Originally Published: Friday, 23 March 2001 Author: Jason Tackaberry
Published to: daily_feature/Linux.com Feature Story Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Linux.com Interviews Shawn Gordon, CEO of theKompany.com

Does KDE have commercial support ala GNOME and Ximian? Find out this and more about theKompany in the latest Linux.com interview.

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With the recent releases of KDE 2.1, Eazel's Nautilus, Ximian's Red Carpet, and with applications like Evolution, Aethera, and Kapital just on the horizon, Linux is quickly securing its place on the desktop. New companies that focus their business model around free software are regularly appearing. Some of these companies make money by offering value-added services to their customers, such as Eazel's Services. Others deliver solutions to clients and use free software merely as a tool. And others, such as theKompany, mix both free and proprietary software.

theKompany, founded in 1999, has chosen to concentrate their development efforts around KDE technologies, and strives to fill many gaps in the Linux software world, both for the home user, and on the corporate desktop. To date, theKompany has sponsored or spearheaded over a dozen free software projects and commercial products, with several more quietly brewing under wraps. Their strategy is simple: identify weak or missing areas of Linux desktop applications, then either create a new project or adopt an existing one in order to fill the gap.

I was fortunate enough to catch Shawn Gordon, President and CEO of theKompany.com, idle one Sunday afternoon. Shawn generously offered his time to answer a few of our questions.

Linux.com: My colleague, a consultant with no exposure outside the Windows world, hears about theKompany and asks me what exactly they're all about. What do I tell him?

Shawn Gordon: We provide developer and desktop software for Linux. Think of it as a very, very teeny Microsoft, absent the OS.

Linux.com: Business aside, what do you do in your spare time? Do you have any hobbies? Family?

Shawn Gordon: I have a wonderful wife of 8 years, and two terrific kids: a 5 year old son, and a 2 year old daughter. My favorite pass time is to write and play music. I actually started programming only until I "made it" as a rock star :). Music gives me a lot of pleasure; I'm a huge fan of progressive music and progressive metal. The Internet has been a wonderful tool for discovering new bands. My current favorites are Spocks Beard and Pain of Salvation.

Other than that, I like to read sci-fi, exercise and go camping with my family.

Linux.com: What sort of equipment do you use to create your compositions? Do you use any Linux software?

Shawn Gordon: I'm really a piano player at heart. I've played since I was 5, but I enjoy the dexterity challenge of learning new instruments, so I also play guitar, bass, drums, various brass instruments and sing. I started playing what is called a Warr Guitar about 2 years ago, and that has been real interesting. They are hard to explain, but they have a web site at www.warrguitars.com that describes them pretty well. Right now I'm learning some Bach and Beethoven pieces on [the Warr guitar] to pick up my dexterity. Of course, I played it for a year and wasn't comfortable with the strings, so I had them reversed and it's better to play like that, but now I have to relearn all the positions.

I used to sequence a lot of music on my Atari with C-Lab Notator, and I still have my Atari Mega 4 for that express purpose. I've been very interested in checking out Brahams, (I think it's called Rose Garden) once I have some time free to spend on it. I have a feeling that if I start using it, then we will end up adopting the project so that I can have people put in features I want :).

Linux.com: What are your professional and OSS backgrounds? When and how did they begin to converge?

Shawn Gordon: I started programming in 1978 when I was 15. I was lucky to have a high school with a computer department. I ended up going to a trade school for programming when I was 19 and have been at it ever since. My background has mostly been writing business software for the HP 3000 mini-computer. I had a software company for about 10 years in that space where I did a lot of system management tools, but I also did a very extensive email system that had some pretty sophisticated features for what we were working on. I started picking up on Unix about 10 years ago and was running a Unix clone on my 486 called Coherent for some years. I was only peripherally aware of the whole OSS and GNU thing until a few years ago.

What really drew me to Linux and KDE was the desire to do our KODE product, and I didn't think Windows was where I wanted to do it. I sort of watched and researched the landscape for about a year before I decided to go for it, and then we incorporated in August 1999 and started working in earnest in September.

Linux.com: How has your reception in the OSS (and KDE, in particular) community been so far? Have you received any flak over your decision to sell beta software?

