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Vincent Untz: I Wonder Why We Have All Our Distributions Around

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The GNU/Linux landscape is changing dramatically. 2011 is a very important year for Gnome and GNU/Linux. Gnome is the default desktop environment used by some of the major distros and it is going through a major transition with version 3. At the same time openSuse community is driving many ambitious initiatives such as the AppStream project. We talked to Vincent Untz, an openSUSE Booster, and the GNOME release manager to understand what’s going on with these projects. He talks about Unity, Gnome 3, Mono and much more. Go ahead and read on…

Swapnil: Please tell us more about your self. How and when you came in contact with computers?
Vincent: As far as I can go back, there was always some kind of computer at home. It started with a ZX Spectrum when I could not even use a computer anyway, and several different computers followed. But for a very long time, I was not doing anything useful with computers.

I somehow got more curious in the second half of the 90s, and started tweaking things. After a while, I found out that writing applications is actually not the most difficult task out there. And I dived deep in this world.

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Vincent Untz, openSuse Vincent Untz, openSuse Vincent Untz, openSuse

Swapnil:ย  When did you get involved with Free Software and what was the motivation?
Vincent:
My first interaction with Free Software was when I installed Linux Mandrake 6.0 or 6.1 in 1999, I believe. It was mostly out of curiosity, and to have something new to play with.

Then, in 2002, I started following closely what was happening in the GNOME world. I contributed a few patches to GnomeICU to fix issues I had. But I also sent patches for some GNOME 1.4.x module (gnome-pim) while everybody else was focusing on developing GNOME 2! I then actively followed the development of GNOME 2 by reading the mailing lists, and fell in love with the project. You could see the community was working hard in one direction, and that was boosting my motivation.

This lead me to start triaging bugs in GNOME, then fixing bugs, and after a while, I simply became active in many different areas.

Swapnil: What was the reason behind going for openSuse and not some other distro?
Vincent:
I actually used several different distributions before openSUSE: Debian, Fedora, Mandriva (when it was still called Mandrake) and Ubuntu. At some point, I even contributed to Ubuntu.

The reason I switched to openSUSE is simply that I got hired by Novell to work on GNOME, upstream and in openSUSE ๐Ÿ™‚ The switch was not easy at first because there was much work to do to offer a best-of-breed integration of GNOME in openSUSE. The community worked hard to increase the quality of GNOME in openSUSE in the past few years, and this lead to great results!

Swapnil: You have been on Gnome Foundation BoD. How do you see Gnome shaping up with 3rd release coming up?
Vincent:
I was indeed a director of the GNOME Foundation from 2006 to 2010. I think GNOME is in a great shape in general. Of course GNOME also has many issues, but this is the same for most free software projects ๐Ÿ™‚

With the work on GNOME 3, the community was able to set ambitious yet achievable goals and I feel this has given the GNOME community more dynamism. We are proposing a new approach to the desktop, so we are obviously quite excited that it will start reaching users in the next few months!

What is even more exicting to me is that 3.0 will only be a beginning, and while the GNOME 3 development has been a bit of bumpy ride frome time to time, GNOME will now stabilize, and with our six-months development process, we will build on top of this solid release to deliver regular improvements.
Swapnil: What is your opinion about Gnome 3 shell, which will be a major design shift?
Vincent:
I love it! Generally, at first, people are a bit reluctant to use it because they have to change their habits and work in a different way. But very quickly, they get used to it because it actually helps them focus on completing their task instead of getting in their way.

Some voices are raising various issues with GNOME Shell. I understand some of the complaints against it, but I am convinced there will be extensions to address most of them (see http://git.gnome.org/browse/gnome-shell-extensions for a first set of extensions).

Swapnil:ย  Noevell has been pushing Mono, which in a way is criticized to be .NET’s penetration in Linux world. Considering Microsoft’s hostile attitude towards open source and Linux what is openSuse’s stand on using such a technology? Why is there such a strong lobbying of Mono by openSUSE/Novell?
Vincent:
First, I do not think there is any strong lobbying of Mono by the openSUSE community. In openSUSE, we simply use the applications that we consider the best ones from a user experience perspective. Some of them turn out to be written in Mono (Banshee, for example). But there is no plan inside openSUSE to push for more Mono everywhere, or anything like this.

