A Response to Andrew Leonard on the Demise of Eazel

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Tim O'Reilly
May. 17, 2001 08:44 AM
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Andrew Leonard's gloomy comments on Salon about the demise of Eazel miss the point, and reflect the distorted view of the prospects of open source software that results when you focus on Linux as a desktop platform. He asks:
Free software may truly never go away, but will it stay relevant to the contemporary software marketplace? The collapse of Eazel, combined with the difficulties faced by many other companies with open-source/free software dependent business plans, raises some serious questions about the future (and past) of free software. Namely: Just what role did the bubble economy of the '90s play in free software's march to prominence? With the immediate corollary question being: Now that the downturn is truly sinking its teeth into the high-tech sector, how long, or how fast, can free software development continue?
Let me ask a corollary question? Will the Internet go away because the dot com bubble burst? Did the personal computer go away because most of the startups that fueled the PC boom in the early 80s went belly up? The failure of individual companies--even lots of them--has very little to say about the success or failure of technology. In fact, you can argue that the failure of many companies is required, if the industry is to progress. If there aren't enough failures, there's not enough innovation.

Further, you have to distinguish between open source projects, and open source companies. While so much of the hype has centered on Linux, and especially attempts by Linux companies to recreate Microsoft's past success in markets like desktop applications, the leading edge developers who are the real heart of open source have been pioneering new turf.

The Apache web server--never so hyped as Linux--has not only held on but extended its leading market share, despite all-out attempts to dethrone it by both Netscape and Microsoft.

What's more, open source innovation abounds, in areas from instant messaging and XML routing with Jabber, to web services frameworks like Jxta and speech synthesis with systems like festvox, not to mention all the XML-related work built on top of Apache. And where Linux is making huge headway is in new markets like embedded devices, not in the old markets where even Microsoft is starting to have trouble getting people to spend money.

Andrew does acknowledge that the demise of Eazel does demonstrate one very powerful aspect of open source: when the company dies, the code does not, and is available for others to continue improving.

But the part of Andrew's message that really got my goat was the way he has bought into the assumption shared by so many that the desktop is the be-all and end-all of software development. He says:

But the pace of free software development still seems bound to slow down. And yet, at the same time, it is unlikely that Microsoft will stop paying its own developers to continue pushing Windows and other related software projects forward. Right now, free software developers are slapping each other on the backs, saying, look how much progress we've made in the last few years on desktop and productivity apps -- we've accomplished more than anyone thought possible.

But they still haven't caught up to Microsoft and Apple in terms of making their products easy for non-technical users. And these past few years have seen a level of industry support and financial subsidization that may never be repeated. So how will they ever catch up?

I challenge the assumption that open source developers haven't caught up with Microsoft and Apple when it comes to ease of use. The easy-to-use applications based on open source are all around us: Yahoo!, Google, and all the other web sites based entirely or in part on the open source web platform. Heck, the web redefined ease of use for applications, with millions of people doing e-commerce and other complex applications without ever reading a manual or installing any software beyond their web browser. No, the web isn't often claimed as an open source success story, but that's because people focus so much on the proprietary browsers. But so much of the web, from its open protocol (HTTP) and rendering language (HTML), to its dominant server platform (Apache) and dominant programming languages (perl, php, and javascript) is open source.

What's more, I challenge the idea that open source business models have to look like proprietary software business models or they somehow don't count. One of the key points that Eric Raymond made in The Cathedral and the Bazaar was that far more software is built for use than for sale. All of the most successful businesses in the open source realm are users of open source. For example, the entire multi-billion dollar ISP industry is based on selling access to services (email, web, domain name services) that are largely based on open source programs. Not to mention businesses like Yahoo! that build their higher level services on an open source software platform.

I find myself completely baffled by the failure of the hardcore open source community (or really the free software community, which focuses so single-mindedly on the GNU part of the Linux heritage) to acknowledge and own its real business successes, while endlessly obsessing about the markets (the Windows desktop and office applications) where open source not only has a steep uphill climb but also a less compelling business model.

Open source has long moved beyond Windows in the new markets and businesses it's created. We just don't acknowledge our own impact.

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc., thought by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world. In addition to Foo Camps ("Friends of O'Reilly" Camps, which gave rise to the "un-conference" movement), O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the Web 2.0 Summit, the Web 2.0 Expo, the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, the Gov 2.0 Summit, and the Gov 2.0 Expo. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar, "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim's long-term vision for his company is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. In addition to O'Reilly Media, Tim is a founder of Safari Books Online, a pioneering subscription service for accessing books online, and O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, an early-stage venture firm.