Shawn Gordon: Overall the reception has been great. You always have those few loud voices who think you are the devil, but they are very few. Actually we've gotten a great response on selling beta software. People like to get involved with shaping the application, and they get it at a discount as well. People that aren't interested in that process are waiting till the software is done to buy it, and that's great too. I think it's good for us, and our customers to be able to work together to provide products that are exactly what they want, instead of what I think they want.

Linux.com: Do those who purchase the beta versions get free updates or discounted rates on the final product?

Shawn Gordon: I'm glad you asked that, since I thought I had made it clear, but I still get asked the question periodically. By purchasing the beta copy, you get everything that is released up to, and including, the final version. In the case of Kapital, we are also making any updates that come out after the final release, and before September 1, available for free electronically. The September 1 date is arbitrary and doesn't have to do with the release date of Kapital, which I believe will be in June.

Linux.com: theKompany has a tendency to revive slowly moving projects such as KDE Studio, Magellan (which wound up being forked and dubbed Aethera), KImageShop (now Krayon -- a much more clever name) and no doubt others. Does theKompany have its eye on sponsoring or assimilating any other projects? What factors do you consider when making the decision to allocate resources to a new project?

Shawn Gordon: I'm looking at the infrastructure that KDE needs to be fully viable in the home and at the office. What applications are missing that are needed? If there is a project that is needed, is stalled but going in the right direction --and we have the resources-- then we see what we can do. With Krayon, I started the dialog for a new name, but someone else suggested it. I think it is brilliant, and John Califf is really the hero that is making so much progress with Krayon these days. We did some initial work, and then we added the digital camera support to KDE so that Krayon could take advantage of that as well, but we really aren't doing anything else with Krayon at the moment.

I actually get approached fairly often to take over projects and/or hire the developer. There are a couple I'm really interested in, but I need to focus on getting some of our products to 1.0, boxed and shipped before I can look at taking anything else on at the moment.

Linux.com: Can you comment on your experiences of working with the gPhoto team to bring this support to KDE? Did you run into any barriers given the "other side of the fence" nature of gPhoto (insofar as it is a GNOME-based application written in a different language)?

Shawn Gordon: Other than some trouble with getting a response to email when we were getting started, they were terrific. I'm really blown away by how much work the gPhoto guys have done. It is some cool stuff. They did a very good job with version 2 in partitioning the UI from the transaction logic. It was very well designed and pretty easy to implement.

Linux.com: How would you compare Aethera to Ximian's Evolution?

Shawn Gordon: I would say at their core they have a similar idea: they are doing email and a few other things. I know Evolution got a lot of ideas from Magellan, and since Aethera is a fork of Magellan, they have some similarities. I think our target for Aethera is a lot different than Evolution. They want to sell advertising or subscriptions or something into your desktop, while we are writing plug-ins for extended functionality. Aethera is going to be more of a platform like Lotus Notes, where you can create vertical market applications and drop them in and get the groupware knowledge management as part of the package. There are a lot of interesting things that you will be able to do with Aethera.

Linux.com: How do Aethera and Magellan differ? Why would a user prefer one over the other?

Shawn Gordon: Well, to be fair and honest, we have dedicated resources working on Aethera, and Magellan is a labor of love for their team, so at the moment Aethera will likely continue to outpace the Magellan development. We've already rewritten the main look of the UI and are in the process of totally rewriting the UI code. Magellan has an eye towards groupware, but they aren't creating a platform or plug-ins like we are doing. These types of things are also why the partnership didn't work out.

Linux.com: KDevelop, which as you know is now packaged with KDE 2.1, seems very similar to KDE Studio. How does KDE Studio and KDE Studio Gold differentiate itself from KDevelop?

Shawn Gordon: Other than the fact that they both do C++ applications, they really aren't very similar. KDE Studio is our free version, and we had every intention of just getting the 2.0 release out and not working on it anymore, so that we could work on KODE instead. What happened is that we were getting an enormous number of requests for various features, and we couldn't really support it with no income stream, so we decided to create the Gold release. KDE Studio Gold [KSG] is really very nice. The new DocBrowser we've added currently has the Qt and KDE docs nicely indexed and available inside KSG or as a stand-alone application. We are working on integrating the kernel and libc docs right now as well as integrated CVS control and a few other very cool items. The code completion and integrated debugging are also very nice.