As a developer, I am all for letting other developers choose the programming language they feel the most comfortable with. I do not use Mono or C#, but if someone feels C# is the best option to write an application, then this is fine with me.

Moreover, I do not think that we should simply ignore technologies based on where they come from. We should simply consider their technical merits and, obviously, all the legal implications. Keep in mind that I am not a lawyer, but my understanding is that the parts of .NET that are used for the applications written in Mono, and that we highlight in openSUSE, are safe from a legal perspective.

Of course, people might interpret my comments as “some Novell employee pushing for Mono”. The truth is that I do not care much about Mono, I just think it is a shame that many people are extremely vocal about it while the main argument they raise is “it comes from Microsoft!”. To clarify what I mean: I do not understand why they do not raise the same concerns for Samba, for example.

As to why Novell is investing in Mono, I cannot answer to that myself. I am not involved in any way in those decisions, nor am I working directly with the people working on Mono inside Novell. I can only assume that Novell believes it is a good technology.

Swapnil: What is openSuse’s target audience/user group? Can you tell us about the ‘install-base’ of openSuse?
Vincent:
The community has been working on defining the exact target audience, because until very recently, we actually had no official target audience, and each contributor was working with his own idea. Of course, once the project offically blesses a definition of our target audience, each contributor will still work with his own idea if it is compatible with the blessed one, which is good ๐Ÿ™‚

The current proposal is that our target audience is users who are interested in computers. They might want to experiment, learn or get work done, and our goal is to help them achieve this, with a stable and comfortable computing experience.

As to the install base, the only statistics we have are available on http://en.opensuse.org/openSUSE:Statistics. They show that depending on the version, we have roughly between 1M and 1.5M users. It’s worth mentioning what Jos wrote here, “I had a look at some statistics on our user base. openSUSE has 7-8 million users, that’s significant! And, interestingly enough, between 30-50% more than Fedora. Ubuntu has no statistics online but once made some noise about numbers – talking somewhere between 6 and 8.”

Swapnil: Which markets/regions have strong install-base?
Vincent:
openSUSE is quite strong in Europe, especially Eastern Europe and Germany, but it is really being used worldwide. And I like to point out that there are various countries (Greece and Indonesia, for example) with a very active community. In general, I think it is growing everywhere ๐Ÿ™‚

Swapnil:ย  Which regions are more active when it comes to contribution to openSuse? Where is Asia, India in particular?
Vincent: I do not think we have any real information about this, but my guess would be that, like many free software projects, a good part of the contributions comes from Europe and North America.

That being said, we do have some really active communities in various other locations. I already mentioned Indonesia earlier, but India is another good example. In the openSUSE-GNOME team that I am most familiar with, we have very active contributors from India, like Sankar P and Atri Bhattacharya. Also, very recently, Manu Gupta helped setup our application to participate to Google Summer of Code 2011, which is a very important event for openSUSE. So it definitely appears like the Indian community is very active in openSUSE too!

Swapnil:ย  openSuse 11.4 is out and much has already been written about it. How do you seee this release?
Vincent:
The main visible feature is that we are offering the latest versions of desktops (KDE, GNOME, XFCE and LXDE), as well as popular applications (we are the first distribution to ship LibreOffice and Firefox 4, for instance).

We are also offering a preview mode of GNOME 3, and will provide a way for users to upgrade to GNOME 3 when it will be out. No other distribution provides a way to update to a newer version of GNOME (or KDE) on a released version of the distribution.

Another major addition is Tumbleweed: this is our new initiative to provide the latest software people care about, while still enjoying a stable distribution. This is developed with the rolling release model, but on top of the latest stable version of openSUSE.

A full list of highlights of 11.4 is available at http://en.opensuse.org/Product_highlights

Swapnil: What is openSuse’s strategy for Mobile/Tablet segment? Are you planning to take openSuse to those platform? Is it not too late?
Vincent: This is currently not our target.

The main issue with this segment for a project like openSUSE is that it is extremely difficult to achieve something without deep cooperation with hardware manufacturers. As hardware manufacturers generally prefer to deal with other companies, this is not something that a community project like openSUSE can achieve by itself.

Swapnil: What is the statues of openSuse/Meego or Smeego?
Vincent: Smeegol was the netbook user experience of Meego on top of openSUSE. It was mainly developed by Andrew Wafaa, who did an amazing job on this!

