May 15, 2002

Is Geodesic's free gift helping Mozilla development?

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -
Michael Spertus, of Geodesic Systems, has set up a free online demo version of his company's Great Circle software, a real-time error detection and code diagnosis tool, specifically for Mozilla developers. He says Mozilla leaders have been "supportive," but he has no way of knowing just how helpful Great Circle has been to the Mozilla development process.

The demo itself is rather interesting. It can pinpoint areas within Mozilla that account for some of the program's largest problems, identifying them almost down to the offending line of code. Think of this as a mechanized aid to the idea of "many eyes make all bugs shallow" that allows human developers to skip the annoying step of reading through the millions of lines of code (literally) in Mozilla and go straight to some of the major bugs and fix them.

Since the Mozilla Great Circle demo requires no login or other identification from users, Spertus has no way of telling how many Mozilla developers have accessed his site or what they have done with the information it has given them. "It's hard to tell with the Mozilla community because it's so decentralized," he says. "I don't actually know how much they have been using the tool."

Spertus says he is willing to offer free downloads of a Mozilla-specific Great Circle version to Mozilla developers (if the announcement hasn't been made by the time you read this, it'll be along shortly), but has no immediate plans to release Great Circle free for other Free Software projects. Mozilla was selected -- and the Linux version specifically -- because Spertus himself is an ardent Linux and Mozilla user. But he never forgets, even for a second, that he is in the commercial software business, and that his money comes from selling software development tools to commercial software developers.

Selling to Linux developers is a recent move for Geodesic, something the company got into only about six months ago. The company has traditionally (and successfully) sold to Windows and Unix developers -- the first Great Circle Unix version came out in 1996 -- but Spertus says they are already selling enough Linux software that "Windows, Solaris, AIX, and Linux are roughly comparable" in unit sales, with versions for other flavors of Unix selling in much lower quantities than those for these four operating systems, which generate the bulk of Geodesic's Great Circle sales.

If nothing else, this tells you that commercial software development for Linux is growing rapidly. People don't buy development tools they don't need if they plan to stay in business for long, and not many people go into business hoping to go broke -- unless they're in a Mel Brooks movie, anyway.

Amazon.com, for example, made a widely-publicized move to Linux last year. Spertus says Amazon is a major Geodesic customer that uses the Great Circle product to help develop their software, and notes that "Amazon runs a 60 day development cycle from concept to live, so they have to write clean code quickly." Then, Spertus says, Amazon uses Geodesic's Runtime Solutions to help that code run smoothly once it's up.

The problem Spertus sees with Linux -- and he's been playing with Linux almost since the beginning, and was one of the coauthors of Coherent, a pre-Linux "Unix for PCs" -- is that "Linux is rock-solid, but some of the applications are not so good." He asks, "What good is a solid operating system if your apps crash twice a day?" He lauds IBM's forays into self-healing servers, but points out that the IBM concept of "scripting responses to anticipated problems" is not the same as Runtime, which he describes as "not a diagnostic tool, but something you deploy with an application that automatically corrects errors."

So Geodesic wants to sell Runtime Solution and Great Circle products to enterprise Linux users, and is using its free Mozilla help as a combination attention-getter and proof to prospective customers that their stuff actually works as advertised. NewsForge can't argue with that. Our parent company, VA Software, provides SourceForge.net as a free service to Open Source developers, and also points to it as a successful example of a large-scale SourceForge deployment when talking to potential SourceForge commercial product customers.

We can't comment about SourceForge sales here for obvious conflict of interest reasons, but Spertus says his plans to make Geodesic products hot-hot in the commercial Linux software development marketplace are moving along nicely; that the Great Circle product Mozilla developers get to use free typically sells for "$300 to $1000 per seat, depending on platform, support, and number of seats," and notes that of all the company's many platform-specific versions, "Linux is the least expensive."

Why the favoritism toward Linux? Spertus says it's the fastest-growing software development marketplace nowadays, and "we want to be aggressive about establishing ourselves there."

Asked repeatedly whether he'd be willing to offer a free version of Great Circle to non-commercial Open Source and Free Software developers similar to what he's offering to the Mozilla project, Spertus said he didn't want to be pinned down or "make any promises." But he didn't rule out the possibility.

Indeed, something Spertus himself says repeatedly -- that too many applications get 90% finished, and that Geodesic's Great Circle software is perfect help for taking them the last bit of the way toward full usability -- applies at least as much in the Free Software world as anywhere else, possibly even more so. But questions about where Free Software ends and commercial software begins are still not totally answered in any practical sense, and for people like Spertus who earn their livings writing software, it is no easier to give away their work than it is for an auto mechanic to work on cars all day for free instead of charging for his or her labor while this month's mortgage is due.

Meanwhile, Mozilla development has been rapid recently, especially on the bug-squashing front. Perhaps some of that increased speed is due to Great Circle. We hope so. It's certainly an advantage Mozilla developers have over Microsoft's Internet Explorer developers, who are not getting free online development tools from Geodesic, and can't expect to get any as long as Explorer's source code is hidden from public view.

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