Free software has always seemed like a good match for the developing
world. It makes top-quality software available to all, without forcing
choices between buying expensive licenses (using hard-to-get foreign
currencies) or dealing with the the consequences of wide-scale copying of
proprietary code. Free software is one bit of technology which is just as
available in the poorer parts of the world as it is in the richer
What has been observed, however, is that, while use of free software in the
developing world is taking off, participation in the development process is
not growing at the same rate. This is true even in countries where there is no shortage of people
with the technical skills needed to hack on free software. To a great
extent, much of the developing world is a consumer of free software, but
takes a relatively small role in its production. This costs the
development community, which has no end of projects which could benefit
from more developer attention. But it especially hurts the people who
don't participate. A consumer of free software remains dependent on
imported code without developing the ability to improve that code or
influence its further evolution.
The United Nations University (UNU) recently sent out a press release on this
Being a 'passive consumer' rather than an 'active participant'
is not in the best interests of a developing nation's government or
business sectors. Technological self determination in developing
countries is key to their future prosperity and is contingent on
harnessing the power of this high-tech phenomenon.
The UNU, working with governments and industry, has set out on an effort to
improve participation rates in the developing world. Part of this effort
is the Global Desktop Project, an initiative to increase the number of free
software hackers by encouraging improvements to the Linux desktop
experience. The leader of this project turns out to be a familiar name:
Scott McNeil. Among other things, Scott has served as the head of SUSE's
US operation, the "open source strategist" for VA Linux Systems, and the
executive director of the Free Standards Group.
Scott tells us that the desktop focus was chosen because the desktop tends
to be one of
the most interesting areas for aspiring hackers. There is also a great
deal of desktop-oriented work - such as internationalization - which is
best done by locals. Within this focus, there are four separate
initiatives being pursued. These include a "train the trainers" seminar
series designed to help spread the free software methodology, the
establishment of a set of open source labs, the creation of a series of
FDL-licensed courses, and a student mentoring effort.
The first labs are expected to open in China later this year; they will be
from initial funding received from Intel and a couple of Chinese government
agencies. The labs will hire students - mostly at the graduate level - to
work on free software projects. Lab staff will also work on mentoring to
help new developers work with the community. Says Scott:
Mentoring of the interns will primarily be done by the project
staff with some support from members of the community who we are
engaging. While we have received some positive feedback from
various open source developers, we believe that a majority of open
source developers have no desire to mentor or assist newbies. This
is why mentoring/management will be primarily done by the project
staff. We have no desire to throw the kids into the hacker's pit
and watch them get flamed and ignored...
Working with the community is often one of the biggest stumbling blocks for
developers coming from outside of Europe and North America. These
developers have all the technical skills they need, but there can be a
strong impedance mismatch between the culture they grew up with and the
often, um, impolite nature of discussion in the development communities.
Being flamed on a mailing list is unpleasant for most of us (though there
do seem to be people who live for that experience), but it can be shocking
to somebody from a culture where people do not talk to each other that
way. It can also lead to workplace difficulties. Even more gentle,
well-meaning criticism can be problematic for some developers.
So developers from those areas tend to avoid the community - and not
contribute back improvements they may have made. And that hurts everybody
involved. That is why, as Scott says, "the Global Desktop
Project is as much a socialization exercise as it is an engineering
project." It is an effort to integrate these developers into the
growing worldwide development community - a result which should be
beneficial to everybody involved.
This project - which is expected to last three to five years - is just
getting started, so it will be a while before results will be visible.
There will, doubtless, be many cultural and funding hurdles to overcome
during that time. But, if all goes well, the Global Desktop Project has
the potential to increase the rate at which the developing world joins the
free software development community. And, as a bonus, we might just get a
better desktop out of the deal.
Comments (8 posted)
is yet another drawing and image composition tool for the
Windows platform. A few months ago, Xara announced that it would branch
out and make this application available for Mac OS and Linux platforms
as well. Even better, it would be released under the GNU GPL. The result,
it was said, would be a top-quality drawing tool for the free software
The first part of that promise has now been fulfilled: the source
code is now available for the project now known as Xara LX. This
version of Xara, it turns out, is a GTK+ application by way of wxWidgets.
It comes with plenty of warnings: many of the features are not yet ported,
and the whole thing can be somewhat unstable. But, the tool is now out
there for people to play with.
Your editor has a hard time resisting an invitation like that. The
unstable Xara LX build ran nicely, and it was easy to put together a
simple drawing with features like transparency and blending. It was also
not particularly hard to make the whole thing crash. But, suitable
warnings had been given; this tool is not being provided for production use
at this time. For an example of what can be done by users who know what
they are doing, see this screenshots
Once it stabilizes, the Linux community should have another nice drawing
package in its toolbox. Linux may not yet be poised to displace
proprietary packages from the systems used by professional artists, but
things are clearly headed in the right direction. With tools like the
Gimp, Inkscape, Krita, and, now, Xara LX, we
are getting closer to the day when there is no need to use those other,
proprietary platforms even for the most demanding graphical tasks.
