11.4 Open Source and Lightbulbs

Free For All. Go to the Table of Contents. Vist the Gifcom.

The limitations to the power of open source might be summarized in the answer to the question "How many open source developers does it take to change a lightbulb?" The answer is: 17. Seventeen to argue about the license; 17 to argue about the brain-deadedness of the lightbulb architecture; 17 to argue about a new model that encompasses all models of illumination and makes it simple to replace candles, campfires, pilot lights, and skylights with the same easy-to-extend mechanism; 17 to speculate about the secretive industrial conspiracy that ensures that lightbulbs will burn out frequently; 1 to finally change the bulb; and 16 who decide that this solution is good enough for the time being.

The open source development model is a great way for very creative people to produce fascinating software that breaks paradigms and establishes new standards for excellence. It may not be the best way, however, to finish boring jobs like fine-tuning a graphical interface, or making sure that the scheduling software used by executives is as bulletproof as possible.

While the open development model has successfully tackled the problem of creating some great tools, of building a strong OS, and of building very flexible appliance applications like web browsers, it is a long way from winning the battle for the desktop. Some free source people say the desktop applications for average users are just around the corner and the next stop on the Free Software Express. Others aren't so sure.

David Henkel-Wallace is one of the founders of the free software company Cygnus. This company built its success around supporting the development tools created by Stallman's Free Software Foundation. They would sign contracts with companies to answer any questions they had about using the free software tools. At first companies would balk at paying for support until they realized that it was cheaper than hiring in-house technical staff to do the work. John Gilmore, one of the cofounders, liked to say, "We make free software affordable."

The company grew by helping chip manufacturers tune the FSF compiler, GCC, for their chip. This was often a difficult and arduous task, but it was very valuable to the chip manufacturer because potential customers knew they could get a good compiler to produce software for the chip. While Intel continued to dominate the desktop, the market for embedded chips to go into products like stoves, microwave ovens, VCRs, or other smart boxes boomed as manufacturers rolled out new chips to make it cheaper and easier to add smart features to formerly dumb boxes. The engineers at the companies were often thrilled to discover that they could continue to use GCC to write software for a new chip, and this made it easier to sell the chip.

Cygnus always distributed to the Source their modifications to GCC as the GNU General Public License demanded. This wasn't a big deal because the chip manufacturers wanted the software to be free and easy for everyone to use. This made Cygnus one of the clearing-houses for much of the information on how GCC worked and how to make it faster.

Henkel-Wallace is quick to praise the power of publicly available source code for Cygnus's customers. They were all programmers, after all. If they saw something they didn't like with GCC, they knew how to poke around on the insides and fix it. That was their job.

"[GCC] is a compiler tool and it was used by developers so they were smart enough. When something bothered someone, we fixed it. There was a very tight coupling," he said.

He openly wonders, though, whether the average word processor or basic tool user will be able to do anything. He says, "The downside is that it's hard to transfer that knowledge with a user who isn't a developer. Let's say Quicken has a special feature for lawyers. You need to have a more formal model because the lawyers aren't developers. (We're fortunate in that regard.)"

That is, lawyers aren't schooled enough in the guts of computer development to complain in the right way. A programmer could say, "GCC is optimizing away too much dead code that isn't really dead." Other folks in the GCC community would know what is going on and be able to fix it. A lawyer might just say, "Quicken screwed up my billing and had me billing twenty-six hours in a day." This wouldn't pinpoint the problem enough for people to solve it. The lawyer doesn't understand the inside of the software like the programmer.

In situations like this, Henkel-Wallace believes that a corporate-style team may be the only one that can study the problems thoroughly enough to find solutions. Intuit, the manufacturer of Quicken, is well known for videotaping many standard users who use their product for the first time. This allows them to pinpoint rough spots in the program and identify places where it could be improved. This relentless smoothing and polishing has made the product one of the best-known and widely used tools on desktops. It isn't clear that non-programmers could have accomplished the same quality by working together with the Source at their disposal.