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When your editor started this series, the idea was to have four installments covering the ten-year life (so far) of LWN. Well, this is the fourth installment, and it gets less than halfway there. This is not, it seems, a topic which inspires brevity. So this series will continue past the anniversary, though your editor anticipates picking up the pace a bit for the second five years. There is less to be learned, arguably, by looking at events in the relatively recent past.
Anyway, at the end of the third installment, LWN had been unacquired by Tucows and was, once again, on its own. The worst of the dotcom bust may have passed, but it was still a somewhat scary environment in which to be attempting to restart a business. It was, in fact, even scarier than we had thought when we so naively set out to show that we could do a better job of bringing in the cash than Tucows did.
Dave Whitinger was, of course, one of the founders of LinuxToday. He joined LWN with the intent of helping us develop the advertising side of the business. That did not work out as intended, but it is hardly Dave's fault; it was a terrible time to be trying to sell advertising.
Linus stuck with BitKeeper after his initial trial, setting a number of things in motion. For the next few years, the use of proprietary software at the core of the kernel development process would be a constant source of unhappiness and worry - and, in fact, the story had just the sort of unhappy ending that some observers had feared. But this was also the move which rationalized the kernel work flow and made the whole system scale; the incredible rate of change we see now would not have been possible without it. The use of BitKeeper also made the community aware of what distributed source control could do and, eventually, inspired the creation of a number of free programs with the same essential features. One could say that the community would have eventually developed these systems on its own without the push from Larry McVoy and BitKeeper, and that's probably true. But the fact is: we didn't do it at that time, so we had no real alternative to BitKeeper.
We got about $5,000 from our initial plea for donations. It was a real act of generosity on the part of our readers, but one does not keep a business with five employees going for very long with that sort of money.
It is amazing how many readers hated the new code. Certainly there were a lot of silly things in the initial version of the site; we fixed a number of them in a hurry. Many readers disliked the ability to post comments - often posting comments to that effect. The addition of comments was something we thought about carefully for a long time; we were quite concerned that they could ruin the feel of the site. In the end, it seems, trusting our readers has paid off; the quality of the conversation here is often quite good.
UnitedLinux was a cooperative effort between Caldera, Conectiva, SuSE, and Turbolinux; the idea was to join together to create a common base from which each could then craft a separate product. The effort was never all that successful, and the presence of Caldera would, of course, doom it outright in the end. But it was a big deal at the time. It is interesting to see that Mandriva (despite MandrakeSoft's refusal to join UnitedLinux) and Turbolinux are now attempting a very similar sort of arrangement.
By the end of July, we had come to realize that the advertising business was not going to work out for LWN, and we were short of other ideas. The bank account had reached a point where we could not pay even very small expenses. So we concluded that it was time to throw in the towel and try something else - though we had no clue of what "something else" might be. It was with a heavy heart that we announced our plan to shut down the site.
What happened next is that our donation box, which had sat mostly empty after the initial announcement, was suddenly topped up to the tune of about $35,000. Many of the donations came with notes to the effect of "use this to throw a big party." This, shall we say, got our attention. We decided that, just maybe, the subscription idea was worth a try after all, and decided to make a go of it. It was not the end after all.
This was when our credit card merchant bank at the time decided that all those donations might just be fraudulent. So they seized the money back out of our bank account. That, too, got our attention. It took a few months and some lawyer time to get the money you all had sent in our direction; during that time, it was money from PayPal (the subject of everybody else's horror stories) that kept the lights on while our main source of cash was blocked.
Needless to say, we got a new merchant bank, which we still use to this day. The new bank exhibits a rather higher clue level than the old one did, but we also learned a valuable lesson: don't mess with the credit card money pipeline. Every now and then, somebody asks why we don't accept pure donations; this is why.
It's hard to believe that, only 5+ years ago, somebody with an email address as well distributed as Linus's could get by without spam filtering. There are a lot of free "productivity" applications, but, arguably, few have actually increased productivity to the extent that SpamAssassin has.
Phoenix was the Mozilla Foundation's answer to (relatively) lightweight browsers like Galeon, which had managed to turn the Gecko engine into something which was truly usable. The Phoenix browser proved popular, and eventually became the tool now known as Firefox.
Eldred v. Ashcroft, argued by Lawrence Lessig, was an attempt to roll back copyright extension in the US; it eventually was unsuccessful. To this day, there still has not really been a successful challenge to the extensions to copyright passed over the last few decades - though some especially nasty attempts to make things even worse were defeated.
With the October 3, 2002 edition, LWN adopted the new policy of requiring subscriptions in order to read our original content prior to the publication of the weekly edition. That policy has stayed essentially unchanged since then, despite the occasional temptation to increase the subscriber-only period. Subscription rates have also stayed unchanged, even though raising them is also tempting.
Subscriptions have certainly been successful, in that they have kept the operation going in the years since then. And there is a real joy associated with being truly answerable to our readers instead of advertisers. Nonetheless, it is a challenging business; people do not like to pay to read web-based content. The fact that so many of our readers are willing to do so is most gratifying. Trends in other parts of the net are moving away from this approach, though, with formerly subscription sites moving to pure advertising models. So it will be interesting to see how it all plays out in the future.
Meanwhile, next week's installment will look at how things went for Linux (and LWN) starting toward the end of 2002. Stay tuned.
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