Free Agent: Where the Geeks Are Taking Us
So I was at LinuxWorld Expo here in San Francisco a few weeks back, looking for news to bring to the Free Agent crowd. (It is a continuing pleasure to read the responses that flow in via e-mail with each new column. Please keep that feedback coming!) And you know what? I had to dig. I mean, really dig.
This is typical at the Expo. The big, in-your-face news--the stuff that generates press releases and press kits and tchotchkes, and flows out of garish, hypercolored booths--is almost always geared at big business. We're talking enterprise solutions, here. Clusters. High-availability this-and-that. It's all very interesting if you're a CTO or an IT manager--or if you're a journalist catering to those crowds.
Me, I stubbornly remain fixated on Linux for Everybody. I wandered the show thinking of people who want to replace Windows on their home machine, ridding themselves of spyware and virus woes. I think about small-business owners who are looking to replace a handful of Windows-based machines, leaving behind licensing costs and the upgrade treadmill. And yes, I'm still thinking about first-timers like Grandma, who don't need to be introduced to the ultimately maddening experience of computing the Redmond way.
The exhibitors at LinuxWorld Expo are, by and large, not interested in such users. They're looking to help you replace your heavy server metal; they're looking to put their flavor of Linux on 10,000 desktops at your various worldwide locations. Bah, I say.
Where It's At
When I'm at the show, I don't want to talk to salespeople; I want to talk to the Open Source coders in the trenches, the ones who keep making each new iteration of Linux faster, smarter, and friendlier. I want to hear from the folks who are concerned with making Linux better, not those who are worried about making it sell better. Luckily, you don't have to look too hard to find these geeks and hear what they're thinking about: Many of them give presentations at the show. And their presentations were better-attended this time around than at any previous LinuxWorld Expo I've attended.
I love listening to one geek in particular. His name is Michael Meeks, and he's one of the folks who helped found Ximian, the company that spearheaded development of the Gnome desktop environment and was swallowed by Novell about a year ago now. Meeks is a funny and gregarious Brit who has a palpable enthusiasm for the potential of Open Source computing. He usually gives a talk at the Expo about Gnome: where it's been in the past six months, and where it's going next. Given that the Gnome project is on a strict release schedule--there is a new stable version of Gnome released every six months--there is always something to talk about.
Sometimes it sounds like Meeks is bragging when he rattles off the Gnome project's accomplishments, but perhaps the bragging is justified. The week of the show, I read a dispatch elsewhere online in which KDE project founder Mattias Ettrich opines that accessibility (the feature set that allows disabled people to interact with computers) is basically forgotten on Unix desktops. I'm guessing he was not at Meeks's presentation this time around, where Gnome's many accessibility features were demonstrated, including support for Braille displays.
Gnome meets the federal government's guidelines for accessible software (the so-called Section 508 rules), thanks largely to work contributed by Sun Microsystems. Sun's Linux distribution doesn't float my boat at all; I'm therefore happy to see the company contributing to Linux in other ways.
Section 508 is a big deal: When the feds decide what software to adopt, they are obligated by law to give preference to tools that meet Section 508 requirements. Because of this, Linux desktops were once frozen out of a lot of possible deployments. No more, thanks to Gnome.
Meeks also showed us work in progress that more tightly integrates the OpenOffice.org office suite with Gnome. He showed a development version of OpenOffice that sports better icons, standard Gnome file dialog boxes, and support for Gnome's virtual file-system layer (which lets you directly access networked devices and such). Then came a short walk-through of features in Gnome 2.8, which will hit the Internet soon.
Nothing in 2.8 is as earth shattering as the spatial file management that arrived in 2.6; the improvements seem mostly evolutionary. Surprisingly enough, this is true even in Evolution, Gnome's default e-mail client and drop-in replacement for Microsoft Outlook. Evolution is handier than ever now that it can connect directly to Exchange servers. This functionality used to be part of a commercial plug-in that Novell decided to set Free. Go, Novell!
Of Wine and Lumber
I also sat in on a couple of talks given by Jeremy White, the founder and CEO of CodeWeavers, the company spearheading the development of Wine, a Windows-compatibility layer for Linux that lets users run Windows applications. One speech covered the status of Wine; the other focused on the state of the Linux desktop.
White doesn't seem to be the perfect person to assess the strengths and weaknesses of desktop Linux: He's admittedly very focused on Wine, and on whether Linux converts can run legacy Windows apps they cannot afford to leave behind. At one point, he said that from his standpoint, desktop Linux is not very stable. He said his desktop crashes more frequently than he'd care to admit. But he also noted that he pretty much constantly runs a development version of Wine, and that Wine has some pretty "scary" interaction with the Linux kernel. Might not that be the source of his woes? My own Linux desktops hardly ever crash; and when they do, it's usually because I was doing something extremely geeky and half-baked.
During the hour White spent talking about the state of the Linux desktop, he never once mentioned either of the major desktop environments, KDE and Gnome. But he did make two points that I thought were really apt.
First, he predicted that every year from now until 2007 will be heralded as "the year of desktop Linux" by various pundits and folks-in-the-know. Having made this foolish prediction myself in the past, I smiled and shook my head knowingly.
The second interesting idea White shared with us was a metaphor: "Linux is not a house, it's a pile of lumber." The logs, boards, and slats come in various sizes, but there they all are: the Linux kernel is the foundation for everything else; the X Window System provides a graphical display; the Gnome or KDE environments provide user-friendly interfaces and consistent behavior across applications; and so forth. The list goes on and on, as anyone familiar with Linux knows.
So Linux is this big pile of lumber, and anyone can come along and start hammering bits together. Some of those folks come up with pretty awesome houses--and lucky users like you and me get to pick what kind of house we want to live in, instead of only being able to choose between a Professional Edition house or a Home Edition house. If you're a geek, you can run Gentoo Linux and compile everything from scratch; if you're looking solely to word process and go online, perhaps something like Xandros Desktop is more your speed.
Linux, by its own Free nature, allows for levels of both customization and competition that are largely gone from the commercial software market. Linux makes computing exciting and varied again. And despite the big-business focus that largely ignores the true potential of this software, each LinuxWorld Expo I attend makes me more optimistic about the penguin's future.
Next month, I'll be hands-on again, with new releases from newbie-friendly distributors Lycoris and Xandros. Till then, be as Free as you can.
Free Software Web Page of the MonthWhen people find out I run Linux on my personal machines, there are two common reactions. The first is, "What's Linux?" The second is, "But there's no software for Linux!" The first reaction is, thankfully, not nearly as common as it used to be. But the second response remains popular--and it's just plain wrong, wrong, wrong. As Free Agent readers know, most Linux distributions come packaged with hundred of Open Source apps, most of which work, and some of which are actually quite elegant.
The next time someone tells you that there is no software for Linux, send them to The Table of Equivalents. This page is a nightmare from a Web-design standpoint, and it has not been updated in about a year's time (a recent note says an update is forthcoming), but even I was surprised at how many software projects it points at. Name a Windows app you rely on, and there's a good chance The Table of Equivalents can point you to a Linux app that could very well fill the same niche. Fax clients, VPNs, PDF creators, backup software, text-to-speech solutions, Atari 2600 emulators--I'm hard-pressed to think of a software category the Table doesn't cover, and it's sometimes stunning to see the variety of solutions available under Linux. I've returned to this page again and again as I've needed my Linux box to do more and more. If you discover any gems through the Table, please drop me a line!