Frontier as open source

It's been over two days since Dave Winer announced that Frontier will be released under an open source licence. I've been so blown away by this, I've had to think about it for a while before attempting to articulate a reaction.

First and foremost, I think Dave Winer did the right thing, and I think it took a lot of courage to make it happen.

It's true that Frontier has fallen behind as a server platform, and its scripting libraries aren't on par with Python and Perl and PHP and Ruby, to name a few. But to rate Frontier in those terms does a disservice to Frontier's unique capabilities and lasting value. Frontier is still a productive scripting-based automation environment with a beautiful transparent data store, elegant scripting language and development environment, and an artistic user interface. Sure, other popular scripting languages have awesome libraries, and other code editors have wizzy features like syntax colouring, contextual autocompletion, function popup and more, but they don't have Frontier's integrated development environment, not by a long shot. The term IDE seems shallow when applied to other languages in comparison to Frontier... except for Smalltalk-derived environments, which are similarly pervasive.

I have no idea if I will do anything at all with the Frontier source except study it and build it so I can use the application itself. I've wanted to learn how UserTalk and the ODB are written ever since the day I laid eyes on it. Putting my CS student hat on, I am giddy with excitement at the prospect of lifting the hood. It's unlikely I'll have time to do anything significant development with it for quite a while, unfortunately.

I look forward to putting Frontier back on my desktop as a scripting and automation tool. Since I really don't care for Manila or Radio, I won't be missing anything compared to what I used to use Frontier for years ago, and Userland certainly will not have lost any money by letting me get the software for free, because I never would have paid for Manila or Radio, the only ways one can currently get a Frontier license.

I wonder, what do other people hope for Frontier in its new life as an open source package? Do people want to see it get beefed up into a hunky server juggernaut with scalability and reliability up the wazoo? Do people want to see it instead focus on its roots as a scripting and automation engine? Do people want to see it adopt other open source languages, or vice versa, have other languages adopt Frontier's environment? I know some people would love to get back to writing code in an outliner again. Include me in that group! I bet there are people who fall into all those categories, but I'm far from certain that Frontier will attract a sizable enough community to tackle all of those ideas, if only because so much time has passed since the Frontier scripting community was vibrant.

On Monday I saw a message from Jim Byrne, a seriously old-school Frontier wizard and much-admired community participant. I wonder, how much of of the old community might re-form around this new release? Is ScriptMeridian relevant again? Now that it's open source, can the dissenting faction of the old community finally bury the hatchet and have a productive relationship with Dave Winer? (I sure hope so)

Like anything with potential, I think this announcement raises more questions than it does provide answers. This could be a true rennaisance for Frontier and Frontier users. So many Frontier users moved on long ago. I think what happens next depends greatly on how many people are willing to move back. Even if too few return and not enough new enthusiasts appear to make strong waves, simply having Frontier as open source software has tremendous, long lasting value, and we should not forget who made it happen.

Thanks Dave!

Written on May 20, 2004