MR: So just thinking about other open source products--Firefox, for instance, is a big buzz word and it looks like it's just going to keep getting more popular. Do you expect that OpenOffice.org is gonna eventually become one of those buzz words like Firefox?
PL: I think that OpenOffice.org is already there. The real odd part about NeoOffice/J is that it's one platform only, and we really are under the OpenOffice.org umbrella. Even though we have a different name and a different license, really we're a piece of the OpenOffice.org puzzle.
MR: So if someone were to say to you, "I don't need OpenOffice.org, because I already own a copy of Microsoft Office, " how would you respond?
PL: That's an interesting question because I think if you asked ten different people they are going to come up with ten different answers. My personal feeling, and this is just my opinion, is that if you already have Microsoft Office, assuming you've paid for it somehow, either implicitly because you bought your computer and it was already loaded on there, or you went out and bought it, then I think OpenOffice.org doesn't make much sense for you because you are trying to get a copy that simulates something you already have, which seems kind of silly. Where I really try to tell people about OpenOffice.org is when they say, "I really need to go buy Microsoft Office because I need to read documents from work at home." That's where I say OpenOffice.org makes a lot of sense for people, because to buy Microsoft Office is a lot of extra cost for small things like that.
MR: Yeah, and I was thinking, if you were any type of small business with just five to ten computers, running Linux and OpenOffice.org, you'd save thousands of dollars that could otherwise be used for something like marketing or advertising or whatever small startup costs there are. So in that way, open source software seems to provide interesting economic opportunities.
PL: Yeah, in essence it reduces the "tax" they have to pay to read other people's documents and I think that is where it makes sense. But for certain big firms on Wall Street, the 98 percent compatibility with Microsoft Office may not be good enough. However, small businesses, people trying to start up, nonprofits, and schools is where money is tight. That "tax" is quite burdensome for what they are using Microsoft Office to do.
MR: Do you look at the time you spend developing open source software as a type of community service that's comparable to the service provided by someone who volunteers to clean up the neighborhood, or tutor a high school student? When you're spending those hours and the midnight oil is burning, do you find a lot of satisfaction in being able to give back to such a large group of people?
PL: Yeah, I definitely do. And the other thing, too, is--I can't lie--it is actually a lot of fun, and that's why I keep doing it.
You know, it's one of those things that's like, well, if it was no fun, or not interesting to me, I probably wouldn't have done it, or stuck with it this long. In fact, that is one thing that many people who are looking for features sometimes don't really understand. How I come up with all my development priorities tends to be around stuff that interests me, and hopefully interests the community as well. So I try to give back as much as I can, but at the same time, I realize there's a limited number of people like me, and we are forced to figure out what provides the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people.
It's nice to get the feeling that a very small number of people can make a huge difference like this. This all just started as a hobby. You know what I say , "If you can do something, do it." Don't wait for somebody to tell you that it's easy to do, because it won't be easy. OpenOffice.org has taken a lot of effort, but we're getting to the point where we're yielding the benefits for all the time put in, and people are getting something back for it.
MR: Yeah, so just thinking of the difficulty involved in an open source project of this size, is there any one thing that you would say is the hardest part of doing the project? Or are there just a ton of smaller, difficult things?
PL: I think one of the key problems that you're going to run into on any type of project is that you're never going to have enough people. What I see with a lot of open source projects is the constant refrain of, "We're looking for developers to help us out." And I think one of the problems open source has in general is that there is this stereotype out there that it is done by a bunch of college students working in their dorm. I think that is kind of a myth.
The reality is that a lot of open source is funded by real companies. For example, OpenOffice.org is funded by several dozen full-time engineers from Sun. Mozilla actually has a lot of full-time engineers who work on Firefox. So a lot of money is flowing into successful open source projects. The real key about many open source projects is that you do need funding at some point. In my case, I saved my pennies over the years and through my consulting gig I can afford to do this. But I'm not your average open source product. In most cases, you can't assume that 50,000 developers are going to come out of the woodwork and help you.
In most cases, when you start, you are going to be the sole developer, maybe you'll pick up a second one, and that's the way it will be for the most part, 'till real money comes in. That is what I have seen in most open source projects. So I think the biggest hurdle is trying to contain your goals to fit within the likelihood that you are only going to have only yourself to do it.
MR: So would you say it's definitely an uphill battle, if a proficient computer scientist were to come to you and say that they were going to make a career in the open source software market? Is that something that you would say is very difficult?
PL: I would say go find a job with a software company that is working on an open source project--that would probably be your best bet. You'll learn the experience of working with others, because that is very important. Software development is like having four people change one tire on a car. You gotta have the coordination. Working independently is fine, but I think the more valuable thing for engineers coming out of school is getting used to seeing how other people develop, and realistically, within a software development company is where you're gonna see how to do that. That's the experience that is necessary, because once you're open source, those skills are doubly important. It's nice to work by yourself but it's still very difficult. Even when you start getting one or two other people, it can really take a lot of coordination.
But if you're asking, "Can people make a living doing open source independently?" I know a few who have done it, but for the most part, what I've seen is unlikelihood on the whole. A few people have done it, I recouped some of my costs through donations, but I really don't make a full living doing that. Actually, donations are far lower than I made as an engineer working for Sun, so I am still always constantly out there hitting up big companies for money to support this; so it's still a tough road to make a living doing it.
But the reality is that although open source software may be given away for free, someone still has to pay for it. It has to be funded somehow.