You may have seen the recent KDevelop road map where one of the items was "get code completion from KDE Studio," which I thought was pretty funny. The guys doing KDevelop are all extremely talented, but I would say the main difference is going to be that we have a vested interest in KSG and no one for KDevelop has a financial stake in it.

Linux.com: Can you elaborate a bit on what KODE is? Will people considering buying BlackAdder or KDE Studio Gold be better off waiting for KODE?

Shawn Gordon: Think of KODE as Delphi or VB'ish, but supporting a number of different languages. It is the reason I founded theKompany, long before Borland decided to do Kylix. You can always wait for the next thing to come out, but KODE will be more expensive than BlackAdder and KDE Studio Gold. For some programmers who don't like IDEs like that, they will find those two products better suited to their needs. It will be towards the end of the year before we release something, and we will likely have some sort of trade in offer if people want to switch. We like to take care of our customers.

Linux.com: What are the criteria used to decide what projects to release as OSS and which ones to sell?

Shawn Gordon: Typically if it is an infrastructure type project, then we will OSS it. Another is deployment. In the case of Kivio and Aethera, I would like to see those available on everybody's desktop either because they are included in KDE, or packaged with the distribution. They are cool products and if people use them and want to extend their functionality, they can buy those modules from me, or maybe someone else has built a module that they are selling or giving away.

Linux.com: How does one pronounce Kivio? Is the first "i" pronounced as "ih" (short), "eye" (long), or as in "ee"?

Shawn Gordon: It's a short "ih" sound. Exactly like Visio, but with different letters :).

Linux.com: What stencil sets are currently available for Kivio as purchasable add-ons? This is a fairly clever mixture of OSS and a commercial product. Has interest been as high as you'd hoped?

Shawn Gordon: Interest has been very high. We are trying to debut Kivio 1.0 and the first set of stencils this week. We are working on organizing the shapes, but currently we have the following ready to go:

  • Electronics
    • Circuit (36)
  • Flowcharting
    • Advanced Flowcharting (6)
    • Audit Diagram Shapes (9)
    • Basic Flowcharting (19)
    • Mind Mapping (28)
  • Internet
    • Internet Symbols (11)
  • Networking
    • ATM (12)
    • Basic Network Shapes (21)
    • Logical Symbols (22)
  • Standard
    • Basic Shapes (19)
  • Telecom (8)
  • UML Activity
    • UML Basic (14)

Now we are going to have "standard" and "smart" stencil sets. The ones above are all standard. We are about done on the work that will allow the smart ones. The distinguishing characteristic would be something like Networks. With the shapes here, you can lay out a network diagram, but the smart stencil set will sniff your network and create a chart automatically. The UML one isn't really useful until we make it smart in my opinion, but the shapes are done and people may find them useful.

Kivio is my grand experiment on mixing OSS and commercial pieces. I'm anxious to see how it works out.

Linux.com: theKompany boasts many (seemingly) disjointed projects -- VeePee, KDE-DB, Korelib, BlackAdder, etc. What is your vision for these products interoperating?

Shawn Gordon: On the surface it does look a little spastic, I admit, but there is a method to the madness. We have essentially three product goals. One is a RAD GUI IDE that is multi-language and multi-platform; KDE Studio, BlackAdder, Korelib and others, are steps along that path. You will eventually see an integration of the various developer suites into a single system. The second goal is providing desktop software that is missing, but is critical for business. That is where things like Aethera, Kivio and Rekall come in. Finally, there is the financial software with Kapital. This is more of a strategic thing. If a million people don't use KDE because they have to have Quicken, then the way to get those people is to make the software they need.

Projects like Kugar, KDE-DB and VeePee are infrastructure items. With KDE-DB we designed specifically so we could build Rekall on top of it, but we thought it would also be helpful to others. VeePee is a way to add scripting to any application so that you can control or change the application's behavior without changing the application. We also needed reporting, so that is where Kugar came in.

Linux.com: Can you exercise President's discretion and give us a little teaser on any top secret plans theKompany has brewing? (You are hereby granted immunity to any threats of Vaporware.)