Comments (5 posted)
project sets the standard for
security in free operating systems. More than with any other project, the
OpenBSD hackers work at tracking down potential security problems before
they affect users. This work has earned OpenBSD a well-deserved reputation
for being hard to break.
A recent posting to the openbsd-misc mailing
list has raised a non-technical issue: it seems that OpenBSD's finances
are not as solid as its software. The project has been running at a
$20,000 (US) annual deficit for the last couple of years, with no relief in
sight. The problem, it is said, is that OpenBSD users have stopped buying
CDs; instead, they content themselves with grabbing a copy from a network
server for free. The sales of CDs and related items are a major source of
money for the project; if CD sales do not live up to expectations, income
will fall short.
LWN asked the OpenBSD project if there was any sort of public information
on the group's budget and how it is spent. Unfortunately, it seems that
there is no such information. From looking at what information is
available, it appears that the biggest single expense is the occasional
"hackathons" - coding-intensive developer meetings - run by the project.
Beyond that, there's the usual costs for Internet service, equipment, and
so on. It appears that very little of OpenBSD's budget goes toward paying
salaries to developers.
To support its activities, OpenBSD would like to bring in about $100,000
per year. Donations recently have been a very small fraction of that,
however. What the OpenBSD folks are saying now is: something has to
change, or the project will be unable to continue at its current level of
activity in the future.
Every free software project must support its work somehow. For small
projects, that support may consist of no more than the occasional donation
of development time by an interested hacker or two. Larger projects
require more, however, in the way of infrastructure and developer time. So
most projects, once they achieve a certain level of success, have to find a
revenue stream from somewhere.
That, often, is when the core developers try to form a business around
the project. It may just be a matter of lining up some consulting work to
pay for the continued development and maintenance of the code, or there
may be a more advanced business plan involved. Sometimes projects are able
to obtain sponsors which have some interest in the project's success;
witness Google's support of the Mozilla Foundation, for example. Sometimes
developers will be hired by a company to work on free code; many Linux kernel
hackers make their living in that way.
It is a rare project, however, which is able to get very far with sales of
CDs and donations. There is little motivation for anybody with a broadband
network connection to order CDs; a simple download gets more current
software more quickly. This is why Linux distributors have been moving
away from CD sales as a business model for years - and those which haven't
are wishing they had. The OpenBSD project is simply discovering the same
thing others have found out: the value of a CD is quite low. Anybody who
is in the business of selling CDs full of free software is in a commodity
business, and one which is in competition with its own customers at that.
There is no other business of any consequence built around OpenBSD,
however. There are few products which incorporate OpenBSD, and few
high-profile network-based services which use it. While OpenBSD does not
lack for users, it seems there are relatively few who see a business
interest in supporting its development. It must be said that the abrasive
nature of OpenBSD's leadership cannot be helping in this regard.
The same posting hints at one approach for generating some cash:
[What] a lot of people don't seem to realize is that OpenSSH
development is paid from the same pool of money as OpenBSD.
OpenSSH is in use by millions around the world however the revenue
stream just simply isn't there. This is where other projects could
help. Without naming entities or projects by name there are others
out there that are sitting on some cash. It would be wonderful if
these entities could share some of the wealth to keep us going.
The project, in other words, is appealing to "entities" which obtain some
value from OpenSSH to kick into the OpenBSD coffers. It is hard to imagine
that, for example, Linux distributors - all of which distribute OpenSSH -
are not among the "entities" being targeted here. This is just a bit
ironic, given how the OpenBSD founder has chosen to trash Linux recently.
More disconcerting, however, is the implicit threat: support OpenBSD, or
OpenSSH may go down the tubes. The answer the project is likely to hear
may not be the one they are looking for; the world may ask, instead,
why are OpenBSD and OpenSSH funded from the same pool of money?
Might it not be better to separate the two - by forking OpenSSH, if
necessary? Certainly some way could be found to keep OpenSSH going if
OpenBSD were to come to an end.
The end of OpenBSD would be an unfortunate event, however. The project's
uncompromising focus on security has raised the bar for all systems and
made all of us - even those who have never run OpenBSD - more secure. We
all benefit from having a group out there doing the work that the OpenBSD
people have taken on. But it is up to the OpenBSD folks to put some of the
same attention into securing their financial future, and that means finding
a way to obtain money from those who benefit most from OpenBSD's existence.
Given the size of the OpenBSD user base and the modest nature of its
financial needs, it seems like this problem should have a solution.
Comments (31 posted)
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