This was the year 2000, before Flickr. But that type of site didn’t appeal to him at any rate. He wanted to post his family photos on his own site, not an external host.
So, being a techie – Bharat now works as a software engineer for Google – he wrote a script for an online photo album. The program, written in open source code, was “a real simple script,” just kind of a fast, off-the-cuff effort.
Bharat Mediratta, Gallery founder
“It was so crude that I tinkered with it every day, making it better and better,” he recalls. People liked the way it looked on his site. One of his visitors e-mailed him, asking, “You’ve got something that looks a little nicer on your site to publish photos. Can I have a copy of it?”
That prompted him to get serious. He began tweaking and tweaking, constantly. “Soon, I realized I was forking this thing and it hadn’t even been released yet.”
To complement his coding skills, he found a collaborator, Chris Smith, who is adept at user interface design. They began pinging versions back and forth. Soon, their budding creation was too big to be hosted on their desktops.
Like many open source projects at the time (and still today), they started hosting it at SourceForge, the code repository site that offers free versioning software. Naturally, when Bharat registered at SourceForge, he needed to name the project – it still he had no formal title.
“Well, it’s a photo gallery so I’ll call it…‘Gallery,’” he recalls.
He quickly discovered that there was major demand for online photo software. “A few weeks later I got this e-mail from this guy who said, ‘I’ve been following along, and here’s 10 features I’d like you to add.”
Then the deluge began. By 2001, Gallery was being downloaded 1,000 times a day, Bharat says – with zero marketing. It helped that he used a neat trick of viral marketing: he embedded a link to the project into the software, so suddenly thousands of Web sites were linking back to the Gallery page. (The link can be removed, but many people don’t.)
As the popularity zoomed, users began to take ownership – and not always in gentle ways. “People started sending me flame mail – ‘You need to work harder on this. You’re screwing us up horribly. Get to work!’”
The Gallery Photo Album
Developed under the GPL, Gallery remains free to download and use. It’s been installed on more than 150,000 Web sites, and its download statistics show it’s now being sucked onto desktops about 4,000 times a day.
Gallery has an intuitive user interface that allows you to control your images in myriad ways. For instance, you can set a default for quality and size, so that any uploaded images automatically conform. You can show or hide the album tree (the full list of photo collections), set up slide shows, allow comments (or not), and publish with RSS.
The look of your Web photo album is highly customizable – the software includes plenty of pre-built “themes,” and you can create your own. Though it’s not blog software, some bloggers use Gallery to display the photos with their posts. The software is available in more than 30 languages.
Next page: Life as an open source project
Having grown into a well-established project, Gallery is now maintained by a core of 10-12 developers. As in many open source projects, participation is tiered: some developers are highly active, while others are “once in a while” contributors. A crew of people hack the code and send fixes to the lead developers.
Also like many open source teams, the work is consensus driven. Bharat is – sort of – the unspoken authority, but most disputes about the project’s direction get hashed out with long discussions via the mailing list. “I can’t remember a time in the last seven years when I’ve had to step up and say, ‘Okay we’re going to do it my way,’” he says.
Gallery generates only minimal revenue, despite its renown across the Web (the site accepts contributions for the free software). One of the project’s few perks is an annual get-together for its most active developers, in locations like Manhattan, Las Vegas, and San Francisco.
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The other perk: being a developer on a high profile project like Gallery looks great on a resume. Plenty of top open source coders parlay their project experience into a full-time gig (or a better gig than the one they have).
“I can tell you that every interview setting I’ve been in since I’ve started Gallery, at least one or more of the interviewers knew about Gallery,” Bharat says.
“Certainly Google knew about Gallery and it did come in my interview. They were perfectly happy to have me [be leading it]. Basically, what they said is that they look for people who do things like this on the side because it’s an indicator of passion about something. Plus, Google is very open source.”
Is Software Development Spiritual?
Given the success of Gallery – used happily by legions of Webmasters – it’s reasonable to think the software would sell well. Probably quite well. So why not charge money for Gallery?
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to charge people for a product if it means that it’s going to curtail the number of users you have,” Bharat says. “We’re in it to change the world. The way to do that is to get it in front as many people as possible. And the way to do that is to make the price right. And free is a good price.”
“And if it really is the right product, and people really do like it, then they’ll be inclined to make a donation. And lots of people make donations to the project. For us, this is the most amazing endorsement, because it means that people are spontaneously deciding to open their wallet and give us money for something we haven’t asked for.”
In short, “We don’t do it for the money,” Bharat explains.
Instead, “It’s a form of altruism. You get this satisfaction from going out and volunteering at a soup kitchen. This is the same thing. We’re basically writing software that changes people’s lives. That allows them to do things that would otherwise be difficult.”
As Bharat tells it, the project has a spiritual aspect. “You’re basically building up a tremendous amount of good karma. The fact that it’s there, the potential – that’s what makes me happy. Having users show up in the Forum, and our IRC channel, and send me e-mail that says, ‘I’m really happy with this project,’ that’s worth much more to me than the small amount of money I would get from charging people.”