Shawn Gordon: Vaporware is only part of the problem. Seems like half the time I talk about features for our products, I suddenly see it announced over at Eazel or Ximian. This might be a coincidence, but it makes me wary when talking about future plans. I will say that we have some really cool plug-ins for Aethera that are being worked on right now, and are unlike anything anyone else is doing. I also think people will be pleased with our MS Access style product called Rekall, coming out at the end of March (beta 1). We are working with David Faure at KDE on a way to include a free version of Rekall in KOffice, and then we would sell the 'professional' version. Mostly it's a matter of figuring out the licensing. I've got a huge list of things we would like to do, but I don't know if and when we will get to them.

Linux.com: Rekall will fill another large gap missing from Linux software. Have you determined yet what the differences between the free version and the professional, retail version will be?

Shawn Gordon:

Feature comparison of the basic and professional versions
Table structure handling X X
Data model extension (popup for foreign keys, validation rules)   X
Graphical relational database design   X
Query Handling (Basic, maybe SQL only) X X
Query handling (Advanced, DnD of fields to compose the query and such)   X
Forms: single table forms, no nesting X X
Form: multi-table forms, nesting and subforms   X
Reports: one-query reports, no nesting (actual Kugar engine) X X
Report: grouping, nested subreports   X
Scripting: basic (load forms, tables, and perform simple actions like gotorecord, set values) X X
Scripting: Advanced (runtime creation of controls, support for dynamically loaded third party controls)   X
Forms and Reports: creation wizards   X

Linux.com: I have heard many people say (or write) that they would use Linux if only it would run Quicken. theKompany's answer to their pleas is Kapital. How does Kapital compare to Quicken right now?

Shawn Gordon: As of today Kapital needs to have a few more features implemented, which we are working on, such as scheduled transactions. The 1.0 release will come out in a few months and will do all the things that 99% of Quicken users use plus a few unique features. In my experience people don't use Quicken features like the home inventory and a number of other cutesy, but obscure features. I want to focus on the things that people need to make keeping track of their finances as painless as possible.

Linux.com: How is business? Is theKompany turning a profit yet? What are your fiscal expectations for the next year or two?

Shawn Gordon: Well, we spent a lot of time getting our products together, and now that we are starting to release things, it's getting better. We had some clients default on payments to us, and not getting that money really hurt and made things tighter than I would have liked. We are totally self-funded at the moment, and I see how far we've gone as a testament to the power of KDE and the very high quality of our staff. We really have an amazing group of people. I fully expect to be profitable later this year. Then it's a matter of controlling growth as we continue to release more and more products.

Linux.com: theKompany has been taking the notion of the virtual corporation to its fullest, with employees all over the globe in nearly a dozen different time zones. How is this working for you thus far, from a management perspective? What has been your biggest obstacle so far? What advice would you give up-and-coming companies to ease global collaboration?

Shawn Gordon: I've talked to a lot of companies that have tried it and haven't been able to make it work. I think a big part of it is having good employees that have strong ethics, so being careful about hiring is the most important part. The other part is peer review. If you have people getting in to each others code, then there is a sense of pride and wanting to look good for the rest of your team. ICQ and IRC are your friends, as well. ICQ allows you to have the equivalent of a hallway conversation when you see people online, and IRC is good for meetings and group discussions, which we have at least once a week.

My only real frustration is in some of the under-developed areas a net connection can be flaky and people can go offline for a few days. The phones don't work so well either, so people might be out of touch for a bit. It's never been catastrophic, but it is frustrating at times.

Linux.com: Have you considered relocating employees who live in these areas?

Shawn Gordon: We are looking at opening an office in Romania with high-speed access since we have a fairly large group there, and there is some discussion of bringing people to the US down the road.

Linux.com: theKompany seems to be filling the gaps in Linux applications, and in particular KDE-based applications. Are there any gaps you hope to fill in the near future? Are there any plans for something like Ximian's Red Carpet?

Shawn Gordon: We were just talking about Red Carpet this last week. We are going to make a decision on that this upcoming week. For the time being I'm plugging all the gaps that I can manage. We'll look for more after things settle down a bit.

Linux.com: Speaking of Ximian, how would you compare theKompany to Ximian?

