Playing for both teams (Ximian Evolution, CodeWeavers, Transgaming)

Ximian employed a model very similar to dual licensing to license its Evolution e-mail program. For lack of a better description, we'll call this model playing for both teams. A company using this model follows in part the principles of Open Source, and in part the rules of the established software industry.

The history of Ximian is closely associated with GNOME, the other Linux desktop environment. Miguel de Icaza, who founded GNOME, also helped to found Ximian, and most of the other key players in that company are also leaders of the GNOME project. Before Ximian, the Mexican de Icaza revealed his sense of humour by styling himself "peasant farmer' at Linux conferences - a title that hardly does justice to a programming genius on a par with Linus Torvalds.

Most of Ximian's work has been connected to improving, one way or another, the use of Linux on workstations. Ximian's position among the other Linux companies has been curious because in many ways it resembles others, such as Red Hat and SuSE, yet Ximian is not actually a Linux distribution. It's main product Ximian Desktop is designed to be installed on top of somebody else's Linux - a typical combination might be Red Hat Linux with Ximian. In recent years, the company also coordinated and was the most important contributor to the development of Microsoft Mono, which is an Open Source version of the new Microsoft .NET platform. And this is what made Ximian known outside the world of Linux.

In August 2003, Ximian was acquired by Novell, one of the grand old IT companies. As was the case with SuSE, this again shows that an expert is always worth paying for. Because Ximian used to be a private company, no figures were ever made public when it was sold, so any estimates of its profit can only ever be guesswork. Apparently, the largest source of revenue has been the Red Carpet service connected to Ximian Desktop, which its users employ to make installing and updating programs easy (cf. Red Hat Network). However, it is clear that Novell didn't buy Ximian to acquire any single product but rather to get a lot of Linux expertise in one go - just as they did with SuSE. So, another business model that has proven itself in the Open Source world is to demonstrate your skills as a Free Software programmer until somebody hires you or - as with Ximian - buys your company.

But getting back to our test case, one of the Ximian products is the e-mail program Evolution. Ximian took it upon itself to develop an e-mail client because the lack of this was one of the biggest obstacles to the corporate world moving from Windows to Linux.1 When Evolution was ready, it was published according to Open Source principles, which meant for instance that anybody could use it for free.

Alongside Evolution, Ximian also published a product called Connector for Microsoft Exchange, which made it possible to use Evolution with the Microsoft Exchange groupware server that is popular in the corporate world. Although Exchange is an e-mail server, many of its features follow no given standard - instead, they work only with Microsoft's own Outlook groupware program. For Evolution to replace Outlook completely, it had to be able to mimic the non-standard features in Outlook, and Connector was the product Ximian sold to do this. Unlike Evolution, the added features of Connector were not Open Source, but were sold without source code and on licensing terms that allowed only one user per program purchased, as is usual for closed programs.

You'd think their selling a closed program would have caused a protest in the Open Source community, especially as Ximian was one of the best-known proponents of the Free Software ideology. But it never happened. Connector received only positive publicity, presumably because Connector was aimed at existing Microsoft clients and therefore posed no threat to the Linux world. No true supporter of Free Software would ever have owned the Microsoft Exchange server and therefore would have no need for Connector, which made the entire product irrelevant to them. And for any company using Exchange and other Microsoft products it was perfectly normal to pay for a closed Connector - just as they had already paid for Exchange.

Because the sales figures weren't made public, we may never know how well Ximian did out of its Connector product, but according to the company's own statements it did make some money on it. But offhand, it must surely be a fairly marginal product, because any company that wanted to move from Windows to Linux would be more likely to get rid of the Exchange server at the same time. And Connector is useless for anyone using an e-mail server running on Linux, because the free Evolution program is all they'd need. At best, that would have left as potential Connector clients those Linux users who are in a minority at their workplace where most of their colleagues are using Windows and Exchange.

But even so, the Connector episode is an interesting example of the Free Software camp happily accepting, against all their fine principles, the sale of a program, albeit a marginal one, in closed form.

CodeWeavers and Transgaming Technologies are two other companies which could be categorised as playing for both teams. Both have built their products on top of the Open Source Wine library. The Wine project aims to create a Windows-compatible Linux environment, so that programs made for Windows can be used as such on Linux machines. The task has proved surprisingly difficult and after more than ten years the project is still only in its development stage.

However, CodeWeavers and Transgaming have found Wine is already quite useful within an appropriately limited field. So, with a little extra effort, CodeWeavers made Wine into the product CrossOver Office, which makes it possible to use Microsoft Office on a Linux machine.2 And Transgaming have found a niche for their product Cedega among game fanatics who want to play their favourite Windows games on their favourite operating system, Linux.

Having finally harnessed Wine for something useful in their respective fields, these two companies are among today's most important contributors to the Wine project. The work they've done is a significant part of the collaborative effort of the entire Wine process, which makes both companies valued members of the Open Source community.

However, their products CrossOver and Cedega are closed programs and, as with Ximian Connector, their target group is not bothered by that. Clients who need to use Microsoft Office or some game from the Windows world aren't going to start complaining about CrossOver or Cedega being closed programs. It simply wouldn't make sense, as their need for Wine is born out of their wanting to use other closed programs.

The staunchest proponents of the Free Software ideology won't bother with too much bashing of companies that, after all, hand over some of the fruits of their labour for the benefit of other Wine users. They are just as unlikely to buy these closed programs but they're satisfied with a silent boycott. This is noteworthy in a community that is sometimes very loud in its proclamation of the "right opinion'.

Both CrossOver Office and Cedega have proved to be viable solutions and no doubt there are some customers for them. Again, there are no exact figures, but unlike Ximian Connector, CrossOver and Cedega are the main product of each company. Sales must have been at least reasonable, as both companies still exist.

Verdict: Connector cannot have been an important source of income for Ximian, but it is nonetheless a source of revenue. On the other hand, CrossOver and Cedega are each the mainstay of the company that sells them. So, to some extent, playing for both teams does at least work. Significant in these examples is that a Linux company can deviate from the key principle of the Open Source community and sell programs without the source code, i.e. with a closed licence, without there being much protest. Those who do this largely avoid criticism because their products are primarily aimed at clients who use Windows rather than at Linux fanatics who live and breathe the Open Source ideology. On the other hand, the Open Source camp is satisfied because in one way or another such companies are of use to the Open Source movement. This means they are tolerated as companies that are "good on average'.

Even so, the playing-for-both-teams model obviously does not fulfil the criteria of hacker ethics. Also, it feels weird to think that the main source of income for a Linux company would be Windows users, even though it seems there's always plenty of work for bridge-builders in the IT world just as there is in other areas of life.

  • 1In fact, several e-mail programs were available for Linux before the advent of Evolution, such as Kmail for the KDE desktop environment, and Netscape which many Windows users knew as well. What the people behind Evolution mean by telling the story this way is that there was no e-mail program for the GNOME environment. Another lack that Evolution actually fixed was that at the time there was no groupware solution similar to Microsoft Outlook available for Linux, so no program combined e-mail with calendar and contacts functions.
  • 2It is also possible to use Lotus Notes, Internet Explorer and some other widespread Windows programs.
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