Peter Wayner , Interactive Week
Special To Interactive Week
14, 2001 6:03 AM ET
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
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.
Co-founder and primary developer, OpenPrivacy
Burton has a warning for developers everywhere: Open source
programming can suck you in.
first starts off when you're using a product. You're using it to
get work done," he said.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
a project gets moving, the development is at least eight times
faster than a closed source project," he said.
Burton is a primary developer at OpenPrivacy, a project with the
goal of creating a distributed, wide-open reputation management
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.
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.
is currently just a nonprofit in research and development mode,
but Burton is looking to form another company that would build
are a lot of things that companies can provide," he said,
hinting that his current project would be a perfect one to fund.
Core team member, Listar
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.
really needed the people, and it was a piece of software that I
was using rather heavily," she said.
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.
Lynch also uses the software to build a virtual community for
several mailing lists of her friends and acquaintances.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
always been a big advocate of FreeBSD, writing articles for a
number of online magazines and journals.
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.
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.
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."
Self-employed computer consultant
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."
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
ended the interview because he had to go to the Mountain People's
Co-op for his weekly volunteer shift.