March 14, 2007

Open source software empowers Web widget maker

Author: Tina Gasperson

When entrepreneur Adam Green introduced Michael Kowalchik to the idea of reading lists (OPML subscriptions to customizable collections of news feeds), it got the software developer fired up. "I built a prototype of a reading list browser kind of thing, and the more we talked the more we realized we had a lot of vision in common," Kowalchik says. "I said, 'Hey, do you want to partner with me on this?'" Green, who started out in an advisory role only, decided he liked Kowalchik's interactive browser widgets so much that he would invest his money and his time, and Grazr Corp. was born.

Grazr offers free feed "Grazrs" -- little JavaScript widgets you can configure to pick up any feed you like, without subscribing. New entries appear at the top and older entries roll off the bottom of the box, just like on a blog. The boxes fit nicely in the sidebar of a typical two- or three-column blog, and Grazr.com generates code for your blog based on your specifications. Copy and paste the code into your site, and the widget appears and updates automatically.

From the beginning, there was no question that Grazr was going to be built on open source software. Green was one of the founders of Andover.net, the company that VA Linux bought, absorbed, and turned into what is now the Open Source Technology Group (OSTG), the organization that produces this site. Kowalchik is no stranger to open code either. "I'm a big fan of Debian," Kowalchik says. "We run it on our six production servers." Kowalchik keeps OS X on his Mac desktop, with Parallels virtualization software that loads Debian and Fedora test environments. "We've run into some issues running MySQL 5 with Debian Sarge, so we're looking to transition [the servers] to Fedora," he says. But overall, his first experience building a business out of open source has been positive. "The things you want to work, like the whole stack, you can usually be pretty confident it's just going to work."

Besides LAMP for the infrastructure, Kowalchik uses WordPress for internal content management. "We created a bunch of internal blogs to facilitate our distributed development model. Whenever we have ideas, we post those to the blogs and use it as kind of an internal message system."

In additional to the Grazr boxes, Kowalchik created a new programming language he calls GrazrScript. "It's for manipulating feeds. We hope to build the Grazr widget as an interface to this programming language, to tie together all these feed resources and wrap it into a nice package you can program against," he says. "We've gotten a few people who've seen the light and said it's the most amazing thing. But in a broader sense, [response] has been muted. We might have been too ahead of the curve."

Still, Kowalchik is optimistic about what the future holds for GrazrScript. "We're going to see more and more interest in this kind of thing, using the feed as a de facto API for information. It's very similar to Yahoo! Pipes."

Kowalchik's experience building a company with open source software has left him with some advice for other entrepreneurs. "Don't be ignorant about the amount of infrastructure you need to get the company off the ground," he says. "With open source, you can get better than the commercial stuff, with a huge community around it. You don't want to spend your time building a Web server when there's already something powerful and supported. You need to hire someone familiar with Web technologies and servers, but open source lets you focus on your core competencies."

Kowalchik says he is not averse to receiving venture capital funds. "Because open source lets you start with less capital, a lot of people have taken that to mean you never need money. You don't need the money to prove whether the idea is good or not, but you still need real money to build out the company. The nice thing is, with open source you can say, 'Look, I have this many users and this much feedback, and there's people really interested in this idea.'"

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