Saturday, February 26, 2011

Free Software...What's It Worth To You?

I've always benefited from free software, like MySQL, Apache and lots of smaller applications. I think I've done a good job of paying back either by donating time or money or with my own software. Lately, I've invested a lot of my free time into writing my Panel Builder app for the Chumby platform.

It wasn't easy. I had to learn how to write Actionscript, learn how to use FlashDevelop and scoured the 'Net for code bits to help me along. As part of my learning process I wrote a couple Chumby apps before I thought of doing Panel Builder. I kept those apps private for use on my own Infocasts, as I debated whether or not I wanted to deal with supporting a public app. After all, once an app is released, people are going to want help using it or want features added, especially, if it's free software. Obviously, that takes even more of my time.

I think Panel Builder is a great app and I'm really proud of my work. I've received a lot of positive feedback and thanks which has been great. It's nice to see people write about how they now have this super touch panel that cost so little (but don't forget the 100 hours of my time). I do think Panel Builder's also at a point where it has a substantial set of features that allows you to make some very complex & flexible control panels - all for free. I'm debating whether to stop adding new features and just doing bug fixes from now on.

However, there are more features I think that could go in to make Panel Builder even more useful. A few of them:
- Built in slideshow screensaver pulling photos off your network
- Updating status labels for displaying temperatures, song tracks, etc.
- Ability to add a webcam view to a screen

So, I'd like to pose a question. What would these or other new features be worth to people? The reason I ask is that nobody's ever clicked the Donate button on my website in the 3 years I've been developing software - no matter how many features requests I've done or how much help I've provided with my apps. If nobody voluntarily donates, would they donate to unlock features?

Let's try an experiment. For a $25 total in donations, I would add the feature to add a simple webcam view to Panel Builder. How will this work? You donate what you think this feature is worth. $1. $5. Whatever. When the total of donations reaches $25, I'll release an update to Panel Builder letting you put in a simple webcam viewer (The webcam must have a URL which will return an image when accessed). Want a different feature? Propose it in a comment below.

If there aren't any donations or comments, then I can assume Panel Builder is perfect the way it is and I can move on to other projects. There's obviously details to work out. Tell me what you think in the comments.

PS. I just wanted to add that my frustration really stems from users who ask for feature after feature and have offered nothing in return. I'm not talking about monetarily either. I really appreciate the efforts of others who've also been hacking the Infocast and revealing what they found about the file system, or system calls, or have given back by making their own wares available (not necessarily Infocast related either). Granted, not everyone's going to have the skills to do these things, but maybe they should find another way to contribute instead of just taking?

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