Helix Code, Eazel the revelations of LinuxWorld

Commercial companies take root in soil tilled by GNOME Project.
Written by Henry Kingman, Contributor

This year's LinuxWorld Expo in San Jose carried GNU/Linux a little further away from its free software origins and a little more into the commercial mainstream. Excused from speaking duties were the usual voices of the free software and open source movements. And while Linus said he was relieved not to be writing another keynote the night before the show, RMS and ESR may have felt differently. Why else would they have kept sneaking into the Working Press room and talking a little too loudly with anyone who'd listen? Even ubiquitous Linuxshow emcee Jon "Maddog" Hall was more seen than heard at this LinuxWorld (though he scored a glass "Maltese Penguin" prize at the Geek Bowl trivia contest).

The opening keynote came from the CEO of America's largest PC vendor, Michael Dell, whose talk resembled a political speech more than a Linux manifesto, with its careful diplomacy toward regimes old and new. Another keynote came from Ransome Love, CEO of a medium-sized Linux company (Caldera) that just finished acquiring System V UNIX (the original AT&T UNIX(tm)!) from SCO. If that's not an indication of Linux arrival, I don't know what could be.

On the sold-out floor (the show will move to the larger San Francisco Moscone Center next year) vendors competed for attention in ever more garish and tasteless ways. My favorite was the vendor that hired someone to crumple and flick bills -- in denominations up to a hundred -- at anyone who would stoop to pick them up.

"I'm worried," RMS said. "No one is talking about the ideas anymore."

Stallman started the free software movement sixteen years ago and has remained near its center ever since. His role may now be diminishing, however.

Six short months ago, at the press conference announcing GNOME 1.0, Stallman performed co-host duties alongside GNOME Project Leader Miguel de Icaza. This time, de Icaza shared the stage not with RMS but with representatives of 13 major corporations when he announced the GNOME Foundation. RMS did not attend.

"I'm not worried about companies being involved, that's good," remarked Stallman, "But I'm uncomfortable with the tone here and I didn't want to be just a spectator. Americans think that success is the only thing that matters. If it were only a game, that would be true. We wrote GNU/Linux to solve the problem of UNIX not being free, but I'm afraid that once we reach step one [of everyone using Linux] there'll be no one left to do step two [of telling people why free software is important]."

RMS may not be the only one thinking along these lines. Midway through the GNOME Foundation announcement, Chris diBona of VA Linux skewered de Icaza. "You didn't talk enough about the GPL [in your opening remarks]," diBona asserted, thrusting a pen rather pointedly toward the slender resident of Mexico City.

The GPL, or GNU Public License, is a Stallman-authored software license protecting the Linux kernel and most other pieces of code considered to be "free software" or "open source."

de Icaza looked smitten briefly then recovered and began writing concernedly in his notebook as diBona turned back toward the audience to begin his remarks.

The GNOME Foundation was the talk of the show. Everyone remarked about how quickly it is growing. Much of the growth has been driven by a company called Helix Code that is not yet well-known outside the GNU/Linux world. I had a chance to talk at length with Helix Code CEO Nat Friedman about his company's origins and its role in the growth of GNOME.

Helix Code grew from an IRC relationship between Friedman and Miguel de Icaza that began in 1995. Friedman knew TCP/IP and de Icaza Linux, so mutualism flourished. The two finally met at a conference in 1998 where, recalls Friedman, "We had such a good time hacking together we decided to try to work for the same company."

"It wasn't easy finding what we wanted, though," continues Friedman. "Which was first, to be paid a lot of money and secondly, to be allowed to do whatever we wanted. Finally I said, 'Let's just start our own company,' and Miguel said, 'I'm in.' I left my last exam at MIT half an hour early to fly to a press conference announcing Helix Code."

Helix Code started in October of 1999, got its first round of financing in January 2000 and hired 45 of the best developers it could find. "Through our work on GNOME," boasts Friedman, "We knew exactly who the best people were and we hired them all. We could have grown faster, but we slowed to avoid growing pains."

First order of business

Friedman described his company's early days. "The first thing we did was to set aside our business plan. I was flying somewhere and I had caught up with my email -- I think that was the last time I've been caught up with my email -- and I had the GNOME list archives on my laptop. What I realized was that the problems actual users were having were all with configuration, installation, upgrades -- the last mile. We had everything -- libraries, applications, all of it -- we just needed to get it onto people's machines and keep it up-to-date."

Friedman's observation led HelixCode to create the Helix GNOME distribution, which previewed in March 2000 and shipped a 1.0 version "essentially today," according to Friedman. Helix GNOME installs with a single root shell command -- lynx -source http://go-gnome.com/ | sh -- and includes utilities that make it easier to use than the standard GNOME desktop.

"We did three things with our GNOME distribution," says Friedman. "First, we made it run on nine platforms, including every major distribution except Slackware as well as Solaris and HP-UX [editors note: Solaris support is currently limited to one specific video card]. Secondly, we made it a comprehensive desktop environment for novices by including stuff that's not ordinarily part of GNOME. For example, how do you set your system time?"

