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Home » Hacking News » Fee vs. Free You choose the price

Fee vs. Free You choose the price

by Majik on September 6th, 2001 Microsoft Corp. has 40,000 employees, $30 billion in the bank and a lock on the personal computer market. Miguel de Icaza has a couple of hundred volunteer programmers, a windowless office just outside of downtown Boston and a vision.

His goal is to rewrite the rules of the software business by creating and giving away word processors, spreadsheets, e-mail readers and other programs that mimic the look and feel of Microsoft Corp.'s signature products. Some independent observers give him a fair shot. And so does Microsoft.

This summer, the software titan began a series of attacks on a free-software movement that supports projects such as de Icaza's. It's "a cancer," Microsoft officials said. "An intellectual-property destroyer." Almost un-American.

"It puts at risk the continued vitality of the independent software sector," said Craig Mundie, a senior vice president at the company.

The idea that one of the world's most powerful technology companies could feel threatened by a bunch of volunteers might have been laughable as recently as a few years ago. But free software is quickly becoming big business.

Funded by venture capitalists and public markets, upstarts such as de Icaza's Ximian Inc., as well as some of Microsoft's biggest rivals, are releasing free products with increasing frequency. Sun Microsystems Inc. recently bought a company that makes a suite of programs that compete with Microsoft Office and began giving the software away. And International Business Machines Corp. pledged $1 million to help research and develop the free Linux operating system, an alternative to Microsoft Windows.

"Free software used to be a joke," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Giga Information Group. "Today there are a large number of people involved who can change things enough so that the market that makes Microsoft a successful company won't be around in the future."

Already, cost-conscious school systems, businesses and government agencies are using the software to run their network computers. Some experts say that Microsoft's dominance may be eroded further as developing nations embrace free software as the cheapest way to enter the digital age.

"Microsoft can put our companies out of business, but they can't kill our software because it is already out in the open," said de Icaza, a 28-year-old Mexican native who is co-founder of Ximian.

Fee vs. Free

Microsoft's $25 billion-a-year business is based entirely on the idea that software can be owned and sold and that the source code -- the blueprints, instructions and secret formulas -- is proprietary.

De Icaza and his colleagues believe just the opposite: that everything should be "open source." That is, software should be free and available for other programmers to examine, modify and distribute as they wish. Companies, they argue, can make money another way.

The idea is catching on. The free Linux operating system is now used to run 27 percent of high-end server computers -- the hubs of many corporate networks -- vs. 41 percent for Microsoft Windows, according to research firm IDC Corp. The free Apache Web server technology is loaded on roughly 63 percent of machines vs. about 20 percent for Microsoft Internet Information Server.

Consumers have been slower to adopt free software. Much of the reason is that the software still requires some technical expertise to use, and many home users prefer Microsoft's simpler approach.

De Icaza is part of a new generation of open-source programmers who are trying to change that. Unlike many of his predecessors, who were more interested in the behind-the-scenes technical aspects of free products than in how they looked, de Icaza believes the colors, the size of the buttons and other features of interfaces are as important as the engines behind them.

De Icaza is in the United States on a special "genius" immigration visa typically reserved for Nobel laureates and the like. He said he became a free-software convert when he took an $8,400-a-year job as a systems administrator for a university in Mexico City and found that the school did not have the financial resources to buy the software it needed. His solution: build the programs himself, with help from experts he met online.

Three years ago, de Icaza and his collaborators came out with a program that gives Linux the same menus, icons and other graphical doodads that made Windows so popular. That interface now comes standard in some computers sold by Hewlett-Packard Co. and other major hardware makers. Next came a word processor like Word, a spreadsheet like Excel and an e-mail reader like Outlook.

The success of those projects has made de Icaza a cult hero of sorts and has helped him rally the global army of more than 800 engineers he coordinates today. About 45 of the programmers work for Ximian. The rest are volunteers.

John Barnette, a 24-year-old developer from Boulder, Colo., is one of them. When heard de Icaza was leading the open-source projects, "I was immediately interested and jumped right in."

