Give nothing, expect nothing: GitLab’s the latest punching bag for entitled users

What do Docker, GitLab, and Red Hat have in common? Aside from various levels of participation in open source, they’ve all been punching bags over the past few years for non-paying users angry that they’ve taken some freebies off the table.

When Docker had the temerity to introduce limits for free users pulling containers from DockerHub, or requiring a subscription for large business users, lots of people started complaining and/or looking for a free alternative.

When CentOS moved from a direct clone of RHEL 8 to the CentOS Stream model, hordes of people raised virtual torches and pitchforks because they were no longer able to run a freebie RHEL clone. Many noted that this was bad for their business because of the uncertainty and having to either pay up or move to another RHEL clone. Few seemed to note that it’s bad for Red Hat’s business when people don’t pay for its flagship product, which in turn continues to fund development of RHEL. (There was also a pretty hefty side dish of IBM conspiracy to go with this, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Now, GitLab is making changes to its free tier and may zap inactive repositories or repos that are too large.

The common thread here: Lots of users expect to get things for free, forever, from for-profit companies that don’t answer to them. Those users contribute almost nothing1 to the bottom line for the for-profit companies, and actively drive up costs for them. Yet, somehow, with no skin in the game, they feel entitled to complain and badmouth the companies because they’re not getting as much value for their monthly contribution of nothing at all.

Expect to pay, now or later

I’ve restricted my examples to companies in the open source arena, but there’s plenty of other examples out there of companies that have provided “freemium” models and eventually start taking away features from the free tier.

It’s utterly predictable, and rational, for companies to do this. But, somehow, it’s usually a big kerfuffle when companies do this and users get all angrified because the tap on the freebies has been not even turned off but dialed back a bit.

Sometimes users have a point, when the companies haven’t offered a chance to pay in the first place. I’m looking squarely at Google here, the world champion of killing off services that it offered only for free, then decided weren’t strategic or profitable. Maybe Google Reader would never have made a profit if Google offered a subscription, but we’ll never know.

As they say, if you’re not paying for something, you’re the product. If you didn’t pay for RHEL, you have no stake to complain about changes to CentOS. Especially if CentOS runs part of the business you work for. Tell those cheapskates to pony up for RHEL subscriptions or get used to the bumpy ride — smoothing out the uncertainty is literally part of the value of open source products.

If you pay GitLab or Docker and they change the terms of service for the worse, you might2 legit have a grievance and they ought to listen to you. But paying for services is like voting: if you don’t do it, don’t complain. You got more than what you paid for, so expect nothing.

If you pay nothing for a service then expect disruption later on when features or the service go away.

Build it instead

The other complaints I hear about the businesses that do business around open source is around “lock in” and proprietary bits.

My answer to that? If you want all-singing, all-dancing, 100% open source, federated services that provide full export capabilities and all the goodies — build them yourself.

Not literally yourself, necessarily, but if we have groups of users who really want a GitLab/GitHub/SourceForge type service that is 100% unchained from lock-in, proprietary bits, and so forth — then those users should do the work, band together, and create an organization to do just that.

Create a business case, get the funding, stand up the infrastructure, and pay people to work on it rather than expecting for-profit companies to prioritize (what you see as) the public good over profit. Whether that’s how things should be or not, it is how they are and that isn’t going to change as long as the only movement in the direction of change is people hectoring for-profit companies to do better. Their “better” is more revenue and profit than last quarter. If they can incidentally do some good, great.

Companies are run by people who often do want to make the world better, but if that costs money, time or reduces profit, they have to justify it. And, usually, somewhere in the organization is someone tasked with looking at that equation and if it doesn’t balance out right, they’re empowered to say “no.”

If you build it, maybe they’ll come. Aside from all the risks inherent in starting a new venture that has to make money and pay people, there’s the dirty little secret that lots of people who say they want to pay for such things… won’t, in the end. If the ethical, pure open, business is a little harder to use or costs a bit more… many people won’t put their money where their mouth is. I’m not claiming innocence on this point, myself. I own an iPhone, not a Purism phone, for example.

But I’d love to work for such a company doing things for freedom, justice, and the open source way. You know, assuming they were paying market rates or pretty close to them.

Because, bottom line, most of us are trying to make a living. If you worked for Acme Corp that had to choose whether they’d continue giving away X, Y, and Z services or paying you a bonus or giving a decent raise next year, which one are you going to vote for? Handing out freebies or being paid for your work?

[1] I say “almost nothing” because companies see value in dominating an ecosystem. To the extent that the value of increasing the reach of an ecosystem outweighs the costs of giving things away, they’ll likely continue to do it. When the scale tips the other way and the cost of giving away the freebies outweighs the benefits, they’ll stop. Simple as that.

The freemium tier is not much different than writers and artists doing work “for exposure.” As they say, “people die of exposure.”

[2] I say “might” because costs aren’t static. If, say, storage costs go up then a company can only eat those costs for so long before they might have to charge more or reduce the storage tiers.


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