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gnotebook: Assessing What We Owe

A week of mixed news

  • April 27, 2001
  • By Michael Hall

I'd be remiss to start off this week's column without a mention of the resolution of a source of much carping over the past three weeks since GNOME 1.4's launch: Ximian has finally released Ximian GNOME 1.4, which finally puts binaries in the hands of a majority of GNOME fans Getting the release was much harder than learning about it, though, as the response seemed to be so intense that it took a day or two for the servers to calm down enough, akamaized though they were, to complete the installation.

A full review is coming up early next week, but for the moment, I'll simply assert that it's worth the download and the wait. Ximian (Helix Code at the time) effected a big leap forward for making GNOME generally accessible when it first released its version of GNOME 1.2, and this release builds on that, providing not only an easy way to get at the software but adding some outstanding features. My teeth may not be brighter and whiter for the experience of running this latest release, but I will say that for the one machine I do keep up for a non-geek friend, her day-to-day use of the desktop is more self-sufficient than it ever has been before.

Add to that the fact that Ximian's Evolution is firming up enough that I've been able to keep it open and running for more than five hours at a time, the future of the desktop as presented by GNOME is looking better than it did just a month ago.

On the other hand, there is some news of a decidedly more troubling nature in the GNOME world that reflects the troubled times the tech industry in general is faced with.

In the process of linking to a story in SFGate about Eazel's financial problems, a Slashdot editor suggested the company might want to open a PayPal account to take donations (or contributions, or whatever it would be legal for a private company to accept) to prolong its life. The SFGate writer maintained that Eazel could have less than a month to live, despite the recent layoffs of 40 employees.

In short order, Eazel co-founder Bart Decrem did just that, saying "we have set up a Paypal account. If you're a happy user of Nautilus or Eazel's services, or just want to make a contribution to support us, please send payments to paypal@eazel.com." On the Nautilus mailing list, Darin Adler confirmed the authenticity of the account, sparking a brief discussion of how the money would be handled.

No one is particularly sanguine about the impact voluntary donations will have on keeping the company afloat. Decrem also pointed out that the money would have to go toward paying creditors if the company does fail and suggested donations to the Free Software Foundation if users wanted to make a contribution that would guarantee the promotion of free software rather than payoff of creditors.

On the face of it, it's just another unfortunate tech startup story. Eazel never planned to make money directly on Nautilus. Conceived in more optimistic economic times, the plan had always been to get Nautilus out the door and onto desktops, then begin providing for-pay services in the form of software management, online storage, and other tools. That plan required the company to remain in operation for well over a year without any revenue source to speak of, banking on timing and the eventual rise of Linux to a useful, widely accepted desktop to pay off and get the revenues flowing. If the company makes it to the starting blocks, there's still the issue of survival when the company will, on some fronts, be in direct competition with Ximian, which provides its own software services and produces the most widely used distribution of the overall GNOME desktop. It's a vulnerable position to be in when the company distributing your services conduit has the ability to flip a configuration switch at compile time that disables the components providing your services.

This particular story is reflective of what an oddity the Linux and open source communities truly are. In the past month, we've watched Indrema fail, and we've seen Slackware marooned by an acquisition that leaves its ability to distribute commercially in doubt. In both of these cases, people have stepped forward and offered to do their part to keep some part of these entities alive. A PayPal account was set up for Slackware as a result of Patrick Volkerding's announcement, and Indrema enthusiasts, undeterred by the fact the company took some key technology down with it, have formed a project to carry through on their own desire to realize an open source game console.

People more jaded than I will file these stories under "Quixotic folly" and go on about their business, but there's food for thought here.

Troubled though it is at this point, there's a lot of promise in Eazel's Nautilus. Though it was designed as a conduit to a broader operation centered around providing software services, and despite performance issues reflective of its newness, it was a definite contribution to free software in general. If nothing else, the experience and thoughtfulness that went into its interface design and the body of code it's comprised of have some real value to everybody in the open source community. There's also a good chance that many people took advantage of the handfull of services it did provide, even if it is imperfect.

That brings us to the question of whether we should support the venture that provided the code in the first place or whether we're better off thanking the company that provided the software for its contribution (Nautilus and all its components are GPL'd and in GNOME's main CVS) and moving on, counting Eazel as an unfortunate victim of hard times that fell just shy of getting an opportunity to prove its business model.

A participant in the discussion on the Nautilus list probably framed the question best:

"...before donating, you should think if during the time you have spent on Nautilus you managed to get something back in the form of knowledge, experience or something else, then valuate what you got and make a donation depending on that value. Doing this, you will not lose in any case."
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