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A Case in Point

Bruce E. Wampler's V class library for Linux and Windows is a good example of how Open Source software benefits from the participation of its users, and how other programmers might find new opportunities by participating in the Open Source movement. (I based the final chapters of GNU C++ for Linux on V as an example of object-oriented C++ programming for the X window system. The book includes the entire V library on CD-ROM.) Recently, I asked Bruce a few questions via email. His comments offer some intriguing insights into the value of Open Source software:

What do you see as the main benefits from the Open Source movement, especially to software consumers?

"The main advantage to consumers is variety. Without Open Source, there are many excellent programs they would never see. Most of these programs are quite specialized, and may be difficult to find, but they give choices that wouldn't exist otherwise.

"At a bigger scale (Linux for example), there are great programs that commercial companies are trying to exploit by giving everyone a choice. How many Linux companies are there? Five or six? All are selling versions of Linux, all based on the original Open Source. As an end user, I don't mind paying $30 or $50 for a complete ready-to-run Linux package. I don't think any of this would have happened without Open Source.

"In the end, it is choice that wins. Choice to use new, innovative programs, and a choice of packagers for mainstream applications like Linux."

Do you see Open Source software being popular mainly in scientific circles, or will it become a viable alternative to commercially sold programs? Is the popularity of Linux a fluke, or an indicator of a new future for software distribution?

"I think Open Source will help to keep small, innovative developers alive. Although the prospect of revealing your crown jewels to the world may be frightening, I don't think it really matters. Other than a few exceptions such as Linux, we don't have several companies trying to sell support for the same Open Source product. GPL practically guarantees this.

"Take V, for example. My distribution remains the only source. I've gotten lots of feedback on bugs and features, but no one has tried to release an alternate version. Because V is Open Source, users feel more confident because they know at least they will have access to the source code to protect themselves.

"So in the long term, I believe successful, small, innovative software companies will survive by adopting the Open Source model. There is a level of comfort knowing the source is available if necessary, and this will make customers prefer Open Source."

Why did you decide to release V as free Open Source software?

"V has grown beyond my original intent. It was first supposed to be an academic tool--used to teach introductory programming. And in a university environment, nothing other than Open Source makes any sense. But in the long run, it has been a win for everyone. Programmers use it knowing the source will always be available. I receive outside help on keeping V going that I wouldn't have if it were closed. And I get a good feeling that I'm helping people produce better software."

Finally, in what ways might software developers join the Open Source movement and still make a living at their craft? Or is Open Source at odds with programmers being paid fairly for their work?

"That is a complicated question. I've figured out only two ways to make a living with Open Source software--with a company, and as an individual.

"Companies do it by providing support and packaging. They hire programmers to develop new software under Open Source, or to maintain and improve existing Open Source software.

"To make a living as an individual is harder, I think, and requires patience. Creating Open Source software as an individual probably won't have an immediate payback. But over time, good software will lead to new opportunities.

"A truly great program, for instance, might lead to [the programmer] forming a successful company to support it. The software may also attract the attention of big companies, leading to new opportunities there. It can also lead to an impressive resume for advancing a career.

"My own case is probably not typical. I once co-founded a very successful commercial software company, which was sold. I've seen V and VIDE as a way of giving something back to the software community. So far, I've not made a cent from these V projects, and in fact have spent considerable money maintaining the V web site.

"However, I have had other opportunities. For instance, I received a lucrative offer to direct a software project for a large computer company, mostly based on the work I'd done with V. And there have been other opportunities that I've chosen not to take. I don't think these opportunities would have materialized without the work I've done with V. Some of the opportunities came early in the V project, while others are still developing after several years. I am fortunate to have the means to allow this. Others might have to do this as a second "job", or as a hobby. There is some element of risk—all the work might never pay off with real money. But for a software developer like me who generally shies from the corporate world, Open Source is the way to go."

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