As part of being the chief Linux and open source technologist at Intel,
Dirk Hohndel flies all around the world to talk to conferences on various
topics. This time around, he came to Berlin to talk to the Desktop Summit about the role of
large companies in open source. Some recent events caused him to take a
bit of a detour on the way to his topic, but, as it turned out, that detour
fit in fairly well with the rest of his message.
By way of an introduction, Hohndel said he has been hacking since he was 11 years old, doing Linux for
almost 20 years, and open source a bit longer than that—though it
wasn't called open source back then. These days, he still writes code,
though not as much as he might like, but he still considers himself a hacker.
was coming to the summit, Hohndel said that he decided to install the latest versions of
both GNOME and KDE. But then he made a mistake. He publicly complained (in
about his experience with GNOME 3. He was, he said, trying to give some
feedback, and the reaction was not quite what he expected.
But Hohndel is very happy about how far the free desktops have come. Both
GNOME 3 and KDE 4 look "sleek and professional", he said. He
is also glad to see that the free desktops have stopped following along
with what Windows is doing, though that may have shifted to following Mac
OS X a little too closely these days. The Mac interface is
"awesome" as long as
"you do exactly what Steve wants you to do", otherwise, it
turns into: "you can't do that". He sees something of that
attitude bleeding over into the Linux world, which is worrisome.
He noted that the most recent Mac OS X update changed the way scrolling
worked, which made it very confusing and hard to work with for some
people. But, he said, Apple also added an option to turn off the new
scrolling behavior. That's what seems to be missing in the GNOME 3
situation. It is not helpful at all if the first reaction to a criticism
is "you're an idiot", and that's some of what he's seeing.
Radical change is difficult, he said, and he is very glad GNOME and KDE are
taking it on, "but don't leave people stranded".
Large companies and open source
Shifting gears, Hohndel launched into his main topic and listed three "F"s that can be used to describe the relationship between
large companies and open source—and "one is not the
one you are thinking of". The three are funding, feedback, and
freedom. Funding is more than just hiring developers to work on free
software, he said, there is lots more that companies do. Sponsoring
conferences (like the Desktop Summit), helping developers travel to various
conferences, getting hardware into the hands of the right developers, and
so on, are all things that companies do.
But, "don't just think of us as moneybags", he said. Companies
have other uses as well and one of the biggest is in providing feedback.
Companies spend huge amounts of time and money trying to figure out what their
customers want. While open source developers mostly talk among themselves,
companies are out talking to customers.
Unfortunately, the results of those customer talks are "conveyed in
unbearable marketing-speak", he said, but there is value in it.
Gaining that value requires listening carefully and filtering what you
hear. Intel always has the Intel view, and other companies are the same, so
one needs to take that into account. It is important to keep an open mind
even when the feedback is critical of a particular feature or project.
One area where open source could do a much better job is in documenting the
response to a bug report or feature request. It is often the case that
reports and requests either get a "vicious response" or none
at all. Two releases later, it might be fixed, or not, with very little
indication of which is going to happen—or why. It would be much
better for all concerned if requests that are rejected have a clear reason
stated as to "why the request cannot or should not be implemented".
Freedom (or control)
The third element is freedom, which Hohndel said he really wanted to call
"control", but that it didn't start with an F. Large companies have
agendas and an ingrained need to control things. As long as open source
developers understand a company's intentions, a good working relationship can
come about. Companies "are not per se malicious, we just
appear that way", he said. By definition, companies are
"looking out for our interests first, yours second".
Big company managers "manage to numbers", Hohndel said, not
freedom or the greater good and that affects their decision-making. Things
can change quickly and three months down the road a particular project
"may not be interesting anymore", and free software developers
and projects need to recognize that. If the project is depending on a
company to finish a particular library that is being used by the project,
the developers should be
prepared that the priorities or interest level of the company may change.
Most open source developers today are employed to do so, he said, like it
or not—most of the developers themselves do like it. For the kernel,
he cited statistics from LWN showing that 80% of kernel developers are paid
to do that work. He couldn't find similar statistics for GNOME or KDE, but
they are likely to be comparable.
"Companies are very important, but change the way things work with
projects", he said. Most projects start small and are created by
individuals for their peer group. That means that they are not designed for
working with companies, particularly in the areas of licenses and
governance. If the main developers are all suddenly snapped up by a
particular company, it can change things. It is something that projects
should consider because "freedom is often overlooked" when a
project starts to look at working with companies.
In summary, Hohndel said, no big open source project is independent from
large companies today because they have all been "engaged and infiltrated" by
those companies and their employees. That means that projects need to
understand how to work with companies to get the most out of them. Part of
that understanding will come from listening. Companies can really help
accelerate development on a project, which is one of the reasons it is
worth figuring out how to make it work.
GNOME and KDE are "both beautiful looking desktops", he said,
and "we are miles and miles ahead of where we were a few years
ago". There is still some way to go before they are ready to go for
everyone, but his hope is that the week-long summit will help solve some of
problems and get us that much closer.
[ I would like to thank KDE e.V. and the GNOME Foundation for assistance
with travel funding to the Desktop Summit. ]
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