OS/2 eZine

16 May 2000

Robert Basler is the President of Aurora Systems, Inc..

Previous Article
Next Article

Guest Editorial: Robert Basler

Insulting OS/2 Software Developers Everywhere

In reading the column "Karen's Corner" article "OS/2 is Rescued by the Internet" by Karen L. Mansbridge-Wood, I was appalled at her offensive comments towards OS/2 software developers and by her obvious lack of understanding of how software development works. Having spent some time reading her posts in comp.os.os2.advocacy I was familiar with her opinions, but seeing them leave that venue and pour over into articles intended for public consumption was disturbing.

In her column, Karen rails against OS/2 software developers, calling their hard work "substandard" and accuses them of "exploiting" the OS/2 community with "inflated prices." That she could say such things clearly demonstrates her lack of understanding of how commercial software development and simple economics works. That she would insult people who for the most part develop software solely because they love to, is embarrassing to the OS/2 community as a whole. We all benefit greatly from the hard work of software developers and they deserve our praise and support.

Most software initially is developed by one person who has a cool idea, or who needs something done that can't be done by existing software. Even in large software houses, this is how many software products are born. That person then pours their heart and soul into designing, coding, debugging and testing the software, often for several years, sometimes adding more people to help finish the task. This takes long hours, sleepless nights, and causes no small amount of financial stress. Even a simple project by a single developer can take months to complete. If you have to hire people to help, when a software developer can make US $5000 per month easily, you can quickly collect a lot of up-front expenses. Even a single developer working in his basement just squeaking by on living expenses is probably laying out a couple thousand dollars each month to pay the mortgage and bills. For many commercial software projects, this is the incentive to ship version 1.0.

To develop version 2.0 and grow your company, you take the money that you are earning from 1.0, hire developers, get feedback from your customers as to which features they need most, and get to work. A year or so down the road you have a shiny new version 2.0 to release to your customers.

Of course, these early versions don't have all the features you might want. Many of the "higher quality" products from "major software developers" that Karen is so interested in have had the benefit of several major revisions. They have grown to become mature, stable packages, they weren't born that way. While there are certainly exceptions, in general, large software houses don't produce high quality software simply because they are large, they produce high quality software because they've had five or ten revisions to refine it. If they produce a high quality product on the first release, as the gaming industry has to do, it is because they spend a fortune on teams of people who perform extensive feature development, testing and debugging.

The problem with a lot of OS/2 software, is that it rarely gets this chance to grow into a mature product. Having talked to a number of OS/2 software producers over the years, other than Brad Wardell, I can't name one that has made a lot of money doing it. Small ISV's are small because they don't make a lot of money doing what they do. Many of the ones I have talked to that produce OS/2 products do so because they have reasons other than money, usually because they love the platform and it is what they like to use.

Why aren't the OS/2 software developers Karen so despises making lots of money and refining their products and growing into major software developers like the Windows developers? It is simply numbers. To survive selling software, you have to cover your development costs. If you want to grow, you have to make a profit. If you want to sell software cheaply, you have to sell a lot of it. To sell a lot of software, you need a large customer base, and you have to be able to reach them.

The commercial OS/2 software developer has a number of disadvantages compared to software developers in other markets. The biggest one is that there is not a mass-market of OS/2 users anymore. Because of this, you can't get shelfspace in the local WalMart, Future Shop or CompUSA or coverage in mainstream PC magazines. If you want to advertise, there is only one print magazine I know of dedicated to OS/2 and not everyone reads Fidonet or has internet access to Warpcast or OS/2 E-Zine or Usenet. How is an OS/2 developer to reach their potential customers?

OS/2 ISV's are probably more intimately aware of the state OS/2 market than anyone, they see it in their paycheques. Since software costs the same amount to develop, regardless of the size of the market it sells into, you often see ISV's charge higher prices for OS/2 software in an attempt to cover their costs and stay alive to produce more, better products. This is unfortunate, but no one has yet come up with a workable alternative. Those that suggest vendors should fund OS/2 development with profits from other platforms clearly don't understand what a terrible business strategy that is.

I agree with Karen that IBM's idea of cross-platform software development is a good one, I just don't believe that Java and web based applications are ready for prime-time yet. I do however eagerly await the day when they are, and I suspect most OS/2 ISV's would agree with me. The "write once, run everywhere" promise of Java and browser based applications is compelling when companies such as mine spend up to 80% of our development effort on testing. My company tests our products on Windows 3.1, 3.11, 95, 95b, 98, 98 2nd Ed, NT 4 SP 3, and Windows 2000 - eight separate platforms. Unknown to most industry outsiders, testing every platform you run on is very necessary. Even between Windows 95 and 95b where there is little difference to the end user, we invariably find problems that appear on one platform and not another. If I could bring my applications to OS/2 (or BeOS or Linux or Mac or SunOS or...) with no additional development expenses, I would, as I believe would most other ISV's.

Unfortunately, while Java is a great technology and it has mostly overcome the speed criticisms of the last few years, its API's are not yet complete enough to do everything the developer wants. Even if you avoid the use of proprietary extensions on some platforms, its cross-platform support is still of the "write once, test everywhere" variety which just isn't adequate for many companies if supporting a small market like OS/2's means they have to justify additional development expenses. Also, many users are very unforgiving of the shortcomings of cross-platform strategies like Open32, Odin or Java and web browser applications. We want, and often require, native applications.

I understand all the problems the OS/2 developer faces bringing a product to market because I have many of the same problems. My software sells to the minutest fraction of the Windows user base. I've run a small software development house for ten years, and while I make a living at it, I won't be buying a sports car any time soon, despite the price of my products.

I know that the bulk of the OS/2 community is sensible and understands the simple economics of their situation, but it still bothers me when someone takes a public forum to insult an entire group of people that they obviously have no appreciation for or understanding of. I for one am grateful for the OS/2 software I use, even though I have spent quite a bit of money on it, because it allows me to use OS/2 to get my work done. I applaud OS/2 developers everywhere for the hard work they put in to bring out software that I can use. I hope the OS/2 community would agree with me.