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Helix Code: Beyond Project to Product

What the Guys Are Up To

  • September 11, 2000
  • By Dennis E. Powell

One of them--Miguel--is already instantly identifiable in the Linux community by his first name alone. The other--Nat--is Nat Friedman, fast achieving that status. They're among the Linux rock stars, and together they've formed Helix Code, a company that hopes to make them rich exploiting free software, specifically Gnome.

They recently talked with Linux Planet about what they're doing, what they hope to achieve, the future of Gnome, the prospects for the Gnome office suite, the Gnome Foundation, and the possibility of automatic acquisition of tickets to Dave Matthews Band concerts.

Like many in the community, they seem to be in perpetual overdrive. And like many, they have a single, passionate purpose. Whether their enthusiasm as Linux programmers translates to success as entrepreneurs is still of course, unknown, but they're giving it their best shot.

Making Money from Free Software
One of the questions that has puzzled many people, including Wall Street, is how anyone plans to generate revenue through the distribution of free software. This is where Nat's vision comes into play.

"This isn't just about free software," he says. "It's about the Internet and communications. Certain types of businesses revolved around communicating data, for instance selling music, selling software, weather services, things like this. Now that we have this communications medium which is becoming fairly ubiquitous, and which allows you to transfer information from one place to another very quickly and at relatively low cost, things are changing--certain businesses are just changing. So people have to come up with new ways of making money. Certain industries will die, and certain companies will not be able to keep up and will also die as a result.

"Once the Internet became pervasive, open source started to happen, and collaborative efforts, too."

He cites as an example the original compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

"It took 70 years to produce the first edition of the OED, and without the postal system it would not have been possible. So now you have this new communications medium, which is the Internet and which is fast. And which also has the benefit that when I send you a piece of data, I keep that piece of data myself. Suddenly you have zero cost transmission of information and zero loss to yourself when you transmit the information. This allows things like open source and collaboration to happen. So, suddenly, how can you charge for information, you ask yourself, especially information which you want to be ubiquitous, like software? Software has to be fairly ubiquitous for it to succeeed in certain cases. If it's a word processor or something like that, you want ubiquity for two reasons: one is file formats, though with open file formats you don't need the same piece of software, and the other is user interface--it should be the same. That's mindshare. They know how to use Microsoft Word. They don't know how to use Word Perfect, necessarily. So suddenly you can't charge for software."

Actually, there are a number of companies that have done quite nicely and are doing quite nicely by charging for software. Microsoft comes to mind. But while Internet time is faster than world time, business time requires some anticipation of the future, no?

"So this isn't about coming up with a creative new business model for the heck of it. It's about the fact that Microsoft's business model is obsolete. It will be superannuated entirely by the existence of the Internet and the possibility of transmitting information. The proprietary business model for selling software just isn't going to hold up anymore. So, how do you make money?"

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