Life after Eazel

What does the collapse of one of the most prominent open-source start-ups mean for the future of free software?

Published May 16, 2001 7:52PM (EDT)

Eazel, the open-source start-up that promised to do for Linux-based operating systems what many of its founding engineers had done for the original Macintosh -- make it fun and easy to use -- is dead. Another victim of the dot-com downturn, Eazel never even had a chance to test whether its fee-based service plans would work before it ran out of money. But before we shed any tears over yet another high-profile new economy flameout, let's get right to the most important question: Forget about the company -- what's going to happen to the code?

This is the free-software world, after all, and Eazel protected much of its code under the Free Software Foundation's GPL license, meaning, theoretically, that it should always be available to anyone who wanted to keep working on it, whether or not the company that had funded its original development was still around. And, to be sure, less than 24 hours after the announcement that Eazel was closing its doors, one mailing list devoted to Linux desktop interface development recorded an impressive level of disaster management.

Darin Adler, lead developer of the Nautilus project, a file system manager that free software fans have been lusting after ever since it was originally announced, noted that he would continue to maintain the Nautilus project for the "foreseeable future." Andy Hertzfeld, famous for his work designing the original Macintosh interface, promised to personally host "what remains of the Eazel Web site" and declared to the list that he would keep working on the code. He also said, in an e-mail to me, that "I have some terrific, breakthrough capabilities for Nautilus on the drawing board, and I'm going to make them happen one way or another."

Other developers from Eazel announced that they would be taking care of various other software packages. Some mailing lists would find new hosts, and some new volunteers have already jumped in to declare their readiness to pitch in. All in all, it was an encouraging sight -- Eazel may be gone, but Eazel's contributions will not be erased so easily. As Havoc Pennington, a Red Hat developer, declared to the gnome-hackers mailing list: "The nice thing about free software is that you can only add to it, it never goes away, so its forward progress has a kind of inevitability."

Or does it? Free software may truly never go away, but will it stay relevant to the contemporary software marketplace? The collapse of Eazel, combined with the difficulties faced by many other companies with open-source/free software dependent business plans, raises some serious questions about the future (and past) of free software. Namely: Just what role did the bubble economy of the '90s play in free software's march to prominence? With the immediate corollary question being: Now that the downturn is truly sinking its teeth into the high-tech sector, how long, or how fast, can free software development continue?

"Yes, open source benefited from the bubble," says Hertzfeld, "and the current inverse bubble (vacuum?) that killed off Eazel makes things tough for all of the Linux companies. But long-term, most of the underlying forces still line up on the side of free software, so I'm optimistic that better times are ahead."

"I've been compensated enough from my previous adventures so I can work on free software without pay indefinitely," says Hertzfeld. "I can even afford to pay a few other folks to work on Nautilus if that is the right thing to do."

Hertzfeld's commitment is admirable. But is his situation analogous to the majority of developers? It's hard to argue against the observation that the late '90s were a golden age for free software development that may not soon be reduplicated. Thousands of programmers were hired to do what they loved most, hacking on software that would be given away to the general public.

That era is over. In a tightening job market, programmers are starting to scramble for jobs, for the first time in a decade. Perl and Linux skills are suddenly not in as much demand -- now it's Java and SQL and, of course, a slew of Windows-related capabilities.

It's impossible to say for sure, but one of the factors that propelled free software development forward in recent years is likely to have been the reality that programmer talent was valued so highly by the marketplace that programmers could write their own tickets. They could demand from their employers the right to work on free software in their free time. In the permissive dot-com era, they could put their Linux box right on the company network and hack away whenever they felt like it.

But as one Linux systems administrator, John Allspaw, noted, programmers fleeing the collapsing dot-com economy may now be forced to take jobs at more staid institutions, such as banks, where Linux boxes are seen as security risks, and spending half your day chatting on the linux-kernel mailing list is not valued as a productive use of time.

Free software will not disappear. Red Hat doesn't look ready to implode any time soon, and companies such as IBM and Sun are still committed to large-scale open source development. Academic participation -- all those restless computer science grad students -- will no doubt continue unabated. And, internationally speaking, the support for open source development could also remain strong -- there are strategic advantages to not being dependent on Microsoft software that may transcend the vagaries of the American business cycle.

There's also always the chance that the free software pragmatists are right -- that open-source development methods ultimately produce better software than what is available from proprietary companies. And that sooner or later, regardless of the vagaries of the NASDAQ, someone or some company will figure out how to make that superiority pay off.

But the pace of free software development still seems bound to slow down. And yet, at the same time, it is unlikely that Microsoft will stop paying its own developers to continue pushing Windows and other related software projects forward. Right now, free software developers are slapping each other on the backs, saying, look how much progress we've made in the last few years on desktop and productivity apps -- we've accomplished more than anyone thought possible.

But they still haven't caught up to Microsoft and Apple in terms of making their products easy for non-technical users. And these past few years have seen a level of industry support and financial subsidization that may never be repeated. So how will they ever catch up?

For a year or so, Eazel was a great soundbite for pundits looking to declaim about the glories of free software's future. I know, because I was one of them. Whenever I was pressed about the usability of Linux-based operating systems for the average non-geek, I'd concede that desktop interfaces like GNOME and KDE weren't quite there yet. But I'd also always then quickly follow with some statement to the effect of "but I'm really excited by the entry of these Eazel developers into the fray. These are some of the people who made the Macintosh into a success -- they could really make a big difference."

So much for the joyful expectations of the last century. Here in the 21st, it all looks a lot grimmer.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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