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.comment: Wanna Invest in a Bridge? Okay, How About a Donation? - page 2

All Around the Mulberry Bush...

  • May 2, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

The Monkey Thought It Was All in Fun...

Ximian has done to Gnome what Red Hat tried and failed to do to Linux: Make the company and the product synonymous in the minds of users. This was aided by a flurry of noncritical publicity last summer, where on consecutive days de Icaza was lionized by TIME and Newsweek, the latter calling him "An Evangelist for Free Software." Though an angel to the popular press, Miguel has angered a lot of people -- especially KDE developers -- by some wildly intemperate comments which he has sometimes paused long enough to apologize for before repeating. But last year, a handful of good clippings from prestigious publications would open the valves for the inward flow of money, and Ximian capitalized on them, a smart move.

Indeed, Ximian has engaged in a kind of corporate flamboyance, such as when it purchased advertisements to appear on any Google search results pages that had anything to do with KDE, Troll Tech, or theKompany.com. The KDE people, who unlike Ximian have no outside media relations company (and the KDE League does not pass for even the shadow of one), blew a gasket, allowing Friedman to seem positively magnanimous the following day when he announced that Ximian would discontinue the practice (which had been, in fact, a dirty trick). It had all been in good fun, said Ximian.

Now that he's not CEO anymore, Nat's duties include writing truly amusing release notes that are sufficiently charming to soothe the angry crowd awaiting Ximian binaries. I've asked around, and I haven't found anyone who could speak with confidence as to just where the Ximian-brand Gnome source code appears during its development, or when it gets offered to the general Gnome community and anyone else who under the aegis of the GNU General Public License can take it and use it for good or ill any way that he or she chooses as long as the source code comes along with it. It's certainly not administered in the way that, say, KDE is, where anyone who wants to do so can get the very latest code, any time, day or night, right off the CVS tree, and if it doesn't build, get free help with that, too. And there was that business where it was either stated or implied that Gnome source -- not Ximian-brand Gnome, but Gnome itself -- wasn't building very well; better to get the daily binary builds from within Ximian instead. So there arises a situation where the good stuff is kept off to the side by Ximian until the company is ready to spring it onto the world, full-grown. -- this from a company that goes on and on about its commitment to community and "free" software. It could be argued that either is fine, but it's a little disingenuous to try to have it both ways.

Miguel de Icaza is, by the way, on the board of directors of the Free Software Foundation.

Pop! Goes the Eazel

And so now, I learned from Michael's column, Eazel is soliciting payment for its software. It's nothing so formal as setting a price and refusing to ship product until that price is paid, but it's payment nonetheless. The company has set up a PayPal account so that people who want to do so can give the company money. This might seem a little odd at first, but it's no goofier than seven or eight years ago, when people who called themselves "Team OS/2" gave up evenings and weekends in unpaid volunteer support of a multi-billion-dollar company incapable of effectively marketing its own operating system. And the message from Eazel is plain enough: You want us to stick around and keep producing "free" stuff, you're gonna have to send us some money. The only thing wrong with it is its Orwellian, Free Software Foundation, convoluted misuse of the word "free." (If you send $20 or more, you'll get an Eazel T-shirt. It would go along nicely with the stylish Eazel tote bags the company handed out at trade shows over the last year when other companies with limited resources would have been less concerned with wearing apparel and accessories and more concerned with getting working code out the door. But who would ever have thought that $13-million would be "limited resources"?)

If it stopped there, it would be kind of sad, but it doesn't stop there and is worse than sad.

In the subsequent discussion, Eazel co-founder Bart Decrem puzzlingly suggested that those who send money to Eazel might be doing nothing but help pay Eazel's creditors -- you know, the people who provided the desks and the chairs and the lights and the place to work and the work itself. (In the law, creditors and investors are a different class, which is why in bankruptcy creditors often get paid a little something, while investors don't.) In short, Decrem warned potential contributors that they might not want to send money to Eazel, in that it might be spent to pay bills and salaries the company legitimately owes. It was in response to a question in which an Eazel (developer? user?) asked if donated money might be sent on to some other "free" software outfit in case it fails to save Eazel, rather than go to paying Eazel's legitimately acquired debts. (You have to be an adherent of "free" to follow such reasoning, but there it is.)

How, exactly, is this supposed to prolong the life of Eazel, which one presumes investors were led to believe would be the chief reason they invested and would be something Decram would busy himself doing? Decram said that this would be for those who "would like to support free software in general." In any case, were the contents of Eazel's new begging policy made fully known and widely publicized to the company's creditors, you can bet that thereafter the company would be in a position of having to pay cash. And by cash I mean folding money, not a check. Instead, we have an officer of the company suggesting that those inclined to help the company might want to give their money to someone else instead.

I'm additionally perplexed by the idea that sending money to the Free Software Foundation somehow helps Eazel, a private, for-profit company. Eazel's job is the survival of Eazel, not the survival of Nautilus. They may not like it, but when they accepted investor money, that's the promise they were making. Right now it looks very much as if investors were shaken down to the tune of many millions of dollars to finance development of a product (and finance God knows what else -- we're talking a lot of money here) that because it's GPLed will accrue to the community anyway, whether the company in which they invested lives or dies. The Napster-loving segment of the community might think this is awfully cute. But it will pay unanticipated dividends when companies seeking to develop for Linux discover that they won't be able to get financing for GPLed projects, so those projects will either go undone or be closed. (And it would make an interesting case, GPLed code as an asset in a bankruptcy proceeding, wouldn't it? There is something symmetrically ironic about the GPL's first court test taking place in that milieu.)

If the FSF is so interested in free information, it could contribute materially to that goal by publishing on the web its complete financials -- every penny that comes in, and from whom, and every penny paid out, and to whom. Indeed, it should be proud to do so. It would assist people around the world in making informed decisions as to whether or not they want to exercise their freedom to donate. It would bare any potential conflicts of interest. It would answer many questions.

I am not alleging impropriety here. It could be that it's all mere coincidence. But it is absolutely undeniable that the FSF has thrown its support behind a desktop controlled by two for-profit companies, one of which has an officer who sits on the FSF's board; the same company has purchased advertising aimed at confounding those who are seeking a desktop that is truly free in every rational sense of the word; and the other company has suggested that users can assist its product in surviving but help it avoid paying its bills by donating to the Free Software Foundation, or else an officer of that company has flung down and danced upon his fiduciary responsibilities by saying, in a communication that is part of his corporate function, that people might want to send money to the FSF instead of the company. And they all do it, evangelists as they are for "free" software, with a holier-than-thou air.

It has inspired me. I'm thinking of opening an account for the newly formed Brooklyn Bridge Appreciation Foundation, the goal of which is to increase my appreciation of the Brooklyn Bridge's status as a symbol of the gullible, which goal would be better achieved if people were to send me money just because I enjoy having and spending it. And all those who send money will be able to gaze upon and appreciate the Brooklyn Bridge with a clean conscience whenever they're in New York. Sorry, I have no T-shirts or stuffed monkeys to offer, though the first person to "invest" $13-million will get a tote bag, in black, which honors the Brooklyn Bridge with the word "Eazel."

Believe it or not, there was once a time when that would have sounded ridiculous.

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