However, Andrew found out that the netbook user experience is actually not developed anymore inside Meego, so he decided to stop working on Smeegol. His decision obviously makes sense since there is no point in offering the Meego netbook user experience if it is a dead-end.

You can read more from Andrew about this at http://www.wafaa.eu/entry/smeegol-nogo-meego-gogo-1-56.html

Swapnil: If a user want pre-installed openSuse on laptops/PCs what are the options?
Vincent:
I must admit this is an area that I am not following closely. I know that there are SLED preloads on several HP computers (but not in all countries, I think). However I have no information about openSUSE for this.

Swapnil: Ubuntu is developing their own Unity shell and plan to move from X to Wayland. They have also expressed plans to increase focus on Qt. What is your opinion about these moves? Is openSuse planning to engage with/adopt any of these?
Vincent:
In openSUSE, we do not plan to increase focus on Qt, but this is because we already have a strong focus on Qt! Our strong focus comes from the fact that we offer what is probably the best KDE integration out there, with many outstanding Qt applications. We deeply believe in collaboration, and in the cross-desktop case, that means we are happy to have a mix of Qt and GTK+ applications in any given desktop.

The move from X to Wayland is actually something that will happen upstream anyway, and it is not specific to Ubuntu at all. Keith Packard talked about this at Linux Plumbers Conference in November 2010, see http://lwn.net/Articles/413335/. So it is good to see that Ubuntu agrees with what the developers are planning ๐Ÿ™‚

As to Unity, Nelson Marques has been working on integrating Unity in openSUSE. We are still a bit unsure how to deal with it, since we do not know how much effort it will be in the long term to offer a solid experience with it openSUSE, but the option will be available to users in the openSUSE Build Service.

Personally, I am sad that Canonical chose to develop Unity instead of contributing to GNOME Shell upstream since we could have achieved many more wonders more quickly by working together. Especially as I think the two visions driving those two projects are not that much different. However this did not happen — and discussing why is a huge topic that cannot be summarized right here. There is actually a lengthy discussion via blog posts about this right now.

Swapnil: It was quite exciting to see that openSuse team is driving the cross platform Application Installer. How do you see this ‘app store’ developing?
Vincent:
It is still very early to see any concrete results, but we have defined an aggressive roadmap, aiming at having a solution that people can use at the end of the year.

Obviously, since this is a cross-distribution project, some things are harder than usual because we cannot make some assumptions like we usually all do. But we were able to gather many people from several distributions in the same room and to have everybody agree, which means we are really on a good start!

The application center we will provide thanks to this project to users will make a difference (that Ubuntu users can already enjoy to some extent, with the Software Center) and we believe it will renew the interest in developing small but awesome applications and games.

Swapnil: It also shows unique collaboration between distros what other areas are there where major distros should work together? What I mean is it is very improtant that each distro has its own uniqueness, however what are the areas where distros need to work together so as to increase GNU/Linux adoption without compromising the values of Free Software?
Vincent:
My opinion, and I think it is reasonably right, is that we could collaborate on nearly any topic. What really matters is to have the right people from the various distributions willing to do so, and able to convince their peers that it will not hurt their distribution.

The immediate areas of collaboration I can think of are tracking upstream information (like latest upstream version), patch sharing (so that the efforts of fixing a bug is not duplicated between distributions), and conflict resolution with upstreams (when various distributions agree that what an upstream project does is wrong). There could also be collaboration on legal topics, for instance, since all distributions are investigating in parallel the licenses of various projects.

Longer term, a topic everybody would love to see addressed is the ability to build one package, that would work on all distributions. This would make life so much easier for applications developers. But this is a really broad topic, and hence a difficult one. Many people were actually confused at first about what the goal of the AppStream project and thought that this was the goal; but we wanted to focus on something that we know would be achievable and bring improvements to the user experience, instead of this goal that is, as of today, not achievable without some preliminary first steps.

To be frank, I am sometimes wondering why we have all our distributions around ๐Ÿ™‚ With the current way, we are duplicating much of the work, like the packaging work, or even the development of some system administration tools. Of course, we all offer some unique perspective — something we should keep — but there could be a much larger common foundation.

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