The nature of Red Hat's business model nearly guarantees that its flagship
Red Hat Enterprise Linux distribution will be shadowed by clones offering
the same software for no charge. It is not uncommon for people to wonder whether these
RHEL clones, including CentOS, Scientific Linux, and Oracle Linux, are
ultimately helpful or harmful to Red Hat. A free enterprise Linux can
either serve as an entry point or an alternative for paying customers.
There has been less attention paid to how the RHEL clones might affect each
other; that may be about to change as a result of Oracle's new marketing initiative
aimed directly at CentOS.
CentOS is the most popular of the free
RHEL clones; it is widely offered to customers by hosting providers. It
has become the default option for anybody wanting to run a RHEL-like system
without actually paying for it. There can be no doubt that some sites
would decide to pop for a real RHEL subscription if a system like CentOS
were not available. At the same time, there must certainly be a steady
stream of customers who started with CentOS, only to decide that Red Hat's
support would be a worthwhile upgrade.
Oracle clearly has its eyes on that stream of customers. The plan seems to
be to make it easy for CentOS users to switch a running system over to
Oracle's distribution. And easy it is, if Oracle's instructions are to be
believed; one need only download a shell script from Oracle's server and
feed it, unread, to a root shell. The script will tweak some repository
pointers and install a few packages, but it leaves most of the existing
CentOS (or Scientific Linux) system as-is until the next update.
Why would CentOS users, who are benefiting from the efforts of a free
software project, want to switch to Oracle's offering? Oracle is clearly
trying to take advantage of the security update
difficulties experienced by CentOS in 2011. The page reads:
Well, for one, you're getting the exact same bits our paying
enterprise customers are getting. So that means a few
things. Importantly, it means virtually no delay between when Red
Hat releases a kernel and when Oracle Linux does. So if you don't
want to risk another CentOS delay, Oracle Linux is a better
alternative for you. It turns out that our enterprise customers
don't like to wait for updates -- and neither should you.
Things have improved in the CentOS camp since the 2011 difficulties. The
project has changed its workflow and found the sponsorship to hire a couple
of developers; the recent CentOS 6.3
release surprised almost everybody with its
promptness. But CentOS remains a project with limited resources and a lot
of tedious work to do; it's always possible that things could fall behind
again. CentOS users who were left without security updates in 2011—at
least, those who are concerned about the security of their systems—cannot
entirely eliminate that fear from the backs of their minds, even if things
look better now.
So it is possible that Oracle is on to something here. Some CentOS users
may well jump at the chance to switch to a free RHEL clone with big-company
support behind it. And, when some of those users decide that paid
support is worth their while, Oracle will naturally be the first provider
to come to mind. This little initiative might well translate into some
extra revenue for Oracle.
Of course, there could be some costs. The CentOS project is unlikely to be
strengthened by having some of its users defect to Oracle. In the worst
(presumably unlikely) case, CentOS could be fundamentally damaged if vast
numbers of users were to vote with their feet and leave. That would leave
the community with one less free enterprise distribution project. There
have been a lot of complaints that CentOS is far from a truly open,
community-oriented project. But anybody concerned about those issues is
unlikely to find Oracle's distribution more to their liking. Oracle does
make some good contributions, but community-oriented development is not, in
general, among the company's greatest strengths.
Also worth keeping in mind is the fact that Oracle is making no promises
that it will provide this free service for any period of time. If this
effort fails to provide the desired financial results, Oracle could pull
the plug on it at any time—as it did with OpenSolaris. That would leave
ex-CentOS users with the choice of somehow migrating back to CentOS
(assuming CentOS is still there and healthy) or becoming paid Oracle
customers in a hurry. One could argue that any free (beer) distribution
poses such a hazard, but a corporate-controlled distribution can only be
So this initiative by Oracle looks like it could be either a positive or a
negative thing. It could increase the choices for users looking for a
well-supported, highly stable, free-of-charge distribution and increase
competition in the enterprise distribution space in general. Or it could
just be a cynical attempt by a large corporation to profit from a free
software project's success and deprive its main competitor of a potential
revenue stream. Enterprise distribution users will have to make their own
choice as to where their best interests lie.