"Uh, rdate clock.sgi.com?" I offered.

"Right. Well, you have to read man rdate at some point, and my mother is not happy with that. She is un-psyched.

"The third thing we did," Friedman continues, "Is integration testing. That turned out to be the hard part. The hard part is making sure you're delivering updates that don't break people's system. When we started, we thought the hard part would be something else, but it turned out to be that."

Automating system administration

A cornerstone of Helix Code's GNOME desktop is the Helix Updater, which attempts to automate and standardize basic system administration functions. This is meant to ensure that system performance does not degenerate, as it tends to in the Windows and Mac worlds, after repeated installation and update cycles.

Initially, Updater managed only the components in Helix's GNOME distribution; however, it has grown to address pan-system conflict and dependency resolution by using information available in the *.rpm package format. Debian users familiar with apt-get will appreciate the utility of such an update tool. In fact, Helix Code defers to Debian's apt-get and other administration utilities -- the Debian version uses apt-get rather than installing Helix Updater.

"That will change in a big way very soon," according to Friedman.

Clearly, he plans to offer system management services that go beyond simple package conflict and dependency resolution. And indeed, he may need to in order to win customers over to opt-in for-pay versions of services available elsewhere for free.

Another distribution that Helix Updater does not support at this point is Slackware. Slackware was the first Linux distribution. It was once the easiest route to Linux because you didn't have to compile everything yourself. Tools such as install_package, remove_package and update_package offer a kind of "package" system by dynamically querying binaries about the libraries they depend on. However, the absence of persistent meta-data in Slackware's simple *.tgz package format would make Slackware too labor-intensive to support, according to HelixCode officials. Slackware founder Patrick Volkerding does not agree, "They are not done yet," he said. "They should support Slackware."

Helix Code's business plans in the area of system administration suggest competition with the other major commercial entity to emerge from the GNOME Project -- Eazel. Eazel plans to offer system update and administration services through its Nautilus file manager.

Some Helix Code employees seem to view the developing competition with Eazel as a friendly rivalry. "But we're here today," boasted one. Helix Update has been used millions of times and presently delivers about a thousand daily system updates, according to Friedman. Eazel's Nautilus recently began shipping a 0.4 version.

Friedman downplays the competitive aspects with Eazel. "There's some overlap. But there already was overlap. Red Hat offers an update method, Mandrake has an updater... Netscape has its "Smart Update" service... There was always going to be overlap."

Eazel was the second company to come out of the GNOME project. It began officially a few weeks after Helix Code, in October of 1999. Eazel executives, including a handful of Apple big-wigs emeritus, come mostly from a commercial software background. They got a helping hand from Friedman and de Icaza early on in navigating the potentially emotional waters of the free software and open source cultures. "We held their hand in the beginning," says Friedman. "And to their credit, they did everything exactly as we said to."

One important change was an early switch from C++ to the traditional C more popular with UNIX programmers.

Adds Friedman, "They wanted us as Eazel co-founders, but we wanted to do our own thing."

During its first ten months, Eazel has focused on the development of its file manager, the Nautilus "graphical shell" (get it?). Meant to provide the power of a Unix shell through a graphical human interface, Nautilus takes obvious design features from the Windows Explorer and Macintosh Finder and attempts to build on them.

When you install Nautilus, it asks you to choose from a list of user levels corresponding to alpine ski slope rating signs. Are you ready for Black Diamond file management? Eazel VP of Engineering Bud Tribble is the skier in the group. Tribble is a former Apple and Sun Microsystems executive described by one veteran ZDNet reporter as, "The smartest person I've ever interviewed."

Another Tribble contribution is "Music View" mode, a synaesthesically named feature in which an embedded multimedia player begins playing sound files on mouse-over. "Name that Tune" will never be the same.

Nautilus offers a List View and an Icon View in which a zoom button lets you see more and more file meta-data up to the point at which the first few lines of files begin to appear within the icons. Selecting a file causes launch buttons to appear in the left frame that will open the document using the installed applications that know about that file type. Double-clicking an icon causes the file to be previewed within the Nautilus frame.

Nautilus is really just a framework for a number of viewer applications that work inside it through the Bonobo object framework. Bonobo was developed at Helix Code and is similar to Microsoft's COM. Interestingly, Bonobo is named for an endangered and highly promiscuous ape said to be humanity's nearest genetic cousin.

The currently shipping 0.4 version of Nautilus lacks many of the most intriguing features. However, by the time GNOME 1.4 ships in November, 2000, Nautilus is expected to be the default file manager, replacing Midnight Commander, a knock-off of the Norton System Commander that was once ubiquitous on Windows in the days of 3.1.

