No recession for free software

Hackers scorn the theory that the economic downturn could hurt open-source software.

Published May 18, 2001 7:56PM (EDT)

My column Thursday, which used the collapse of open-source start-up Eazel as a launching point for exploring whether the current economic downturn could have a deleterious effect on the pace of free-software development, elicited numerous interesting responses. Just about everybody disagreed with me, from open-source luminaries to grass-roots hackers. Here are some of the more insightful comments.

Michael Tiemann, a founder of Cygnus Software who is now chief technical officer at Red Hat, made the intriguing argument that tight times will actually spur more free-software development:

"Saw your article mourning Eazel, and I wanted to let you know that things are not as dark as you might think. I meet with CIOs and CTOs on a weekly basis, and things are definitely darker in the I.T. organizations of major corporations than they are here in Durham. They say 'nobody ever got fired for buying X, Y or Z,' but in today's economy, if you buy the high-cost solution, you will be fired (or at least, be laid off with the rest of your department). The only way people can get their jobs done is to do much more with much less, which is what Red Hat Linux makes possible.

"The downturn has increased the opportunity for our low-cost, high-value solution, and while getting the money to flow has been a challenge for everybody, we are farther up the competitive ladder than we've ever been. To back that up, if you look at our last seven quarters as a public company, they've all been up, with profitability increasing. Most of the tech sector has announced negative revenue growth in one if not both of the past two quarters. If we achieve the most recent guidance we gave to Wall Street in the last call, we'll deliver over $130M in revenue with earnings of 10 cents per share this fiscal year. That's a significant accomplishment for any software company, proprietary or open source.

"None of this has been (or will be) easy to deliver. But then again, we were never under the delusion that it would be."

-- Michael Tiemann

Miguel de Icaza is the chief technical officer of Ximian, and a founder of the GNOME desktop project. As such, he is one of the most prominent programmers working to make Linux-based operating systems and applications that are user-friendly. In response to my observation that programmer talent may have been overvalued by the boom-time economy, he had this to say:

"That might be true of the U.S., but many of the contributors [to GNOME] are not from the U.S., where the picture is definitely a lot different. I was working in Mexico making a miserable salary (which I am not going to quote, as it is a bit embarrassing), and many of the people working with me in GNOME and other free-software projects there were making even less money than I was.

"The same thing happens with all the contributors from Europe: Many times they are working on this in their spare time, but they never got to enjoy the economic 'boom' that we saw in the United States.

"For instance, a third of the development force of Ximian is not based in the U.S., because the talent was available outside the United States. Our employees were active contributors to the GNOME project that we convinced to join us, and they do not want to move away from their countries (and I can see why people living in Milan or Prague or Madrid or Adelaide would not like to move to Boston ;-). Actually, thinking about it, I think I would be a lot happier going back to Mexico, but I have to manage my developer team here in Boston. Oh well.

"I have been doing this for 10 years, and doing this only for the last 18 months in the United States with a U.S.-level salary. I began in 1991 or 1990 working on free software, and the motivation was never monetary. I think it is a bit of a political statement, and many of the programmers working on free software feel compelled to change the world in the way we are good at, which is contributing to a free-software project."

-- Miguel de Icaza

Eric Raymond is perhaps the most vocal evangelist for open-source software, and rarely allows a critique to go unquestioned. He sees the boom of the past decade as the natural consequence of the development of the Internet infrastructure.

"I read 'Life after Eazel,' and it seems to me you're suffering from a serious lack of historical perspective. No, the hacker culture isn't going to be smothered by the bear market. We were here long before the dot-com bubble, and we'll be here when it's been forgotten.

"There's no evidence that the pace of open-source development or adoption has slackened one bit since the bubble popped, either. I think if you monitor Freshmeat for a few days any fears you may have that hackers are being turned into acquiescent COBOL geeks en masse will completely dissipate.

