OS/2 eZine - http://www.os2ezine.com
October 16, 2002
Pete Grubbs Pete Grubbs is a self-described OS/2 wonk, a former doctoral candidate in English literature at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a former part-time faculty member at Penn State and is still mucking about with a copy editing/creation service, The Document Doctor, which tailors documents for small businesses. He has also been a professional musician for 20 years.

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A New Effort

Where We Stand Today

With two weeks to go before Warpstock, I find myself gearing up for another OS/2-oriented weekend with many of the same anticipations and anxieties that I usually face: Will I have any trouble getting through the airport? Will I find 20 intelligent questions to ask the people I'll try to interview? Will my wife and kids still be living in our house when I get home? I also find myself wondering what lies ahead for the operating system I use and the community it has inspired. I feel like I've said this a hundred times before, but it seems to me that we're (again) standing at a crossroads for the future of our community, but the current challenge is different than any we've faced to date because it comes, not from a failing or shortcoming, but from our recent success.

eCS 1.0 launched successfully last year and it has been quietly building momentum throughout our community. Various issues that plagued it initially have been resolved and it continues to gather a variety and richness of features and burgeoning hardware support that make it a worthy successor to Warp 4.0. Version 1.1 is nearly completed, as of this writing, and may preview in Austin next month, barring unforeseen difficulties or attacks from Venusian Panty Raiders. [N.B. Apparently the V.P.R.s were busy elsewhere; Bob St. John and Kim Cheung did preview eCS 1.1 in Austin and distributed bootable CDs with the new OS on them. More about that in another article.] When one considers how drastically different this situation is now from where we were a scant two or three years ago, it's quite remarkable. I certainly wouldn't have predicted anything like this, especially in light of Stardock's failed attempt to do exactly what Serenity Systems has accomplished. However, this success has created a challenge for us unlike any we've faced before.

It is no secret that SSI doesn't have limitless resources. Unlike some companies that can drop a million or two for generic R&D that doesn't have to pay for itself, SSI needs to carefully focus its time and efforts. It also is no secret that eCS needs continued enhancements to remain useful, especially as cutting edge hardware becomes industry standard and certain proprietary file formats become de facto standards (I'm thinking of Quickbooks, Office and RealPlayer in particular, but you can choose your own favorites) while we face increasing pressure to have the same capacity to deal with them that the Windows world has. The $64 question is simply this: Which enhancements get done now and which wait until there's more money to do them? The answer that you give has a lot to do with your particular needs and that has divided our community into two opposing camps: Those whose needs reflect a SOHO/end-user orientation and those who are installing and/or maintaining systems for larger businesses. The debate, in the limited form that I've seen, is often feisty, occasionally intense and generally filled with comments linking the opinion espoused to the continued future of the operating system in general and humankind in particular. Without delving too deeply into either rhetoric, let's take look at these two different positions.

The SOHO World

SOHO users, like me, need increased flexibility in dealing with the demands put upon us by the Windows users in our lives, be they family, friends or business associates. We need to be able to deal effortlessly, seamlessly, with Office documents, read and print current-generation PDF files, listen to RealPlayer downloads or streaming audio, connect to DVD players, back up our PalmPilots, chat with our kids on ICQ and use photo-quality printers with the digital camera that someone got on clearance at Best Buy. We'd also like to do this using readily available hardware that has readily available drivers which don't require an advanced degree in Computer Science to install and configure. The terminally geeky among us may also look with a certain longing at multi-buttoned, hyper-configurable mice, trackballs and keyboards, yearning for the day that we'll be able to boot up our systems with these devices installed and have every bit as much capability with them as anyone else who owns them, but without the Windows overhead. Put all this together, and you have a diverse target that moves fairly quickly (new hardware appears, I want to use it NOW.) I like to think of us as a bunch of white mice (probably hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional beings) scurrying about our business. Unfortunately, there aren't enough SOHO users to generate the money needed to drive development, that is, there aren't enough of us who all want exactly the same thing. For example, the peripherals that I really prefer are probably not the peripherals that many of my readers prefer. So, while we're all using eCS or OS/2, how many of us are using a Kensington Expert Mouse? (My pointing device of choice ever since I reviewed it back in October of 2000.) As many developers have discovered, coding for this part of our community is a risky proposition at best.

The Business World

Business users, on the other hand, aren't driven by the same geeky, gadget-oriented desires that many SOHO users are. Their concerns have much more to do with backwards compatibility, networking capability, simultaneous installations, security issues, database scalability and a host of other stuff I don't pretend to understand and certainly don't need. They don't feel the same kind of pressure to seamlessly interact with the Windows world unless they're working in a mixed environment or have a partner who has standardized on Office, and even then, that pressure can be readily accommodated. PDA's, optical mice and gadgetized keyboards may flirt at the periphery of their budgets, but rarely supersede a plain vanilla box with a standard 101 key keyboard, serial mouse, low-end graphics card and cheap speakers. Their focus is on steady, solid performance, day in and day out. As long as their employees are able to realize a certain minimum amount of productivity, the machines they're working with are acceptable. In development terms, this means a much bigger target that moves a lot slower. The rewards for courting such customers are obvious and I believe that this is where SSI should target eCS growth, which pretty much leaves me and all the other SOHO people stuck with capabilities we never use (all WiseMachine has done since I installed it is gather virtual dust on my hard drive) while we can't get work done the way we want to do it. Frustrating? You bet!

