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All Around the Mulberry Bush...

  • May 2, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

If the handful of people who have preserved their common sense were to take a step back and look at it, the ridiculousness of current events in the "free" software world would become laughably apparent.

I took that step back when I read my friend and colleague Michael Hall's gnotebook column last Friday. It dealt with the flagship GUI desktop of the Free Software Foundation. Which is to say, it discussed the products of two commercial enterprises, Ximian and Eazel. In the case of the former, it had to do with the lengthy wait users had endured before gaining access to the binary version of Ximian-brand Gnome. The discussion of the latter had to do with Eazel's solicitation of donations to keep the company afloat.

Now. Wait a minute here. Gnome was started because the Free Software Foundation ("information wants to be free") got itself in high moral dudgeon over the fact that an independently developed (meaning, no one kissed Richard M. Stallman's, uh, ring) desktop, KDE, was being produced under terms that no user could find objectionable but that the Free Software Foundation found insufficiently "free," based upon its made-up definition of the word. We jump ahead a few years. Gnome is controlled -- c'mon, don't kid yourself -- by two companies. KDE, meanwhile, isn't controlled by any companies. It doesn't even have any companies that distribute versions of it exclusively. If one were the suspicious sort, which I am, one would wonder if maybe there were more here than meets the eye.

The Free Software Foundation was formed because Richard M. Stallman had a vendetta based on the disparity between the way things work and the way he wished things worked, and he was smart enough to realize that packing up the most complicated text editor in the world and taking it home would not make quite the statement that forming a movement would. He was aware of the phenomenon codified by Abraham Maslow: there are lots of people who will sign on to just about any movement in exchange for the sense of belongingness that being the proud member of a group imparts. Fair enough. Nothing wrong with that. As long as you live it.

Because, you see, it seems as if not all information wants to be free. The financial records of the Free Software Foundation, for instance. I've repeatedly requested them, and those requests have gone unanswered. It is a peculiar irony that I can easily learn far more about the financial dealings of Microsoft Corp., than I can about the Free Software Foundation, where information wants to be free so long as it's other people's information.

Why does this matter? Read on.

The Monkey Chased the Eazel

One of the worst-kept secrets in the Linux community is the bitter rivalry between Ximian and Eazel. Though putting on the public face of happy cooperation to produce the best Gnome possible (all within the rubric of "free" software), privately they held and hold each other in contempt, and either would be delighted to see the other disappear entirely. Earlier this year the Eazels were saying that the Ximians were hijacking and changing big parts of fundamental pieces of Gnome code, with the apparent aim of breaking Eazel. The Ximians right now say that the Eazels have produced some really lousy code, which Ximian Gnome 1.4 gives users the option of not using.

This is all just fine. Two competing companies bound by a broad area of common interest -- Ford and GM, after all, both need gasoline -- can be expected to do battle, though this is turning into a Netscape v. Microsoft in miniature.

The two companies, too, provide a sense of the cost of "free" software. Eazel has burned through at least $13-million in venture capital ("Can you imagine?" asked a friend who develops commercial software. "They raised $13-million for a file manager!") so quickly that it had to lay off scores of people not long ago. (The mind boggles. It cost nowhere near $13 million to produce all of KDE, which besides being the most widely used Linux desktop also works reliably and has actual applications.) A year ago, Ximian (then Helix) was the darling of the popular press, which was especially fond of its very nice and thoroughly outspoken co-founder, Miguel de Icaza. Ximian raised large amounts of money, more than Eazel did, from trendy Bostonian venture capitalists. Yet there have been shakeups in Ximian recently, as it apparently occurred to the company that inasmuch as the tech sector is no longer trendy, those investors are going to want a return on their money. The latest change was when co-founder Nat Friedman stepped down as CEO in favor of a fellow who had made money, and lots of it, in the old-fashioned closed-source, pay-for-it software world. No matter what you say abut WordStar and Broderbund, you cannot say that they peed away millions in under a year with nothing much to show for it. Their years included profitable ones. Ximian would like to have some of those, too, but first there needs to be an end to the headlong dash in the other direction. Right now, it looks to the dispassionate observer that if Ximian is chasing Eazel anywhere, it's in the liquitation derby (with Caldera kindly agreeing to provide the pace car).

Both companies still say that somebody will pay them to do or provide something, somehow, sometime. One is forced to wonder if, had they started up at any time other than a unique few years in which money was thrown at anything that moved or looked as if it might move, they'd have made it this far. Note to Children of the 90s: The theory that there is no difference between wishful thinking and reality has been disproved.

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