Comments (25 posted)
Mathias Klang opened this year's Akademy with a keynote look at freedom
internet. It was something of a cautionary tale that outlined the promises
that technology brings, while noting that the dangers are often being
overlooked. Klang comes from an academic and legal background—he is
currently a researcher and senior lecturer at the University of Göteborg in
Sweden—which gives him something of a different perspective on technology
Klang's talk was titled "Expressions in Code and Freedom", but he came up
with a different title the night before the talk: The TiVo-ization of everyday
life. That title is "silly", but it does reflect some of the dangers he
sees. He noted that he is not a programmer, but is surrounded by them, and
they "put up with my stupidity". His background in the law means that he
"likes reading licenses" and thinks everyone should. His current research
is looking into social media, particularly in the area of control by the
There have been multiple revolutions in communication over the years, with
writing only coming about 6000 years ago or so. Punctuation did not arise
until 200 BC and putting spaces between words is only 1000 years old.
(who Klang called "The Steve Jobs of his day") revolutionized writing once
again with the
printing press, but the digitization of information was arguably the
Once information has been digitized we can start connecting up the devices
that store that data, which leads to the internet. The internet
is not a bad thing, per se, but it is set up for control. The
promise of the open web ("so wonderfully open, so wonderfully free") is
great, but that openness invites people to come in and start closing it down in various ways.
The web started as an open platform, but that "wild web" is becoming an
endangered species. For example, he said, we don't actually publish our
own links anymore, instead we use various social media services to send
each other links. That leaves us more and more dependent on the people
who collect and store our data. It is becoming rare for people to
create their own permanent web sites to store their data as it is largely
being stored under the control of social media service providers.
"What would newspapers write about if we didn't have Facebook?", Klang
asked. Perhaps they would write about the euro crisis instead, he joked.
More seriously, social change is happening and much of it is being brought
about by technology.
For example, he noted that online Scrabble games are all the rage right
now. Two years ago, you wouldn't go to the pub and brag about playing
Scrabble. But in Sweden (at least), people are constantly posting their
high scores and such to Facebook.
Social media is set up to "create a performance lifestyle", he said. The
whole idea behind it is to have an audience, but the tools used to reach
that audience are controlled by the providers. Another example is Klang's
Facebook post of a picture of his morning coffee as "my amazing coffee".
He gets comments from people all over the world who are "lurking around my
digital life". It is a bit creepy, overall. The things he routinely does
online today would have been considered stalking ten years ago, but "now
The walled gardens and information silos that typify many internet services
are a threat. The service providers ensure that they "keep us entertained
so we will supply them more data", he said. But, without access to the
underlying code and data, we are totally at their mercy.
Klang gave more examples of how technology, social media in particular,
is worming its way into everyday life. "People say that if you want to
start a revolution, use Facebook", he said, and they generally point to the
recent events in Egypt as an example. In Sweden, educators are asking
"should we be teaching Facebook in school?" and "how do I use Facebook" as
an educational tool?
Beyond that, even police departments are going online. The Swedish police
now have a Facebook presence and have even had crimes reported to them via
that mechanism. There was recently a "wonderful or sad" twitter message
(i.e. "tweet") about a man lying unconscious in Göteborg. Klang does not
think that's a good way to report such things, "but the police think it is
and that's sad".
Certainly social media sites increase our ability to talk to one another,
which is good. But much of that communication is being forced into these
walled gardens, he said, "and that's scary".
"It's only technology" is something that is heard a lot, but that's
something of a slippery slope. As an example, he pointed to tubular anti-homeless
benches in Tokyo. Instead of passing a law against sleeping in parks or
putting up a sign, the benches make it almost impossible to sleep on them.
