Inter@ctive Week Special Report

Ulterior Motives
By Peter Wayner , Interactive Week
Special To Interactive Week
May 14, 2001 6:03 AM ET

At first glance, the work seems so noble. after late nights and long hours, bleary-eyed programmers take their valuable code and toss it onto the Internet as a gift to the world. The ultimate sacrifice? Not exactly.

Upon closer examination, the motives often are less pristine and the vision cloudy. Although every contributor is drawn to the open source community by some altruism, most are also driven by more ordinary desires. Some programmers work for companies that use the free software to gain a competitive advantage. Others hope the free software will attract attention and bring consulting work their way. Then there are those who really do see it as a political crusade against commercial giants like Microsoft. Every programmer in the community is driven by a different mix of motives. Here's a look at why and how three open source contributors do what they do.

Kevin Burton
Co-founder and primary developer, OpenPrivacy

Kevin Burton has a warning for developers everywhere: Open source programming can suck you in.

"It first starts off when you're using a product. You're using it to get work done," he said.

"Then you see a bug so you fix it. Then you start learning the code inside and out to get more done. Then you want 2.0 or 3.0 to ship, and it's not moving fast enough. So you step in and get the job done."

Burton's journey into open source development began several years ago, when he was maintaining servers for one of the large Internet service providers. The customer wanted to use Microsoft's Web servers. In fact, it insisted upon it. But the machines kept crashing and Burton had to keep them running.

After some tough negotiations, Microsoft decided to let Burton and his compatriots look at the source code to the Internet Information Server, Microsoft's Web server that runs on Windows NT platforms. It made their life a bit easier and they even snagged some of the bugs, but that didn't fix things.

"We were even giving patches back to [Microsoft], but they would drop them. They didn't have any way of accepting patches. There was no review process. They just hired a bunch of engineers," he said.

Just giving someone a copy of the source code isn't enough. Open source, to Burton, is a process of sharing the source code with users in order to make them full partners. The open source projects he works on come with well-developed tools for knitting the community together and coordinating its moves. This infrastructure pays off.

"Once a project gets moving, the development is at least eight times faster than a closed source project," he said.

Currently, Burton is a primary developer at OpenPrivacy, a project with the goal of creating a distributed, wide-open reputation management service.

"You can post anonymously, but if what you say becomes a jewel - if people decide it's really genius - in the future you can prove you're the person who said that. You get the benefits of privacy and anonymity," he said.

Who's paying for this? Burton is living off the savings he accumulated while working on Jetspeed - another open source project for building Web portals. During that time, a large wireless company paid him to add the features that it would need to Jetspeed so wireless users could see the same content as PC users with a regular browser. Companies often fund open source development, he explained, when it helps them sell other products.

OpenPrivacy is currently just a nonprofit in research and development mode, but Burton is looking to form another company that would build similar partnerships.

"There are a lot of things that companies can provide," he said, hinting that his current project would be a perfect one to fund.

Trish Lynch
Core team member, Listar

Why would you devote yourself to writing a piece of software and giving it away? For Trish Lynch, the answer was simple. She was using a mailing list called Listar both at work and at home. If it didn't work, then she would need to look elsewhere.

"Listar really needed the people, and it was a piece of software that I was using rather heavily," she said.

The software handles several mailing lists at the Open Source Development Network, where she is a member of the Listar core team and a network architect. On some days, it ships out more than 50,000 e-mail messages.

At home, Lynch also uses the software to build a virtual community for several mailing lists of her friends and acquaintances.

"I do a lot of service work in those communities in a way that I know how," she said, noting that contributing computer expertise is a good way for her to help service organizations. In this case, she keeps mailing lists running to help the groups communicate.

Lynch has been working with others on making the list faster and easier to use by integrating it with the popular open source database MySQL. Many of the common tools used for accessing MySQL databases can now be used to maintain the list.

"This is a bit more elegant because it's all stored in a database. It's a little faster. Especially for large, huge lists," she said.

Lynch also contributes to the Slash Web publishing and community discussion bulletin board managed by the OSDN that serves as the foundation for Slashdot and Plastic.

Taking on the Listar project meant making a few sacrifices. In the past, Lynch contributed heavily to the more popular FreeBSD operating system, a major Linux competitor that many of its devotees feel is more stable and reliable.

Lynch has always been a big advocate of FreeBSD, writing articles for a number of online magazines and journals.

She was also offered a position on the FreeBSD team with the ability to "commit" changes to the source code. That is, she could have become one of the trusted users with access to the team's central computer files. She was trusted enough with the keys to change the system.

But Lynch chose instead the "core" position with Listar, working with lead developer James Traub. "The development community of Listar is much smaller, and I had an organizational role that I wanted to play with Listar," she explained.

"When I enjoy something, I give something back. Especially when it's free," she said. "There's also a slight ego boost when you start to get known."

Rob Savoye
Self-employed computer consultant

Rob Savoye explains his dedication to open source software like this: "I'm a very community-minded person. I've done a lot of community volunteer stuff."

Sharing source code with other users is a big part of the open source movement. While some cynics see it as a way to rope users into doing the debugging and development for free, Savoye is more idealistic.

Savoye said he was attracted to open source because ". . . people were giving me stuff. They were helping me make my deadlines. I was paying them back by writing other software and giving that away for free. I kind of liked the community, we're-all-in-this-together kind of thing."

Savoye has been writing open source software for the past 10 years and, unlike most open source contributors, has been able to make a living off his efforts.

He has written or helped write major projects like the DejaGnu, Nilo and other gritty but important parts of the network infrastructure. He was also involved with Cygnus Solutions, one of the most influential start-ups, which made its name by developing open source compilers.

Today, Savoye is working closely with Interact-TV, a Boulder, Colo., start-up aiming to dominate the market for television set-top boxes with an open source solution. The company has quickly assembled a competitive platform by linking a number of open source tool kits.

"They're a handful of people and they realized that if they used Linux, GUI [graphical user interface] tool kits, [Motion Picture Experts Group] encoders and other things, [they] could put together a TiVo-like box in under a year," he explained.

The company hopes it will be able to unify the various set-top box manufacturers by providing an open platform. Proprietary solutions often run into deeper political problems when companies get into arguments over who owns what.

Savoye has made the bulk of his hard-earned money by working on software for embedded systems. In many cases, the companies make their money from the hardware they sell, so they don't object to sharing the code with others.

"A lot of companies I talk to, they don't really care," he said. "I tell them, 'I'll do this application for you, but I would like to open source it.' I don't think it affects them very much."

Still, choosing to follow an open source path is not always easy. While many hardware manufacturers have no problem open sourcing the tools he develops, software developers can't always simply give away their bread and butter.

"There's a limited number of people who can get paid doing open source software these days," he warned, adding that people should "follow their heart. If they're really dedicated and they can live cheap, then go open source."

Then he ended the interview because he had to go to the Mountain People's Co-op for his weekly volunteer shift.

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