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Nov. 15, 2002 | The community of software developers who hang out on the IRC chat channel #abiword is small; the number of nicknames registered as present rarely breaks two dozen. But the room is open, and active, 24/7, 365 days a year, because the membership stretches from Australia to France. When the hackers in Cambridge, Mass., finally drag themselves away from their terminals to crash, their counterparts in Melbourne are just settling in for some serious coding and chatting.
#abiword is a friendly, casual watering hole, a place to gossip about upcoming exams or the perils of Microsoft Word-formatted job applications. It's a place to talk about a relative's illness, or to slap virtual backs when one of the group does something noteworthy, such as getting accepted as a member of the Gnome Foundation, a group of developers dedicated to making the desktop safe for free software. And, naturally, it's the place to share notes on how to overcome nasty problems such as getting embedded tables to display properly in AbiWord, a free-software word processor.
That AbiWord even exists, much less that it is thriving through the steady contributions of this band of programmers, is one of the delightful mysteries of the free-software world. I can recall wandering the LinuxWorld convention floor back in the spring of 1999 in San Jose and stopping to talk with a man from AbiSource, a small, privately held company that was attempting to drum up venture capital for its ambitious plan to create a free-software office suite.
Like so many software start-ups in those hothouse days, AbiSource was aiming for the big score, the IPO that would catapult it to financial heights. I was dubious. While the free-software approach made obvious sense for those working in the truly geeky domains of software -- Web servers, mail-transport applications, operating systems -- I just couldn't see the business model in supporting a free-software word processor, and I was skeptical that building such an application would generate the kind of developer enthusiasm that projects like Linux or Apache enjoyed.
It's one thing to hack an operating system kernel, but endlessly tinkering with file formats? Who wants to do that? It was all well and good to dream of world domination, but free software's chances of challenging Microsoft for desktop supremacy were slim, I thought.
I was right -- but also very, very wrong. As it turned out, venture capitalists agreed with the thesis that a free word processor did not sound like a hot IPO slam-dunk. After sinking half a million dollars into the project, AbiSource gave up, changed its name to SourceGear, turned the code over to the free-software developer community, and looked for other ways to make money. (Which, by the way, it is apparently doing with some success. In its October issue, Inc magazine named SourceGear one of the fastest-growing privately held companies in America.)
At the same time, without any corporate backing, AbiWord has flourished. At the AbiSource Web site, anyone can download a perfectly usable cross-platform word processor. It's unlikely ever to match Microsoft Word feature for feature, and it still lacks in some prime-time aspects, but for most normal purposes, it's good enough.
And as is free software's habit, it's getting better all the time. Bit by bit, patch by patch, revision by revision, AbiWord is reaching the point where it just works. Not because there's money to be made, and not even because its developers necessarily believe that free software will inevitably conquer all. They're doing it, as Eric Sink, the founder of AbiSource, observes, "because it's fun." They're doing it because, while booms and busts come and go, hackers have to hack.
The Free Software Project
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