Shawn Gordon: Honestly, we are totally different companies. Ximian's products are T-shirts and stuffed animals, and our products are actual software that people can use. I'm not entirely clear on where they are going to make money. I can't imagine that Red Carpet is going to be free, and there is strangely no information on their web site about it. I heard last year they were predicting $120 million in revenue this year, from selling subscriptions. They just had to raise another $15 million in funding, so it sounds like it's not really working out. I've never actually spoken with anyone from Ximian, but I can tell you we were extremely put off when they bought that ad on Google and linked it to our company name and some of our products. Prior to that I didn't really have an opinion about Ximian, but currently my opinion is a bit sour.

Linux.com: Many OSS-oriented companies, such as Eazel, have chosen to focus their business model around services, instead of making money off of the software itself. theKompany, on the other hand, mixes OSS projects with commercial products. Do you find the services model flawed, or do you just find theKompany's model more viable?

Shawn Gordon: No one has a blue print yet of what really works in this space for making money. I'm trying a few different approaches to see what works best, but I just don't see the services space as being interesting. The difference for me, I think, is that I spent 17 years working in corporate America, going up the ranks of I.T. I started out as a computer operator, doing a little programming, and eventually went through everything you could do. I have run large I.T. departments for big companies. I know what companies use, and I know what users want. I spent many years having to help people with their problems, so I have a more realistic sense of how this stuff works, I think. I know for a fact that my last job would never use something like Eazel's software, they don't want their employees connected to the net at all, let alone have some piece of software out there chewing up bandwidth and bringing in unauthorized software. On the other hand, if they want to do diagrams, they can buy some stencils from us if they need to, and that is that.

Linux.com: Which of your commercial products has received the biggest response? Which of your OSS projects have received the most interest by the community?

Shawn Gordon: Kapital is by far the most generically useful for people, and has generated the most immediate interest. I think KDE Studio is probably the most popular OSS project we have, but we don't really have strict numbers on it because it is available from more than one source. PyQt has also been very popular.

Linux.com: Does the business world's focus on GNOME (especially many Unix vendors' commitment to package GNOME with their OSes) worry you?

Shawn Gordon: It doesn't worry me, but it bothers me. I think this is happening because there is a face to GNOME with Ximian. There is someone to negotiate with and talk to and sign up to do support, and there isn't something like that for KDE. The KDE League isn't meant to be that kind of a body. I think if we can focus on the applications more than the desktop, we might see a shift. This is a critical juncture for those of us involved with KDE, there really needs to be more visibility with these companies. Someone has to champion the cause. I've personally met with IBM a number of times and talked about this, and we have some other ongoing discussions happening, but they don't seem to have a real interest at the desktop level.

Linux.com: Your website indicates that theKompany provides custom software solutions. With all the projects you currently have on the go, do you have the resources to accept new contracts? Would you or have you out-sourced any custom design work? Has this aspect of your company received a lot of response?

Shawn Gordon: You would be surprised at who we've done work for :). We don't push it, and if we are short handed, then I'll pull from a group of people that I work with on an ad-hoc basis. I get a ton of resumes in. There is an amazing wealth of extremely skilled programmers out there, and I respond to each resume I get. I may not have a position for someone at the time they ask for a job, but I keep them on file in case we can use them on projects like this.

I don't really think of what we do as outsourcing, if I'm short-handed and just need some specific tasks done, then I'll grab a contractor, get him to bid me the work, and then get it done. I don't do this often, but it's nice to have the hands around when you need them.

Linux.com: The press is out on Ximian's SOUP and its hope to eventually provide compatability with Microsoft's .Net. Does theKompany have any similiar plans, or interests in .Net or SOUP?

Shawn Gordon: I started theKompany to get away from Microsoft. I really have no interest in riding that horse again. I'll worry about SOUP or .Net if and when they become an issue, but for the time being it's just more stuff being talked about that people aren't actually using.

Linux.com extends its thanks to Shawn for allowing us the opportunity to interview him. With Aethera, Kivio, Rekall, and KODE, theKompany has set its sights on not only making Linux viable on the corporate desktop, but making it the most powerful one available. As these products begin shipping, you can expect to see theKompany taking the headlines more and more.

Jason Tackaberry lives in the frosty north known as Canada. Currently he is hopelessly trapped in academia, working as an Academic Computing Support Specialist. His involvement with Linux extends from system/network administration to software development to a refusal to use nothing but Linux on his desktop.

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