January 4, 2002

Ximian and theKompany: Converging doctrines

Author: JT Smith

- by Tina Gasperson -

If KDE and GNOME are the Hatfield and McCoy of Open Source graphical desktop
environments, then theKompany.com and Ximian are not exactly kissing

cousins. But the philosophical beliefs of the two businesses are converging, and the community is settling down to a broader acceptance of commercial software.Assuming computer users choose their desktops before
they choose their desktop applications, ostensibly theKompany's and
Ximian's target markets are non-intersecting sets. But their business
practices and philosophies on Open Source have been scrutinized,
discussed and compared at length in public.

Critics abound on all sides

An unspoken rivalry seems to exist between the two businesses that

develop practical software applications, theKompany.com for KDE and

Ximian for GNOME. Critics of Ximian say it controls

GNOME and has sold out to Microsoft because of involvement with the

Mono project, which is working on an Open Source implementation of the

.Net development framework. Miguel de Icaza, the guy who started GNOME

and is one of the founders of Ximian (fka Helix Code), says critics need

to get involved. "Read the foundation reports as well as all the

announcements that happen there. Ximian is a contributor to GNOME, just

like many other individuals and companies."

And theKompany has been roundly criticized for marketing

proprietary applications, though company president Shawn Gordon says that the support outnumbers

the complaints, "especially with our new license model that provides the

source code to paying customers." Some KDE supporters are not happy with

what they say is theKompany's tendency to "re-baptize" KDE apps as

purely qt ones. Christian Lavoie, who describes himself as a KDE user, says qt, the underlying structure that KDE code is built upon, doesn't have as much functionality as KDE itself. He also dislikes theKompany's porting some KDE applications to Windows platforms. "In theKompany's case, they removed the KDE features -- in particular, KIO
slaves -- in exchange for a larger audience for their product, because it now runs on Windows."

Some people are irritated with both

Ximian and theKompany because of their perceived lack of

cooperation, which will force users to choose between KDE and GNOME

because many applications produced by these two companies will only run

on one or the other. (See these threads for starters: FSB list, KDE-promo

, MandrakeForum, O

CLUG.)

The irony of it

Ximian recently announced it would begin selling a proprietary
extension to Evolution,
its free groupware suite. The extension, called Connector, allows
Evolution users to interoperate with Microsoft Exchange servers.
While selling proprietary software is a break in traditional

behavior for Ximian, (about which Miguel de Icaza said in an interview, "Helix Code is a company focused on making sure free software is viable

in today's world ..." and "in the end our objective is for GNU to be a full

solution to the user needs") the

announcement created at most a tiny ripple of debate in the

marketplace -- though there were a few nasty comments at Slashdot. In an
earlier article at NewsForge, Joe Barr asked Nat Friedman,

co-proprietor of Ximian, if the company expected to be criticized for

releasing proprietary software. "We expect less than we would have

expected awhile ago. I think that people understand that businesses have

to survive. And the people know that the bloody carcasses of Open Source

companies line the horizon right now," said Friedman in that report.

Beside that, the company states it has already contributed more

than two million lines of Open Source code to the community. Every

product Ximian offers, including Evolution 1.0, is released under the GPL,

and the source code is available on their public FTP server.

It is true that the lines of "acceptable behavior" for an Open Source company are blurrier now; the zealots are fewer and the practical Joes are multiplying. But a few purists remain.

Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, says

that Ximian used to be a Free Software company but now "waves the banner

of Open Source." He calls Ximian's leaders backsliders, and says that Ximian's press releases talk about the
usability and practicality of software, instead of focusing on
everyone's right to free code. Of Ximian's plans to release the
proprietary Connector, he says, "I think it's a terrible shame. However, the

GNOME project is still a GNU and Free Software project, even if Ximian

isn't a Free Software company."

John Perr, v.p. of marketing for Ximian, says "we remain very supportive of the philosophies of the Free Software Foundation. Ximian may not fit the definition of a Free Software company on paper, but in spirit we do." Perr hinted that perhaps the definition of a Free Software company is changing -- though some would say that because it's Stallman's game, he gets to make the rules.

theKompany, on the other hand, has been bringing proprietary products to
market since March of 2000; everyone already knows what RMS thinks of theKompany and KDE, and it's taken its share

of potshots from people in both the GNOME and KDE camps for being

"closed source" - a designation Gordon disputes because he allows licensees to modify the source code of theKompany apps as long as they do not redistribute those changes. Perhaps Gordon is simply being more blunt than Ximian dares to be when he says that most consumers aren't really interested in the

source code. "I think most people don't have a problem with

it because they aren't even going to do anything with the source code

anyway -- we've found that about 80% of the requests for source are

simply so they can build it on their own system and get around some

install problem."

Gordon sees the quiet acceptance of Ximian's new proprietary arm not as a sign of changing mores, but as a

political thing. "Not to start anything worse, but it really reminds me

of watching the feminists supporting Clinton during all his myriad

affairs -- it just shows that ideology really isn't part of it, it's a

party loyalty and you aren't going to change your mind no matter what

that person does."

But Perr sees it differently. "We were concerned about the response we might get" to announcing the release of the proprietary extensions. "But the response has been quite positive. People feel like, 'if this helps Ximian to stay in business, and they contribute so much to the Open Source community, it's all to the good.'

"I think it's good for Free Software."

Gordon does it the old-fashioned way

Gordon started theKompany in August of 1999, before Helix Code was

around. He built a development team that to this day he's never met

face-to-face. "I was just looking for developers that fit my needs and

it turned out that they were spread all over the place. I've started to

have little enclaves of developers in Romania, Russia, Ukraine and

England." He realized that the telecommuting arrangement with his

employees would be a great money saver -- an important detail when

you're getting a company going without venture capital.

Gordon says he is famous for his frugality, and he's put that into

practice with theKompany, bootstrapping the company from the ground up

with no outside help, as he points out in a post to the KDE-promo list:

"We've not raised one outside dime of money at this point and I

think we've got a far bigger stable of products than Ximian for their $18

million."

theKompany would have functioned much the same even if Gordon had

obtained venture capital. "I would have hired more people and gotten our

projects finished faster, and I probably would have brought a few people

to the U.S. on H1B visas, but we still would have kept it low key. I am

[frugal] no matter how much liquid capital I have available." Gordon

adds that theKompany's product objectives wouldn't have changed with

capital, either.

The result of keeping a tight rein on expenditures is a fast path to the

black side of the tape -- fast for Open Source businesses, anyway. "We are

very close to breaking even on a monthly basis from sales," says Gordon.

"We are negotiating several very large contracts, any one of which will

turn the tide. We're probably [three] months away from being in the

black." That's a few months behind Gordon's original projections, but
he says, "given the current economic climate, that's pretty damn good."

Ximian spokespeople had no comment when asked about profitability projections.

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