Microsoft in the Open

Recently, the group began to focus on the ambitious task of duplicating a subset of Microsoft's new "bet-the-company" .Net initiative. It's a set of technologies that will allow users to exchange information over the Internet among all sorts of devices. De Icaza & Co. are starting with the very heart of the initiative, a tool kit that will aid programmers in developing online services.

He dubbed the project Mono, Spanish for "monkey." A working version is expected to be out by the end of the year and a more polished one by summer 2002.

Ximian, which recently got an initial investment of $15 million in venture capital, is among a new breed of open-source software companies, such as Red Hat Inc. and VA Linux Systems Inc., that is part-business, part-activist. Basic versions of their software are available free on the Internet. The companies make money by providing technical support and by selling the programs on CD, to users who would prefer not to download them from the Internet.

Microsoft, meanwhile, seems to be having trouble deciding how to respond to this new business model.

At first the company came on strong, essentially arguing that open-source software might spell the death of the industry. Then Microsoft executives began to "clarify" that stance, saying the company's main problem isn't with free software per se but more with one of the popular open-source licensing schemes. That model holds that if you use open-source code, you have to put your enhancements in the public domain and offer them to others with the same privileges you got -- i.e., free.

Then, in July, at an open-source convention in San Diego, the company clarified its clarification, saying it wasn't actually against the licensing model. Rather, Microsoft just wanted to help people make informed choices.

At the same time, Microsoft has begun to promote an alternative philosophy for cooperative development of software -- a "shared source" program that allows select Microsoft partners to peek at -- but not to copy -- the blueprints.

"We are learning from open-source programmers," said Dave Stutz, a Microsoft group manager who is in charge of tracking open-source initiatives. "We are learning a lot both about community and the nimbleness of small projects."

Stutz added that although the company regards de Icaza's projects as serious competition, it considers the competition a compliment because it validates Microsoft's technical designs. And in what was considered a breakthrough for the company, Microsoft recently submitted to a technical standards body the specifications for a core set of .Net technologies.

But some wonder if the move could end up being Microsoft's undoing. It is those very same technical documents, scattered around de Icaza's office in messy stacks, that the Mono developers use to duplicate Microsoft's work.

A Call to Battle

Much of de Icaza's work is done by e-mail.

On a recent weekday, his mailbox received 104 messages by 1 p.m. Most were technical questions about .Net, but there were personal notes, too. One teenager fawningly told him, "I admire everything that you do." Another writer accused him of being a communist.

For hours, the clicking behind the three computers set in a semicircle on his desk, like battle stations, went on continuously. It stopped only when his cell phone rang. It was a friend in Mexico: Microsoft is coming to town! To talk to President Vincente Fox!

De Icaza jumped up and started pacing. When? Why? For how long? "I'll be there right away," he said. "Ciao!"

De Icaza was worried that Microsoft officials would peddle their software to Fox, who has been trying to decide whether to purchase proprietary products or go with free ones for the millions of new computers that will be part of his eMexico initiative to get 98 percent of the nation's population online. Last week the software giant's case got a boost when it donated $58 million to the project for training purposes.

De Icaza and many other free-software evangelists believe the key to the success of open-source software is getting the support of poorer, developing nations. There are efforts in China, Argentina and many other countries to pass laws that would require governments to look at free alternatives before purchasing technology.

Getting Mexico to do the same has been de Icaza's obsession for the past few months. And toward that end, he's met with President Fox, too.

During the half-hour conference, which took place earlier this year, he ran though this math with Fox: At a retail price of $209 for Windows and $440 for Office, it could cost the country as much as $3.25 billion just for licensing fees. "Our country needs that money for many other things," de Icaza said he told Fox. He said Fox seemed to be surprised by the cost analysis, but he made no promises.

The recent phone call from his homeland made de Icaza frown. Will Fox quickly forget de Icaza's impassioned pleas after meeting with Bill Gates or other Microsoft executives?

"Who would you listen to?" de Icaza moaned to an office mate. "Just another Mexican? Or the richest man in the world?"

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