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Archive for December, 2006

Firebug

Anybody doing web development owes it to themselves to check out Firebug — it’s a free Firefox plugin for web development… and while there are several of those already, this one has some features I haven’t seen anybody do yet, like live HTML editing, CSS editing & visualization, and the ability to show you how long it’s taking to load various parts of your page — useful to help you track down the inexplicable load times that pop up now and then. It also has what looks to be some nice features for editing/debugging JS and the DOM.  I’m doing some server-side stuff currently but I thought it’s better to post about it while I’m thinking of it in case anybody out there is currently running into problems.

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Rick Segal (a VC whose blog, The Post Money Value, is quite interesting) has returned from a recent trip to Antarctica with some truly beautiful photos which he’s linked to in his blog post. The pics of Antarctica start about a third of the way through the Flickr set, but here’s one just to give you an idea:


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Suzanne Williams at Venture Law Lines writes “If you want to sell your own proprietary software, make sure you have a strictly enforced policy against using open source.”

If only all my competitors would follow this advice. This advice at first sounded crazy to me, but after reading further I think I understand where she’s coming from, even if I strongly disagree with her advice. She says that use of open-source will cause investors to raise four issues:

  1. there is no meaningful warranty or indemnity for this portion of the product
  2. how do we know the open source license is enforceable?
  3. do the terms for this piece of open source contaminate the rest of your product?
  4. if this was inadvertently incorporated into the product, what else was?

I agree that these can be important questions (especially 3), but I think what startups should really do is follow the advice buried deeper within her post: “A strongly articulated policy for use of third party software in your business needs to be developed, posted and enforced”. That’s something that a startup needs to do whether or not they use open-source software. Part of that policy should be a process to track all of the third-party software incorporated in your application(s), and should include at a minimum the library name, source (such as site downloaded from or that it came from a CD), license, and any files or directory paths where the third-party software is stored. This allows for an audit to be conducted where any suspect libraries can be looked up and either verified as authorized or removed if necessary. Should any VCs express concern about your use of open-source software, you have a document that you can give them that clearly lays out what you’re using, where you’re using it, and the license governing your usage.
As for her points:

  1. Generally true, although for many products (JBoss, Red Hat Linux, MySQL, etc.) support can be purchased even though the software is free.
  2. Although most open-source licenses are untested, who is going to be enforcing it? Generally, companies only run into licensing trouble when they take advantage of open-source software by not following the terms of the licenses, such as the recent court case in Germany where D-Link was found to have violated the GPL by including GPL-licensed code into their software and not making it available. Alternatively, if you’re worried about cases such as SCO’s assault on Linux (really more like a back-alley mugging), then you have a lot more faith in SCO’s unsubstantiated case than I do.
  3. This is an excellent reason why you should define a policy for third-party software: after reviewing just one or two open-source licenses (such as the LGPL license), you can put them on a list of approved licenses and your product team has access to a wide variety of third-party software, all under that exact same license.
  4. She points out that often subcontractors cause problems by not going through the software approval process. This is true, but just one of the many ways in which subcontractors must be managed — license guidelines, coding styles, and architectural plans are examples of several things that contractors should be instructed in (and compliance verified in).

The main point leading to her recommended prohibition of open-source software is that it may prevent investors from investing in your company: “…why get to the point where you are defending your approach?” I think the reason most companies, and especially startups, use open-source software is because it is many times more flexible or more agile than most packaged software. There are lower barriers to obtaining software, and if you have any trouble integrating the tool you can actually read the code to see what it’s doing, and fix or enhance it if you need to. (And yes, total cost of ownership over the long run is going to depend less on the initial purchase price but if your choices for a startup are MySQL versus Oracle, it’s a lot easier to get the CFO to front the money for 5 MySQL licenses than for 5 Oracle licenses — especially in the early stages).

Something else to think about if you’re going to forbid the use of open source… what do we lose?

  • Linux
  • Apache (the Internet’s most popular web server)
  • MySQL and PostgreSQL
  • JBoss
  • MONO (run .NET code on non-MS platforms)
  • Perl
  • Eclipse
  • Ruby
  • …any number of other tools, some of which are the best-of-breed

…and even Java, which recently announced that it was open-sourcing.

Many of the libraries that we use at my company are open-source, but we don’t use them because of that — we use them because they are the best for what we need them to do. Sure, a company can choose to avoid open-source entirely, avoiding all such risk at the cost of accepting some suboptimal solutions here and there… but the startups I’ve been a part of (and want to be a part of in the future) would rather take that risk and manage it with a process so that they can build the best application possible.

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Tonight, my wife and I took her parents to see Richardson’s Santa Village — this is a show that the city puts on every year with a miniature village, all lit up with Christmas lights, and lots of events for kids as well as live music for adults. We also got to see a performance by the international champion Rich-Tones Chorus, and they had a very impressive set of Christmas standards with some interesting arrangements. If you’re in the area (and especially if you have kids) I suggest you check it out!

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Mavromatic points out Microsoft’s beta release of their mobile search app — and it’s very impressive. Mapping (with Google-map-esque panning and zooming), driving directions which can be overlaid on said map, POI (points-of-interest) location search, and perhaps most impressively: ability to update location based on GPS and live traffic updates for certain cities (unfortunately not including Dallas). Apart from the traffic updates, I could get all of this previously by running Mapopolis, but that was a >$100 investment to get what this app provides for free.

The interface is very easy to work with, and the installation process was a breeze, tons easier than getting mobile Google maps to run… which is not entirely Google’s fault, but the efforts I had to go through for to get Google’s app running and the resulting user experience (including slow map downloads, inexplicable freezes, and having to install an alternate VM) made for a painful installation compared to this one — download, auto-install and run. The interface seems very snappy as well, even though I’m only using it on EDGE. I only used the Windows Mobile version on my T-Mobile MDA, but they also have a J2ME version which should give this app a pretty wide audience.

One thing to be aware of for those on pay-per-byte plans: The app is making multiple network calls (especially when scrolling a map), so you might need to manage your costs appropriately.

Download and install (for J2ME or Windows Mobile) by going to http://wls.live.com/ on your mobile device.

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