I don’t like the idea of prizes, because what it amounts to is: “we’ll get a bunch of people to do a lot of free work in competition with each other, and then we’ll choose to give a few of them money”. The entrants take on the risk, and the costs of the total amount of work probably far exceed the prize amount. But I guess if people feel like doing free work…
I suppose I’m a little more optimistic. But the simple fact is, lots of people do feel like doing free work, especially on things they love or feel are important. For those reasons, I work on this kind of stuff in my free time, and I know I’m hardly the only one who does. Unpaid work still constitutes a big fraction of open source contributions, even for established big-name projects.
So, the opportunity to win even the smallest prize ($10K in this case) just motivates me to work harder and more, and to get others to collaborate with me. As for the “risk” involved, it seems to me that the WINS challenge is staged in a way that mitigates that risk, and will thus attract organizations with more resources than mere hobbyists like myself.
I wouldn’t say all prize-based tech competitions are a good thing, but this one seems pretty good to me.
I know the sort of abuse you’re thinking of – it’s especially common in graphic design, I think. This, however, I would not call abuse: Mozilla isn’t trying to get a solution on the cheap, but to promote “the Internet [a]s a global public resource, open and accessible to all.” (that’s from their mission statement).
Prizes create publicity. They get news articles; they get a goodly number of people thinking about the problem space; they tempt people to make the step from thinking to building; and they send the message a subject is important, and deserves your attention.
Compare the Ansari X prize, which aimed to promote low cost space flight.
Consider the fact that: a) it’s a nonprofit, so they can’t pay everyone b) it’s for a great cause, and many people are doing this work unpaid anyway.