"Perhaps I'm too much an insider, but the open-source explosion always seemed to me to be more a consequence of trends like the great Internet build-out of 1993-95 that were cooking nicely before the tech stock mania and isn't at all dependent on them. I've been watching this phenomenon build for 25 years -- three years of boom and bust just doesn't impress me a lot either way.

"It's too soon to exclude the hypothesis that the bear market might actually accelerate the pace of open-source adoption. After all, a lot of I.T. managers are under pressure to cut spending now. I think one thing we'll see a lot of in the next six months is submarines surfacing -- stealth Linux deployments that can be unstealthed now because cutting license costs looks good on the quarterlies."

-- Eric Raymond

Numerous readers took issue with my choice to use Eazel's demise as a sign of anything larger that might be wrong with the world of free software.

"Everything significant in the open-source world started before Eazel, and before the dot-com bubble that Eazel briefly floated on. Eazel's demise means that its business model and product were likely to continue losing money. It doesn't mean that the viability and future of the open-source 'movement' are now in doubt. By exaggerating the importance of Eazel you diminish the many important open-source successes, and spread another kind of FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] to complement Microsoft's anti-open-source campaign.

"I think you are a little credulous repeating and adding to the Eazel hagiography. Don't just take their word for it: Scratch the surface just a little, and ask some questions. The real story is more interesting than yet another piece of open-source fluff.

"Compare the documented history of the Macintosh to the hyped résumés of Andy Hertzfeld, Darin Adler and other Eazel luminaries. They made huge contributions, but Andy didn't carve the first Mac from soap chips all by himself, and Darin Adler was just one of many 'Blue Meanies' on the System 7 team. That heyday was 15 years ago.

"Eazel looks nice (for a Linux desktop), but it is also very slow, resource hungry and buggy. On my dual-boot system Eazel makes Linux a lot slower than Windows 2000. As many people have pointed out, Eazel is quite Macintosh-like. That is true if you compare it with the Mac interface of 10 years ago, or the HyperCard interface, or the MagicCap interface. But I don't think Eazel is a good example of what is most attractive about Linux; it's an attempt to turn Linux into something it's not: a Macintosh circa 1989.

"How did Eazel burn through over $15 million in a year, writing a file manager? A file manager based on a stable OS and user interface tool kit (GNOME/GTK)? How do successful open-source projects survive without such deep pockets? Were Eazel's investors unreasonable to expect something more for their money than a cute Finder rewrite? I would have expected a lot more if I was paying for it.

"Eazel co-founder Bart Decrem wrote, 'Over the past six months, our board members and executives worked tirelessly to secure financing for the company. Unfortunately, the high-tech capital markets have all but dried up and we have been unable to secure funding.' Are the 'capital markets' really the source of Eazel's woes? Is money that tight? Not according to the Economist, which reported in a recent issue: 'Venture-capital firms cannot afford to be too averse to risk. Their coffers are full and, amazingly, getting fuller.'

"A lot of dot-com executives blame the 'capital markets' for their business failures, but actually the money is and always will be there for companies that can persuade investors that they have something people want to buy, and that they know how to get people to buy it. This is just as true whether your business is software or soda pop. Imagine how ridiculous a Coca-Cola executive would sound blaming the failure of New Coke on 'the capital markets.'

"Keep up the open-source reporting, but please don't fall into the trap of repeating the legends spewed out by the people who failed to turn open source into their private fortune."

-- Greg Jorgensen

And finally, there was no shortage of testimonials that free-software developers do what they do not for the money but for love.

"While Eazel's demise is a bit depressing, I don't believe that it will affect free-software development too terribly. The KDE people, as far as I know, have never been paid for their efforts, and they continue to make advances at an amazingly fast rate.

"Most of us developers never expected to get paid, and many of our projects predate Eazel. We'll keep plodding along, churning out code, with the main reward being fan mail. My project, Exult, has over 80,000 lines of code, and six developers continue to improve it. It's fun!"

-- Jeff Freedman

By Andrew Leonard

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

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