Monday, 31 August 2009

Making money from programming language design

I've had an interest in programming language design for a long time. Lately, however, as I've been working on my prototype bigraphs-based language, I've been pondering the economics of programming language design. Not that I have ever been particularly interested in making vast sums of money from designing programming languages - I'm much more interested in solving interesting problems, but it's interesting that PL design is viewed as a bit of a poor cousin to other varieties of mad schemes. You're a startup with a $100k/month burn rate designing a new Web 2.0 application that will simultaneously topple Facebook, Spotify and cure cancer? Sure, sounds exciting! You're designing a new programming language? Oh, it'll never catch on.

The lack of enthusiasm from those outside the PL design community probably stems from the fact that it is probably a bit of a lame duck in terms of earning money*. I do it for fun and interest (and making the world a better place etc), but that argument doesn't fly with some people.

* I know, there are lots of other reasons. The strange ways in which adoption and rejection of languages by users works would make me nervous if I were an investor. Also, sometimes it's hard to get enthusiastic about conversations over the merits of particular syntactic constructs.

So this post is dedicated to various ways that it might be possible to make money from programming language design (and implementation). There is probably a large overlap here with the economics of software in general. This is largely hypothetical, as I can't say that I've succeeded (or even tried) in making any significant amount of money from programming language design. Similarly, I'm basically "thinking out loud" at any scale. Some of these ideas might work to earn some beer money for one guy in a garage, while others might only be achievable by huge corporations with millions of dollars of contracts. Either way, my point is to simply enumerate some ways in which programming language design and implementation itself could be financially rewarding.

1) Commercial compilers

By "commercial compilers" I mean you create a single reference implementation that is "the compiler", and then you sell licenses for the compiler software. This is probably not a serious option outside a few specialist domains, given the myriad of production quality compilers for most languages, almost all of which are free and open-source. This might be an option if you are targeting some very specific (and probably very expensive) piece of hardware, especially if your language provides some value that the vendor-supplied implementation does not. The "specific" part is probably the important part. In the absence of other options, people become much more willing to part with money. If they can just use the same open-source compiler for the same old language they've always used, they probably will.

Incidentally, I am interested to know how the economics of the entire .NET thing has worked out. I assume Visual Studio is still a commercial product? It's been several thousand years since I looked at it. I assume the incentive for the creation of C# was not to profit directly from the language, but rather to create a big vendor lock? The existence of Mono creates an even stranger situation. If you know more about this side of .NET than me, I'm eager to learn more.

2) Free compilers, commercial add-ons

This is a pretty simple model. Open source the compiler, then sell value-added IDEs, debuggers, accelerators, static analysis tools and anything else you can think of. My understanding is that this is largely the route taken by Zend. It's probably not a bad approach, weakly corresponding to the "the first hit is free" school of business employed by many entrepreneurs working on street corners. In a situation where you control the language specification, and the implementation, then you are likely the best-positioned to create accompanying tools that "professional" users of the language are likely to want or need. This permits people to become fully familiar with the language as a hobbyist, producing real (useful) software using the freely available tools, and then moving on to commercial programming environments where the cost of tools is hardly considered.

Personally though, I'm pretty stingy when it comes to buying software that I don't really need. Commercial IDE? I don't use IDEs anyway. Commercial debugger? I'll do print-debugging if I have to. The "our implementation is crap unless you buy X" stuff is pretty much an automatic way of making me not give your language a second thought.

3) Sell support

You know, the old open source trick. I have no interest in the debate as to whether this is commercially viable or not, but it seems to work for some people. I'd rather not. I assume this would essentially equate to some kind of commercial support, either becoming a producer of software in your language, or providing training and tool-support services. This might extend to providing some kind of certification process for programmers.

4) Domain-specific embeddings

Domain-specific languages are hot right now. I quite like the idea that a single language design could then be specialised into domains in exchange for money. I think the key difference between making money from programming languages and software in general is that people are almost completely unwilling to pay for compilers or tools for general-purpose languages. There's just no need in this day and age. However, within a domain-specific context, it would appear that there may be more acceptance and willingness to pay for tools and support. It might be that you can convince large company X to pay you to create a DSL for their particular domain, or it might simply be a matter of convincing users of your general-purpose language that their particular task would be easier/better/faster in some domain-specific variant that you sell.

5) License the spec/controlled membership

Form a consortium! Charge bucketloads of money for interested parties to become members. You probably need a lot of users with a lot of money (read: "enterprise") before this would cease to be a joke. If you could get into this sort of situation, you're probably already making money from your language in one way or another. Licensing the specification, certifying implementations, and simply collecting fees for pretty much anything sounds appealing.

6) Write a book

I know even less about the economics of publishing than I do about the economics of programming languages, but I assume the fact that people continue to publish books mean that someone, somewhere is making money from them. Writing a book about your language seems to be a good way to kill two birds with one stone (i.e. write good quality documentation, and possibly make some money if enough people buy it).

7) Ad Revenue

I doubt this is going to be enough to retire on, but programming language websites often have the advantage of traffic. Hosting the tool downloads and the documentation can provide an incentive for a lot of repeat visitors. It might not be much, but it's always nice when your hobby is able to buy you a pizza a couple times a year, right?

8) Conferences and speaking engagements

I'm not sure how large a community has to get before speaking engagements would be likely to take up more than a week in any given year. Conferences are probably hit-and-miss in terms of revenue generation. You might end up making a little bit of money, but you could similarly lose a whole bunch.

9) Embedded runtimes/interpreters/compilers

If you could convince a manufacturer of some device (e.g, a mobile phone) to include your implementation of language X, then presumably you could negotiate royalties per-device. I assume that some of the mobile Java implementations provide some sort of financial incentives for their creators?

10) ???

Can anyone else think of ways in which programming language design (or implementation) can be used to generate revenue? Let me know in the comments, because if you have a guaranteed get-rich-quick-scheme, I might have a programming language to sell you :-p


  1. You can use a new programming language to get an advantage over your competitors in a completely different field that has nothing to do with computer languages.
    You may for instance be in the business of game development and create a new scripting language to be able to work faster than competetitors that use established languages such as C++.

  2. My friend, people dont buy things they buy perceived solutions. Or so it seems to me.
    Anyway here is what i think you could do.
    whatever it is that the language excels in and whatever products it can make should be sold as a package of training and tools to produce x and sell independently. people buy the training and tools and produce x and sell to get rich.