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Wider Net

De Icaza explains the project with a story about a cornflakes box. The box advertised a computer game inside, written, of course, to run only on computers that used the Windows operating system. “I realized no one’s going to write a game in a cornflake box for Windows, Mac, and Linux,” says de Icaza. “And that’s what keeps people using Windows today – a large selection of applications that aren’t there for Linux.” Popular programs like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Photoshop, for example, as well as the vast majority of computer games, are not designed for Linux. For typical PC users, Linux places favorite programs out of reach.

That problem was likely to get far worse, since Microsoft had designed a complex set of software building blocks called .Net, with which the majority of new software designed to run on networks is being written. Keeping Linux users from being shut out of this new universe required a set of programming tools that in essence would translate software written for Linux into .Net and vice versa. Such tools would let Linux users take advantage of new software written for Windows, while Linux programmers could sell their new software – for example, next-generation open-source versions of Photoshop and PowerPoint – to the giant Windows market. This proliferation of choices would inevitably drive down the price of software. De Icaza launched a project to come up with these new tools. He called it Mono, Spanish for “monkey.”

Ximian raised $15 million in venture capital by the beginning of 2001 to pursue both the new tools and Linux application software and was bringing in steady revenues by helping companies develop and use open-source software. A handful of larger companies had approached Ximian about a possible acquisition, and that had gotten de Icaza thinking: maybe he could reach his goals faster as part of a big company. “When you’re a startup, you don’t have the resources to get software deployed quickly and to support it,” he says.

But de Icaza inevitably ended up disappointed with the companies that came calling, mostly because of what he perceived as their lack of commitment to open-source software. Then, early last year, on the day de Icaza was starting a much needed vacation in Brazil, Friedman called him to say that Novell executives were coming to Cambridge the next day. “I said, ‘God, not another meeting that doesn’t go anywhere,’” de Icaza recalls. But he flew back and gave a presentation about Mono.

Novell had long ago ruled the lucrative world of networking software – the programs that help computers talk to one another, now ubiquitous at companies and becoming common in homes – until Microsoft usurped the throne. Novell’s executives sensed a way out of their predicament in remaking the company’s product lines as open-source programs. Mono would then be a jewel in its crown, allowing Novell’s customers to move freely between open-source and Microsoft-based applications. It would make even Microsoft-dependent companies free to use Novell’s open-source products.

The acquisition was announced in August of last year. But since Mono remains an open-source program that anyone can work on or modify, there are still a hundred or so programmers around the world who continue to work on the project on a volunteer basis. In some cases the volunteers do it because it gives them a chance to garner major-project experience that enhances their résumés, and in other cases they do it because they want to make sure the software meets their needs. Novell will profit from the results, not by selling the basic software, but by charging for embellished and integrated versions with service and support.

Reconciling Ximian’s and Novell’s very different cultures, meanwhile, wouldn’t be a slam dunk. “To integrate the companies, we had to let go of our culture of independence,” says de Icaza. “We didn’t want to be considered a small research facility in Novell. If Ximian had a cool-hacker reputation, then our job was to help make Novell cool.” Matt Asay, Novell’s Linux business office director, concedes that it took Novell employees a while to get used to “this Bohemian invader,” as he calls de Icaza. “People were uncomfortable at first,” he says. “But you walk around now, and the pendulum has swung the other direction. People are giddy with the prospects for open source. I would say that the greatest benefit that Novell got from Ximian was not their technology; it was their DNA.”

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