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Inside.com
Can Free Software Manage Your Web Site?
Jimmy Guterman
10/6/2000 10:10

Every media Web site has different needs. Some are nothing more than shovelware sites, dumping the contents of a print publication onto the Web. At the other extreme are the sites stuffed with original content that changes constantly. Most are somewhere in between. All have unique problems.

To solve Web-site building and maintenance woes, there are a host of companies like Vignette, OpenMarket, Broadvision and NetObjects offering high-priced (six- and seven-figure) systems. Or Web sites can go the open-source route, using the code for Walt Disney Company's Tea scripting language, for example.

But as attractive as the open-source model is conceptually, the ongoing Mozilla project -- in which the half-forgotten Netscape Web browser is being updated by a dispersed group of unpaid programmers -- shows that development can slow down if no one has any chance of making any money. Similarly, the core Gnutella program hasn't been updated in months. There are some marvelous examples to the contrary -- namely Apache and Perl -- but that's because their creators have found ways to earn money off their work by running conferences, writing books and consulting.

It's that model that open-source application server Zope is trying to follow. An application what? At the core of many of the large-scale content-management systems is an application server, a program that helps developers separate different parts of the Web site-building process. In particular, it helps integrate the content stored in a central database, and thus automate much of the grunt work that programmers, producers and editors otherwise undertake ''by hand.'' On top of the application server, Zope programmers have written modules that provide particular functionality: ''Squishdot,'' for example, is a module that makes a Zope site look and work much like Slashdot.org.

Not only are there free programs built on top of Zope, but there's a consulting business, too. Digital Creations, which manages the development of the open-source Zope (its chief technology officer, Jim Fulton, is the man behind Zope), aims to make its money on consulting and training. Commercial software applications may come, but the focus will be on maintaining and supporting the open-source Zope.

Although Zope's typical of early-generation open-source programs -- beloved by programmers, its usability still in question -- it has an opportunity to break through, thanks in part to the failure of the high-priced packages to perform as expected, according to Digital Creations CEO Paul Everitt. ''People are spending millions of dollars and finding out months later that there was a lot more hype than reality in what the products delivered,'' he says. ''These rollouts turn into enormously high-pressure events that never go particularly well.''

And then...? ''The first tendency after you go through this is to say forget working with this 'off the shelf' software which turns out not to be really 'off the shelf,' '' he says. Everitt calls such programs ''consultingware,'' software that lets you buy the consulting services of the company that sold it to you. ''Our biggest competition isn't another program so much as fighting the decision to do it yourself,'' he says. ''With Zope, you get the benefits of a buy decision as well as a build decision. You get some control over what you do, but you don't have to start from scratch. You have Zope as the foundation.''

If you think you've heard this before, that's because you have. Everitt acknowledges that much of this model is ''exceedingly similar'' to the one at Allaire, which has a language available for free and a host of software products and services it sells to support that language. ''There's one crucial difference, though,'' Everitt says. ''Allaire wants to make money on software. Our goal is to be a services company.''

As ambitious as Everitt is, he insists that ''We're benevolent dictators here. We want to find ways for lots of people to make lots of money in interesting ways atop Zope.'' There's also a refreshing humility in the company's admission that Zope is not for all environments. The site intended to explain Zope to ''newbies'' runs not on Zope, but on a rival program Manila. A public acknowledgment that one product doesn't solve all problems for all companies? Now that's revolutionary.