An Aside: The Obligatory Disclaimer

Now, before my inbox is flooded with e-mails pointing out all of the shortcomings of the descriptions above, let me hasten to note that these two groups of users are not mutually exclusive. There are, undoubtedly, SOHO users who don't care a bit about having the latest gadget on their desktops as long as they can get their daily tasks done in a comfortable, timely manner. They've never overclocked a chip, don't salivate when roaming the aisles at a computer expo and are happily pounding away on the same IBM keyboard that they bought 5 years ago with no thought of changing it. There are also those business users who want every cool new gadget that comes on the market to work with their existing equipment and are happiest when they kludge something together that actually works the way they saw it demonstrated at Staples. As with most things in this world, I'm sure you can find exceptions to any generalization I can imagine, including, but not limited to, lions who prefer artichokes to antelope, honest politicians and Windows installations which don't compromise user data on an hourly basis.


If it sounds like I'm a bit disgruntled with my perceptions of eCS' shortcomings, I am. But only a little. I'll gladly lose some nonessential functionality for stability and security. However, following this line of reasoning has brought me to an idea that I'd like to share with all of my readers in the hope that something very concrete and very workable will come out of it. The problem with SOHO development for our community always comes back to numbers, specifically, the number of people who will pay a number of dollars for the product developed. There have been several attempts to solve this problem. I recall a petition campaign several years ago where people who were willing to buy a new client version of Warp were asked to sign on. The author's intent was to line up 10,000 signatures or $1 million, a number big enough to get IBM's attention and prod them into creating a new client. As far as I know, that initiative didn't generate serious results. Then there was a similar effort by Opera Software when they offered to develop a beta of their browser for our community if enough of us showed interest in it. This was a bit more successful, and said beta has been available for quite a few months, and a gamma has been released. (I won't speculate on its prevalence in our community, but I am encouraged that it's available.) My proposal differs from these in that it builds upon an existing infrastructure and offers a way to benefit the majority of our community through direct software development.

Enter ProjectX

I suggest that we, the rank-and-file eCS-OS/2 users, create an entity whose sole purpose is to fund eCS product development. I'll call it 'ProjectX.' Members would pay a set fee, which would be collected and held in escrow, for a particular piece of software to be created. Developers would submit bids to win a contract for that job. The winning bidder would receive a deposit (say 10 to 20 percent of the total) when given the job and would receive the balance upon completion. The final code would be delivered to members on CD, but would be made public under the GNU Public License 6 to 12 months later. This way, the application base for eCS becomes much richer, developers are encouraged to create products for us and we have some control over the timetable for product creation. As far as I can see, everyone wins.

Details, details, details . . .

To give you a better idea of how this all works out, let me follow a product from its initial proposal to its final release. The ProjectX board of directors posts a questionnaire to the ProjectX web site to determine what product the members are most interested in purchasing and the price they're willing to pay for the final code. They distill the results and post the three most popular candidates for development. Members vote for one only and the winner is determined by simple majority. In this case, let's say the winner is an add-on module for the PilotLink utility which would translate Lotus Organizer files into PalmPilot format and place them into a user-specified directory for later upload to the user's PalmPilot. Meanwhile, the ProjectX board would place notices for a contract to create this product in all of the fashionable supplements, including this one, and developers would make their bids. The winner would begin development funded, in part, by the deposit mentioned above, and continue until finished. Product would be distributed to the paying members first and enter into the public domain a specified time, say, 6 months, later. Any non-member wishing to avoid the wait to obtain the code could do so by purchasing a membership. If the code is popular enough to warrant inclusion on a later version of eCS, it would be available from Hobbes or a similar source. And, if no bidder appears who would do the job for the money available, another project could be selected, and so on, until something comes together. As I mentioned above, the infrastructure for this effort is largely exists now. SCOUG, POSSI and VOICE could host it, as could Serenity Systems, Prism Dataworks or BMT Micro. If there are conflicts with this kind of arrangement that I'm not aware of, there are people in those organizations who already know a great deal about the legal ins and outs for in an effort like this who might act as consultants or even organizers for it. Collecting membership fees is as simple as creating a PayPal account (how many eCS-OS/2 users do you know who don't have both a credit card and an e-mail address?). Maintaining a membership list is as easy as dealing with a database. Frankly, I've turned this idea around in my head so many times I'm dizzy and I haven't found a single issue that would keep it from succeeding, if only in a modest way, so, I'm turning it over to you. If I'm wrong, tell me. If there are issues I haven't exposed, I want to hear about them; if there are problems lurking beneath my analysis, drag them up. I've always enjoyed getting responses from my readers directly in my e-mail, but if you have a comment on this idea, please use the OS/2 eZine's public forums. The more scrutiny it gets, the more intelligent, rational discussion it generates, the better chance it will have to succeed. Who knows? This could be the start of something interesting . . .

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