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What's the big deal about Ars Digita?

I keep hearing a lot about Ars Digita.

I don't understand why it gets discussed so much - what's the big deal about it.

From what I read until now: it was a web development company, they ran their company badly (didn't know how to run it correctly), and then failed in business.

I think there were LOTS of stories like theirs back in 2000.

So, why is Ars Digita so special?

Digitor
Friday, June 20, 2003

They started with a lot of great ideas....

Their toolkit (ACS) ran on big iron - think Oracle back end.

Their founder published a great book on web development, and the entire text was available online for free. There are a couple more texts on his site too. http://philip.greenspun.com/panda

They provided free training around the world on their toolkit. Not for end users, but to developers .... their potential competition. At some point, their were running a university type institution on web development. http://aduni.org

I think the reason a lot of folk still go on about it, is that the founder, Phil Greenspun was quite opinionated. Wrote a lot of stuff, which is still on his website. Seemed to be giving a lot to the development community. http://philip.greenspun.com 

His fight with the VCs was well documented, and discussed. http://unicast.org/stuff/arsdigita

Red Hat eventually bought the company (ahem... the company was defunct, and they shared the same VC). http://www.redhat.com/about/presscenter/2002/FAQ_ArsDigita.html

The toolkit now remains in two forms.
1. The java version, at RedHat  http://www.redhat.com/software/rhea/cms
2. A tcl version... openACS. To be fair, this is more than the original toolkit. A lot of work has gone into it, including porting to postgreSQL instead of just Oracle. http://openacs.org

tapiwa
Friday, June 20, 2003

One of the links above does not work.

http://philip.greenspun.com

tapiwa
Friday, June 20, 2003

Phil Greenspun (the founder of Ars Digita, and its most public figure at the time) used to write articles on his website about software development (and other topics) in an entertaining cynical style, much like Joel does now.   

If you like Joel On Software, I suggest reading through his archives.    A lot of the things he was writing about 5 years ago are still relevant today.

anon
Friday, June 20, 2003

So, this is the secret to get free publicity: write cynical articles on software development. :)

Cool!

Digitor
Friday, June 20, 2003

Hmph! If both Joel and the Ars Digita guy can write good articles, so can most developers.

Problem is, I thought and thought, and I think I can write one good article, maybe too, while Joel written a ton.

Digitor
Friday, June 20, 2003

Photo.net is also run by Greenspun and the some of the software he helped write. Even if your not a photography nut, the code running the site is pretty impressive when you consider that there are thousands of images added every day and available for searching, commenting, etc.

Mark Hoffman
Friday, June 20, 2003

Ars Digita was a well-run company, up to the point where they took VC money.  Prior to that, they were growing, they were profitable, they were a great place to work; they were, in every sense, a model company for software developers.

Then they took VC money, and the whole thing went into the toilet through mismanagement.  Greenspun and Eve Anderson blame the VCs entirely; I've read at least one other account by a senior at Ars Digita who spread the blame around much more liberally (and more plausibly).

IMHO, they had exactly the problem Joel identified in his article, on the mismatch between founder and VC expectations, except that in Ars Digita's case, the founders threw out their own expectations in favour of the VCs, even though their expectations had made them very successful to that point.  Net result: swirl swirl swirl.

Justin Johnson
Friday, June 20, 2003

i think that Mr. Greenspan has a similar standing to Mr.
Time Berners-Lee ´

Somebody had to be there at the beginning to get the thing going - in the process he would turn into some sort of celebrity - that's how things go.

P.S.
anybody remembers this guy named Rose (he claimed to be the driving force behind e-mail standards (namely rfc822 or something (hell, what a memory i got for numbers, once i am drunk)))

Michael Moser
Friday, June 20, 2003

"Ars Digita was a well-run company, up to the point where they took VC money.  Prior to that, they were growing, they were profitable, they were a great place to work; they were, in every sense, a model company for software developers."

Yes, we packed about 40 people into a 3 bedroom rented condo in cambridge, with 8 people in each room. We worked 36 hour shifts. Everyone in the company gained at least 35 pounds. Certain developers had sex with a few of the clients, one of the VPs could only sleep at night by crying for 3 hours, another of the VPs just drank a bottle of bourbon. We upgraded oracle without backups, and could rebuild the datafiles by hand when that didn't work out. 10 people did most of the work, even when the company ballooned up to 250. It was a model company, indeed.

arsdigitan
Friday, June 20, 2003

Philip Greenspun has a new personal blog:

http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/philg/

runtime
Friday, June 20, 2003

"Yes, we packed about 40 people into a 3 bedroom rented condo in cambridge.... It was a model company, indeed."

Okay, it was a model company if you were a founder who didn't look down at the peons beneath your feet.  My bad. :)

Justin Johnson
Friday, June 20, 2003

What Greenspun did was to write a great book, "Philip and Alex's Guide ..." (which is interesting, fun to read, covered a lot of ground, and had may laughs).  I doubt there is better reading about the software business. He built ArsDigita based on the principles of book.

Joel is doing the same thing in a sense. He's building Fog Creek in public and explaining the rationale behind his business decisions.

tk
Friday, June 20, 2003

Pity that they didn't do a startup.com type movie on arsdigita. It would have been even more entertaining.

Jan Derk
Saturday, June 21, 2003

This is a pretty interesting story.  But I had a different
take.  The VCs were the fall guy and the money
source, they never had much control.

Greenspun sensed that the web-site building
business was heading into trouble, and he
made sure the VCs were set to take the
blame, while conveniently "forgetting" that
he was the majority shareholder.  (In fact
he made a trip to a law firm where, as
expected, they pointed out he was the
majority shareholder with pretty much
full control.)  At the same time, he appears
to have kept goading the VCs until they
were ready to "fire" him.  (They really
forgot, or really thought Greenspun had
totally forgotten, where the shares were.)

When he excercised his control, and at
the same time provided a credibility-damaging
web-site, he was able to extract 7+ million.

If you look at the big picture, actually
the VCs lost big, everybody else lost big.
Only Greenspun won.  Notice he didn't
bother to get a settlement for anybody
else who was supporting him.  This was
the end of the plan, and he had no further
use for them.

But from recollections of others, it is clear
he was in control ALL the time.  The expensive
money burning occurred at this behest.
He was the one who put Michael Yoon
in charge of the release 4, apparently
on the "spur of the moment", but probably
as part of a well-executed plan.

Even Yoon himself isn't sure why
he was placed in charge, despite there
being much better contenders.  Clearly
he was *supposed* to fail.

(Yoon can barely put up a web-site.  Even
his "Add Comment" link is broken.  Maybe
not necessarily from sheer incompetence
but from paranoia -- but in either case
he hardly sounds like somebody you
would think of as a technical leader.)

Greenspun seems so confident he even
gave the company a rather vulgar
name (with "Digital Arts" being a
misdirection), roughly saying to
all his employees, associates and
customers something like "up yours"!

The guy is so smart, he probably got
others to write the book for him and
give him credit.  Eve is still defending
him after getter fully (figuratively) screwed.

He must have smirked like crazy all the way to
the bank.  (He will run out of those 7
million pretty fast, though.  Bigger,
well decorated and expensive houses,
that seems to be his motif.  Watch out
for Ars Digita part 2 coming to some
web-sites near you in a few years.)

mp
Monday, June 23, 2003

If you think that's a vulgar company name, you should look into the origins of Sausage Software.

.
Tuesday, June 24, 2003

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