October 18, 2002

Interview: How ActiveState handles proprietary vs. Open Source concerns

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -

is best-known for its Perl, Python and Tcl development tools, most of which are proprietary, "pay for" programs. This is a transcript of a brief IRC conversation with David Ascher, lead developer for ActiveState's new Komodo 2.0 multi-language IDE, about how ActiveState manages to work in both the proprietary and Open Source worlds.

Linux.com: What do Larry Wall and other "language creators" think of ActiveState?

Ascher: Interesting question. Larry Wall, Guido van Rossum and Rasmus Lerdorf are all on our technical advisory board. They're helpful in helping us keep in touch with one of our core constituencies.

Linux.com: A lot of your customers use your commercial tools to write Open Source software. Do you see this as hypocritical?

Ascher: Hypocritical? Not at all. People buy computers to write open source software too. We sell productivity tools -- it's an individual choice whether that person's money is better spent getting tools that let them get their work done faster/better, or not. What purpose they put their work towards is entirely their business. People also use open source software to write commercial tools. That's ok too. =)

Linux.com: And yet ... you also provide a fair number of Open Source tools, do you not? As in ActivePerl?

Ascher: We provide ActivePerl as a service to the community -- it's important for our business that the scripting languages are easily available. So it makes business sense to make it _really easy_, especially on Windows where
the operating system vendor doesn't ship Perl, to get Perl, Python, and Tcl up and running easily.

We do also contribute _to_ Perl and the other languages at times, giving code and expertise. Whether we do something as open source or not depends on whether it's part of the software infrastructure (which we see great value in having as Open Source), or whether it fits better as a product. Komodo's meant for the latter, Visual Perl and friends at the former.

Linux.com: What about the MacPerl crowd? Is it large enough to be worth your attention -- that is, in a business sense?

Ascher: We've thus far stayed away from the Mac platform. However, Mac OS/X is certainly showing up stronger on our radar this year. There seems to be a lot of adoption of Mac OS/X among a certain segment of our customer base, which is causing us to look at OS/X seriously.

We have a lot of products, however, so don't expect all ActiveState products to ship on Mac OS/X at the same time. (I want to defuse the "How come XXX shipped on OS/X but YYY isn't available yet?" questions that I'm sure we'll get anyway :-).

Some products are also a lot easier to port than others. If people want to see Komodo on OS/X, for example, they can help port the Open Source Scintilla editing widget (www.scintilla.org) to OS/X, that'd help.

Linux.com: What about bringing in new Open Source users? Do you much evangelizing? I notice, looking at ActiveState's Web site, that you claim 72% of all Fortune 500 companies deal with ActiveState in one way or another. How do you get such notoriously conservative companies --- in the IT sense, anyway -- to use not only Open Source languages, but specifically your products?

Ascher: Your readers may not know it, but a significant part of our business consists in providing enterprise support for Perl, Python, and Tcl. Companies need to feel secure in their adoption of those technologies -- they appreciate having someone to call.

Linux.com: A key phrase I picked up from you during another conversation: "We've always been in the business of taking open source technologies and making them more accessible to a wider audience." Do you feel others should follow this basic concept -- hopefully not in direct competition with ActiveState? :)

Ascher: It's a huge opportunity -- we're not worried about competition. And there's a big payoff for everyone involved: companies such as ourselves get to grow and succeed, open source projects get very serious feedback, bug fixes, enhancements, etc., and customers get high quality _products_ built on high quality technologies.

With a few exceptions such as Linux, most open source code bases don't routinely get very serious stress-testing. Those that make it into successful products get tested in ways that developers would never dream of by themselves -- not through any fault of their own -- it's just that customers have stranger setups or more demanding requirements than the developers imagined, and customers (as opposed to users) _will_ let you know if something goes wrong. =)

Linux.com: Is ActiveState making a living? I'm not asking for exact financials, but are you taking in enough to survive at your current sales and expense level?

Ascher: We're doing just fine, thanks for asking.


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