Open Source on the Desktop: AbiSource's Eric W. Sink

By Dale Dougherty

Eric W. Sink, once a lead developer of Mosaic at Spyglass, has formed a company to develop Open Source applications for the desktop. His company, AbiSource, will be announcing a new word processor to be freely distributed with source code.

Dale: Eric, tell me a bit about yourself and how you were involved with Mosaic development at Spyglass?

Eric: I was with Spyglass early on, before it was an Internet company. In the spring of 1994, I helped launch the Spyglass web browser project, first as the primary engineer, and later as the Project Lead. Anyway, Mosaic turned out to be a string of great technical successes, interleaved with a string of great marketing failures. Both were excellent learning experiences for me.

Dale: So, tell me about your new company.

Eric: We got started in January of 1997 as a contracting firm, with no specific plan for doing products. Contracting is lucrative, and it's an easy business to run, but we started to realize that we wanted to become a product company. We didn't find anything exciting enough to bet the company on until the Open Source movement started to build its momentum, earlier this year. In a matter of two months, we constructed a plan for our Open Source products, hired five new people, and changed our name to AbiSource.

Dale: What got you interested in Open Source?

Eric: I've been a fan of Open Source software for over a decade, but I'll confess that prior to this past Spring, it had never occurred to me that free software could become a mainstream phenomenon. The Netscape release of the Mozilla code really drew my attention. I started thinking about the possible business models which could be built around the sale of services instead of around the sale of software use licenses. Although I don't consider my views to be as extreme as Richard Stallman's, I began to realize that the Open Source philosophy of software has a tremendous future.

Dale: But the concept of Open Source is not at all new. Why is the future so bright now?

Eric: It's important to recognize the role of the Internet as a key distribution mechanism for Open Source software. Failure to figure out a distribution scheme is a classic reason for software business failure. Proprietary software models result in a house divided. Vendors spend lots of time figuring out how to distribute their software, while simultaneously spending lots of time figuring out how to stop people from distributing their software. Open Source models eliminate that inconsistency, allowing the vendor to focus more energy on what is really important. The reason that the Open Source movement can happen now is that the Internet is finally ubiquitous enough to serve as a distribution medium to very large markets.

Dale: What kind of Open Source products are you building?

Eric: We're focused on desktop productivity tools, including word processors, spreadsheets, end-user databases, and so on. Our first product is a word processor, called AbiWord. The source code for an early developer release of this app is being made available on August 21st. This launch is focused at software developers. When AbiWord is ready for end-users, around the end of the year, we'll be making our announcements to a much larger audience.

Dale: Since you are producing "user" products, what if any is the appeal of Open Source software to the end user? Do they care?

Eric: They definitely care. Users are tired of the crazy upgrade cycle which has become the norm for so many desktop applications. The whole process is dysfunctional. The only reason we put up with it is because we don't have alternatives. Why do we pay outrageous upgrade fees every year or two, when the upgrades usually don't contain any additional features we need? Because, all too often, we're actually buying the upgrade to solve a *problem*, either an incompatibility or a bug. Why do we put up with low quality software? Because features sell upgrades, not bug fixes. The vendor has no financial incentive to produce quality software, and the customer has no control. We all know that the status quo is unhealthy, but we're not doing anything about it.

Look at the top three office suites on the market. They're all basically the same, right? Why then do we, as an industry, continue to derive our revenues from intellectual property rights, when proprietary technology is no longer the real differentiator? The big vendors are charging for the wrong thing, and that's a sure sign that they are charging way too much.

Strictly from a technology point of view, these kinds of applications are boring, and they've been boring for years. It's time for them to become commodities. Mainstream PC hardware already made this transition, and now those vendors compete on price, and with value-added services. Mainstream desktop software will go down the very same road.

Do end users care about source code? Absolutely not. But Open Source isn't just about source code. It's a better way to build software, and it's a way to build better software. Users care a lot about those things.

Dale: What made you think there was an opportunity to do something that traditional software product companies have given up on -- which is to say -- challenge Microsoft on the Desktop.

Eric: We're challenging Microsoft? Really? When did they announce a cross-platform, Open Source office suite? :-)

Seriously, everybody asks me about Microsoft, because competing with them is so fashionable right now. Frankly, I don't think of Microsoft as our competition. We're not introducing yet another proprietary word processor -- that would be suicidal. We're playing by different rules. We admit that lots of people will continue to play by the old rules, and Microsoft will continue to derive enormous revenues from that market. In the early stages, we're making very conscious choices to target our products at the niches of people who are not already satisfied with the leading proprietary solutions from Microsoft and others. That just seems like sensible marketing to us. To borrow terminology from Geoffrey Moore, if Open Source is going to "cross the chasm", we first have to target our products at the "pragmatists in pain".

Dale: Next logical question is what makes you think that you can form a company around "free software." You're not a team of developers working for free on your spare time. You hope to make a go of it as a company?

Eric: Absolutely. We've done very extensive financial planning, and our numbers add up. The potential user base for desktop productivity tools is massive. We believe that millions of people will use our products, and we can sustain a viable, growing company, even if only a small percentage of our user base become paid subscribers to our services.

Dale: The key question is how will you fund the team to continue developing the software that you are going to release?

Our company is in transition, and to some extent, the profitability of our old business will help us fund our new one. However, the real answer is that we're no different from any other software startup. We need working capital to fund our operations until our new business is profitable. We have some outside investors, and we're in the process of looking for others.

Dale: How will you know that your products are catching on? What will be the signs of success that you are looking for?

Eric: There are lots of signs that I'm looking forward to. I'm kind of focused on AbiWord right now, since it will be our first product. First of all, AbiWord will have reached a very small measure of success when my Mom starts using it. I'll be very encouraged when I see the first magazine review which we didn't know about in advance. Later, I'm looking forward to the day I go to the bookstore and see 5 books about AbiWord on the shelf. Most of all, I can't wait for the day that I'm making small talk with some stranger at a party, and they don't know who I am, and they start telling me how great AbiWord is. I think I'll probably just listen.

This article first appeared on pages 23-25 of "Open Source: The Emergence of a New Model", a booklet distributed to the attendees of Open Source Developer Day, sponsored by O'Reilly & Associates, August 24, 1998.