According to Tribble, Eazel plans to begin offering opt-in system backup and administration services as early as late 2000. Will anyone buy backups from Eazel when they could find the same services for free from companies such as iDrive and xDrive? Will anyone buy system administration and update services from Eazel considering Debian's and Helix Code's early lead in this arena?

Eazel's Tribble appears unconcerned when asked these questions. "The file manager," he explains, "Is where the user interacts with the system, and where they expect to find system services."

He has a point, and for some reason the famous Mack Rhinelander .sig file pops into my head: ""Old age and guile will always triumph over youth and enthusiasm." Maybe it's a good thing for Helix Code that Updater isn't really what the business plan is all about.

Aside from the Helix GNOME distribution, Helix Code's main project is the Evolution groupware client. Notes Friedman with amazement and elation, "Thousands of people are beta testing Evolution right now. Thousands! That's so WEIRD!"

Evolution relies heavily on the Bonobo component model, with email, calendar and contact manager applications running within its framework. Friedman describes Evolution, currently at a 0.4 version, as "an Outlook killer for heavy users. With Outlook, everything is in separate folders. We have virtual folders so everything is indexed together."

"The first time you run it," Friedman continues, "If you have a gig or two of old mail, it might take a little while to open. But after that, it's really fast."

Evolution's index enables nearly instant full-text searching of all old messages. The index is updated on the fly when mail arrives or is deleted. Advanced filtering features are offered. The user can choose which account to send mail from by choosing from a drop-down list of accounts underneath the "From:" line. The same addressbook works with all your GNOME applications and syncs with your Palm Pilot.

At the GNOME Foundation press conference, up24by7 Editor Matti Siltanen asked Friedman what security precautions Evolution developers have taken, and specifically, whether a formal security audit process has been put in place. Friedman admitted that nothing formal had been established, but said that he believes "developer attitude" makes the most difference. "Our developers have a world view of the Internet as a hostile place," he said.

When Siltanen persisted in his line of questioning, de Icaza interjected, "You can start doing that. That's what free software is all about. If you feel strongly there is a need for something, you can get involved." It was one of the high-points of the press conference, right up there with Jim Nay of the Free Software Foundation beginning his short talk with, "I'm basically here to say 'GNU/Linux.'"

Show me the money

Helix Code hopes to offer a number of services through its Evolution mail client. These include off-line mail storage that would enable subscribers to access all old email from any GNOME desktop. "I'd pay for that sh*t!" enthuses Friedman. He continues, "Name a band you like."

"Uh, Neutral Milk Hotel?"

"Okay, we'll email you the day that any Neutral Milk Hotel shows within two hundred miles of you are announced, and you can buy a ticket by just clicking." Friedman radiates enthusiasm for the idea.

He has a point. As computers improve and play an increasing role in making our lives convenient, software vendors will be well placed to broker economic exchanges of many kinds.

It also seems like nowadays, the business model comes second. The important thing is to establish a relationship with a large group of customers, and then figure out how to use that relationship. An example would be Amazon, which doesn't make much money selling books, but which lands some pretty incredible corporate partnerships, perhaps because it has something like ten million customers that it knows intimately.

Helix Code won a contract to provide TurboLinux with a desktop, and IBM is paying to bundle Helix GNOME on ThinkPad notebooks. "And there are a couple of others that are even bigger that I can't talk about..." according to Friedman.

Another revenue stream for Helix Code at this point is selling CDs. "For now," says Friedman.

In the last six months, GNOME has grown from 250 to 400 developers. It has gained the official backing of 13 major computer companies which, thanks to the GPL, came to terms without signing a single legal document. Two solidly backed commercial ventures -- Helix Code and Eazel -- have taken root in soil tilled by the GNOME Project. The GNOME desktop has become install-able by mere mortals. It has shipped GNU-Cash, a "quick 'n' intuit-ive" personal finance manager, along with many other new applications. GNOME people have much to be proud of, perhaps none more so than Bart Decrem. Decrem created the consensus that enabled the Foundation to be born.

One of three Eazel co-founders -- the young one who didn't used to work at Apple -- Decrem looked slightly haggard if elated after the Foundation press conference. He walked over to chat with Helix Code's Nat Friedman as we sat outside in the San Jose sunshine.

"Well, my work is done for this show," Decrem said, "And I'm glad. There are a lot of prima donnas in the Foundation." Ah, the candor of youth. When asked, he gamely added, "Yes, you can quote me on that."

Where will GNOME, this somewhat unlikely, somewhat inevitable collection of underdogs and juggernauts head to next? Who will share GNOME centerstage with Miguel six months from now? And will they talk enough about ideas, or just focus on commercial success?

No answers here, but I'm looking forward to finding out. The energy and enthusiasm of young Linux captains of industry always gives you a lift. Likewise the wisdom and idealism of the industry and movement veterans. So I'll see you in New York in about six months. At this rate, the whole world is going to be there.

Have you tried Helix GNOME, Eazel Nautilus or Helix Evolution? Let us know in the TalkBack below

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