31 Jul 2000 deven   » (Journeyer)

[This is a little strange. I wrote this on July 27, but when I noticed a typo and fixed it, the system now calls it July 31. Sigh.]

I visited this site a few months back, and found the trust metric system very interesting. I always meant to look into it further, but maybe you're familiar with how things you put off can miss the back burner and end up on the floor behind the stove, forgotten? (I have this feeling I'm mutilating metaphors, but such is life.)

Life is too busy. It's inescapable. I never find all the time I need to do the things I want to do. Obviously, I want to do more than I can hope to find time for, even in the best case scenario. I have countless computer-related interests I'd like to pursue. At the same time, family time is a top priority. Yes, I would get more programming done if I didn't have a family, but I wouldn't give up my daughter for anything in the world. (I've already lost one daughter to "SIDS", 14 hours after she received 6 vaccines. But that's a long story...)

I worried a bit about what level I should certify myself at, once I finally got around to creating an Advogato account today. At risk of coming across as arrogant, I certified myself as a Master, albeit with some trepidation. Basically, I feel that I have very strong skills, but (due to that lack of time problem) I haven't visibly participated in the free software community to the extent that I've been emotionally involved in it.

One reason is a personal project that has been under development since November 1992, yet remains unreleased. Another reason is that my employer from July 1996 to March 2000 had a draconian intellectual property agreement that basically kept me from doing any outside work of any significance. (That, and they overworked me enough that I didn't have the time or energy anyhow.)

I've long viewed myself as a member of the community (since about 1987, when I first discovered GNU software and Unix), but my public contributions have been relatively limited. I'd like to change that, but I haven't quite figured out how best to go about it. There are a number of projects I'd like to help out with and/or create, but I've got very little free time to do any of it. My (living) daughter is 10 weeks old today, and demands (and deserves) much of my attention. (My first daughter died at 9 weeks old.) It's hard to figure out how to prioritize what little free time I can find.

The long-running project mentioned above is a CMC (Computer-Mediated Communications) system named "Phoenix". It started out in November 1992 as a simple chat program for the sole purpose of talking to family members that had Internet access. (To save long-distance charges, of course.) It evolved into a fairly robust backend single-threaded select-based TCP/IP server with a text-based user interface (which some consider primitive) based on an older CMC called "CONNECT" that I used to use when I was at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). (CONNECT predates IRC, and I grew quite used to the interface, but I've had others tell me they can't stand it.)

I could talk for quite a while about the existing features of Phoenix, but I haven't the time. Suffice it to say that my time was scarce enough during the original development that what could have been a couple months of development work stretched out over nearly 4 years, often with months between even minor code updates. It was completely dormant for the duration of my employment mentioned above. (I didn't want to risk them "owning" it because I worked on it while in their employ.)

Nevertheless, the server has been continuously running for at least 5-6 years now (probably closer to 7 years) with a very few active users. Most of the potential users (who are already familiar with the CONNECT interface) use a CMC at RPI called "lily", a successor to "Clover", which was a successor to CONNECT. (RPI has a long CMC history!) Phoenix is intended to be a community-building system, and establishing a community is a chicken-and-egg problem. Similarly, finding time and motivation to improve the system is harder when there's nobody to benefit! (Yet I have a TODO list a mile long!)

Okay, so the obvious question -- why haven't I released the code? There are several reasons, though I'm not sure how good they are. One was pragmatic -- I wanted to build a userbase for the system, and releasing the code before establishing a userbase would risk having someone else take my code and get the users by virtue of finding more time to work on the features they wanted. (The obvious alternative is to seek a different community of users to attract, which probably involves a new UI.)

Another reason was that I always wondered if the code could potentially serve as the basis for a commercial product of some sort, with the goal of making me enough money to live on so that I could spend my days programming free software as I'd prefer. (Maybe that's not the best way to achieve that goal?) It's part of that classic question of "how do you make a living while writing free software?" (I'm still not sure about this one.)

Another reason is that I never felt the code was quite "ready" to be released. From the user perspective, many of the basic features in the "competing" systems were still missing, although they weren't necessarily hard to add. More importantly, I still had some core architectural changes in mind, which I wanted to accomplish before exposing other developers to some of the ugliness in the existing code. Equally important, I wanted the code to be a good demonstration of my coding skills, and not all of the design or code meets my personal standards for such a use.

I suppose I'd still like to be able to release the code, but I'm still not sure I'm ready to do it yet. At the very least, I'd like to reach a clean "stopping point" with the code first. Sure, I could release it today, but I think some things really need to be cleaned up first, some core features added, and some architectural changes made. Then I could see releasing it. (I'm still a little wary of the possibility of forfeiting any monetary potential it might have; any thoughts on that?)

If anyone has bothered to read this far, who is interested in trying the system as a user, send me email at deven@ties.org and I'll tell you how to get signed in and look around... (If you haven't read this far, then nevermind! :-)


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