Originally Published: Monday, 27 August 2001 Author: The Staff of Linux.com
Published to: develop_articles/Development Articles Page: 3/4 - [Printable]

Interview with Eric Allman, CTO of Sendmail Inc.

Today, the first day of Linux World, San Francisco, Sendmail Inc. one of the world's most successful open source companies and IBM (big blue) announced a joint partnership to deliver powerful software for mainframes on Linux at a scale the world has perhaps not seen before. This terrific validation of the open source development method is cause for celebration. Linux.com caught up with Eric Allman, CTO of Sendmail, Inc. (who wrote the original sendmail back in 1981, arguably the most important piece of network software ever written) to ask the guy some questions.

On Morality, Competition and the Future  << Page 3 of 4  >>

Linux.com: What's the main competition for Sendmail, Inc.'s products these days, and what are those products?

Eric Allman: We're finding that our sweet spot is in the higher end of the market - mostly companies that want us to come in and architect a new mail system or overhaul their existing system. In this part of the market our main competitor is probably Microsoft. Interestingly enough, we see ourselves as complimentary to them, not in competition. We're not a groupware product, and they don't specialize in high volume Internet mail routing. In fact, many of our customers use Exchange internally with sendmail as the front end to the Internet. They find that much more secure and reliable than putting Exchange directly on the net.

After that the competition impacts us far less - for example, we've gone up against Openwave with a couple of customers, but this is rare because they are mostly in a different market segment (the "carrier class" service providers) than we are. Of course, the market is changing constantly.

Linux.com: What do you see for the future of commercial Open Source software companies? Recently some people have been questioning whether there are Open Source business models at all. How do you think the next 5 years will play out?

Eric Allman: For the ones who said "it would be cool to do an open source company", I think the future is dim. From the corporate perspective, open source is a means, not an end, and if you confuse those you're going to have problems. (Note though that this need not be true for everyone; there are a number of not-for-profits that see open source as an end, and that's perfectly reasonable.) On the other hand, companies that accepted up front that they were going to have to make sure that revenues exceeded expenses will probably have a better time of it.

Of course, there is no difference on this point between open source companies and traditional companies. The market is pretty weak right now, and companies of both stripes are failing at a pretty rapid rate. Unfortunately, some of them are going to fail not because of a bad business model or incompetent management or a product that just doesn't work, but because of the luck of the draw. That's unfortunate, but that's the way life works sometimes.

Linux.com: Do you think that Open Source or free software benefits mankind in any way, or is it just an alternative development paradigm? (In other words do you see any kind of moral or ethical imperative in free software or Open Source, does it have a value beyond making money?)

Eric Allman: Yes and yes. For example, I'm pretty sure that if the early TCP/IP code, notably the stack built at Berkeley, had not been open source, the Internet wouldn't be where it is today, so (assuming you agree that the Internet has benefited mankind) there is definitely some benefit. On the other hand, for-profit companies are in business first and foremost to make money. Even Ben and Jerry's (Unilever buy-out notwithstanding) first task was to make a profit; this is necessary if they are to be able to continue to pursue their social agenda.

(By the way, this applies to not-for-profits too. For example, Usenix Association has a very explicit "good works" program that gives away on the order of a million dollars a year. But to do this, they have to continue to run successful conferences that bring in money that they can then give away. Not-for-profits don't have shareholders who have to be paid, but they do need to make sure that their bank account stays in positive territory.)

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