to find something to work on as it might help commercial companies to see where they could invest some work, or where they could mention that they are already addressing it to indeed help to avoid unnecessary duplicate developments.

 is a RISC OS Userhzn on 18/1/06 12:18PM
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Martin Würthner and Peter Naulls are very unusal in the RISC OS market of being independant programmers working almost full time on RISC OS (although Peter now has a real job), they are also extremely dedicated individuals. This enabled them to commit to very big challenging project, and their excellent reputations from past achivements ensured people would trust them by contributing cash towards the development costs even though the code is under GPL and must be made freely available.

Unfortunately theres not may others like them, that have the time or inclination to take on such projects. Most programmers just work on much smaller things that interest us when we get the chance (which can, as pointed, out lead to a plethora of small programs all addressing the same purpose). I would hate to see the situation where programmers starting with the best of intentions take people money for this "ransomware" but are unable for whatever reason to deliver on the commitment.

So although we have two very successful examples of how this can work, we need to be vary careful before jumping on this bandwagon. Ideally any projects taken on should be by a small team of programmers to prevent one individuals change of circumstances derailling the project. Meticulous attention must be payed to project planning to ensure that there is sufficent programmer resources to complete the task in a reaslistic amount of time, and also to be able to show potential investors how their "ransom" money will be spent.

 is a RISC OS Userdruck on 18/1/06 1:38PM
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That's surely a very good point. However there's also presumably the danger of small projects getting so bogged down in adminsitration that they never get started.

Would a simpler solution maybe be to just keep money paid in trust to a third party until the project is completed or some milestone is reached?

As a separate issue, it's interesting to see on the SkyOS page that the SkyOS team have currently donated more money to the projects than the community. It's good that SkyOS are themselves investing in a software base.

 is a RISC OS Userflypig on 18/1/06 2:04PM
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Isn't the RISC OS Select scheme a bit more true to holding software to ransom"? "You pay now and maybe you'll get an upgrade and if you're lucky you might actually get an upgrade that's useful!" :)

 is a RISC OS UserGulli on 18/1/06 2:25PM
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In reply to flypig:

The idea of a thrid party holding the money in trust is the most practical way. A major player eg Castle may be interested in doing this and even offering suggestions or playing a co-ordinating role to avaoid duplication and 'fill the gaps' that now exist.

 is a RISC OS Userrmac on 18/1/06 3:06PM
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druck: does Netsurf constitute a third way, i.e. where a group of programmers devote such time as they can spare to a joint project? I don't know how or if they're funded, but this approach seems, in this case at least, to have yielded relatively rapid and steady progress with a large project, and could serve as a model for others.

 is a RISC OS Userbucksboy on 18/1/06 4:26PM
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I think Netsurf's model proves that cooperative development on a project from scratch /can/ work on RISC OS when the conditions are right to do so. The result in Netsurf is IMHO extremely impressive. Most RISC OS developments are from a single author; this is quite the contrary from other platforms where collaborative development is the norm.

I think the question is more how you foster the conditions for cooperative development to work. We should learn from Netsurf's success.

 is a RISC OS Usermd0u80c9 on 18/1/06 11:19PM
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"I think the question is more how you foster the conditions for cooperative development to work."

Although it's probably unpopular to say so, it seems to me that Peter Naulls' work has been about just that (cooperative development). I think this is one of the reasons why he has been frustrated - despite his best efforts people go off and do their own thing, unecessarily reinventing the wheel (there's a plethora of examples of duplication).

 is a RISC OS Userfylfot on 19/1/06 12:20AM
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flyfot: I feel Peter's is probably yet another development model, probably best described as 'standing on the shoulders of giants' (in the positive way that Newton had originally intended). Peter has worked tirelessly to port major software to RISC OS and make porting easier - in turn his ports are pieces of code written by others. Those libraries then exist for people to build from and on top of to produce further ports. Again, this is a very positive thing.

IMHO that's a separate development model from the NetSurf model where seemingly everything has been developed together and for a single purpose.

Both are IMHO ways forward for the platform, where we have deficiencies in a number of large-scale applications which would require multiple developers. However, the end results are different. Peter's work will bring applications from other OSes to our own. Netsurf's model would help develop large applications which are new to RISC OS.

 is a RISC OS Usermd0u80c9 on 19/1/06 3:04AM
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md0u80c9: I thought Newton intended that as a put-down to Hooke.

 is a RISC OS UserSimonC on 19/1/06 10:12AM
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It's been quoted both ways - which is why I emphasised which particular way I intended to use it :).

 is a RISC OS Usermd0u80c9 on 19/1/06 4:24PM
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