Is there a Market for Premium R Packages?

November 19, 2010
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(This article was first published on Learning as You Go » RStats, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

Nathan Yau, of the excellent FlowingData blog, recently asked on his Twitter stream:

I wonder if there’s a market for premium R packages, like there is for say, @wordpress themes and plugins

There are some great packages available for R, all of which are currently free. I think it would be great if authors like Hadley Wickham and Ian Fellows received remuneration for their efforts. However, I see a trap here.

From my perspective, R has two main barriers to adoption: the learning curve and IT support.

The learning curve is steep enough that casual users will not get very far, and infrequent users tend to slide backwards and have to relearn (I’ve had to develop a mind map of common functions to help mitigate this problem for myself). R packages generally address the learning curve. There aren’t many packages that provide functions that the user couldn’t have created for themselves with base R, but the packages make using their functions much easier. ggplot2 and its support packages plyr and reshape make a perfect example. The default R graphical output is pretty good, but ggplot2 offers better aesthetic defaults and provides an easier path to advanced functions, like transforming data and adding fitted curves and “ribbons.”

IT departments will not have any readily available, professional support should problems arise with any R installation. I’ve seen a couple of IT departments balk at supporting open source software for this very reason, and one of them balked at supporting R for this reason. IT departments must evaluate software through the lenses of incident response and down time. However good the community, open source software leaves a big uncertainty when planning for support budgets. The only solution that I’ve found for IT is to convince them that they don’t have to support R; I can do it myself. I’m sure some of you are luckier that way, and it seems that Revolution is slowly addressing this issue, but it’s not an issue that has been generally addressed in the community. In addition, IT departments are usually responsible for ensuring that all software installed on their organization’s computers is legally licensed to the organization. With everything currently free, that’s a problem that is easily overcome.

Make ggplot2, or any other package, available only to those who can pay, and you exacerbate the two main problems with R: great functionality that flattens the learning curve will be lost to a large segment of users (i.e. casual or infrequent users and cash-strapped users like students), and IT departments will have to choose between actively supporting R and simply banning it. Providing user-installable R packages where some are freely licensed and others are not would create an environment where some IT departments would simply ban R rather than have to sort out the licensing issues. I suspect that many would ban R.

We need a way to repay package authors for their time, without losing the benefits of freely available packages. Donationware seems like a good first step, even though the response rate is typically very low.


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