This is an example of TiVo-ization in real life, he said. If we create a
law against sleeping on benches, there will be complaints about human
rights, but creating a technological measure avoids those problems.
"Design choices have consequences", Klang said.
"The more technology we embed into our lives, the less freedom we have", he
said. We should all "love technology", but recognize that every piece of
it has an effect on our lives. That includes all kinds of technology, not
just gadgets and web sites, but things like chairs, desks, and carpets as well.
One of the problems is that the educational system teaches students how to
use technology, "but we don't teach them code", Klang said. Sweden, for
example, has been focusing on the use of various gadgets in schools, but
you don't have to be "vaguely technical to use an iPhone or iPad".
Educators are asking how to use the iPad in the classroom, rather than
asking whether they should use the device.
He referenced Douglas
Adams's notion of
"digital natives", that those under a certain age (15, say) natively
understand technology changes while those over a certain age (e.g. 35) will
always be immigrants and lack that understanding. Klang would like to see
everyone become a digital native so that the understanding of technology and the
consequences of technological change become widespread.
He had several suggestions toward that goal. To begin with, we should all
try to "hack society for openness". Our infrastructure remains open, so
far, but much of what runs atop it isn't. Richard Stallman, was "not being
friendly" when he started the free software movement; "he was being right",
"Be that guy", he suggested, and tell people what their information habits
are doing to their (and other people's) lives. He likened it to getting a
PhD, where you do research that "you and four other people in the world
care about", but when people ask, you explain what it is and why it's
important. In this case, it is necessary to make people aware of the
problems that arise when "going from an information deficit to an
information circus", which is what we have seen over the last decade or more.
He also said that we should read all of the end-user license
agreements (EULAs) and terms of service that are presented to us, but "I
know you won't".
He closed with the idea that developers should at least think about what
their code does, and "how you are affecting other people". All of the
different gadgets out there "manipulate lives", but who decides
how they do that, he asked. Everything we do with technology has effects
on others, so he encouraged developers to think about those effects. He
was clear that he wasn't advocating not building new devices and
technologies, only asking that developers think about how those
technologies might be used—or abused.
[ The author would like to thank KDE e.V. for travel assistance to Tallinn
for Akademy. ]
Comments (5 posted)
Contour was a project to create a mobile, touch-friendly user experience
atop Qt and KDE that started in 2010. It eventually became part of the
KDE's Plasma Active effort so Eva Brucherseifer came to Akademy to recount
how and why that came about. She also discussed how the Contour design
process worked, along with the process of integrating Plasma Active with
various device platforms.
Brucherseifer is a longtime KDE community member, going back to the 1990s.
She was elected to the KDE e.V. board in 2002 and served as its president
for three years, which is
what happens "if you talk too much about what should be done". She started
the embedded services company basysKom in 2003 and serves as its managing
Contour's history and goals
In the (northern hemisphere) summer of 2010, there were lots of ideas
floating around that factored into the ideas behind Contour, she said.
Using context and semantic data to provide recommendations for users was
one idea. There was also a lot of talk about the mobile space,
and back then people were anticipating numerous Linux devices to ship with
of MeeGo. The idea of "daily use" devices and the
need for an improved user interface to support that use case was another
People at basysKom were thinking about these ideas, which led to Contour.
Later in 2010 the project was formed based on Qt and KDE. Contour project
wrote a proposal and the project was granted funding by the German
für Wirtschaft und Technologie (Federal Ministry of Economics and
Technology). So, basysKom and the German government each funded half of
The core idea behind Contour is to be "information-centric" rather than
"app-centric" as the iPhone is. The goal was to create a new user paradigm
where context and usage information are used to adapt the device's behavior
to the user and their
needs. A "learning system" would be used to try to derive patterns of use
so that the device could anticipate and facilitate the user's task. There
were ideas on how to do that, she said, but it was unclear if they would work.
For Contour, using KDE's "activities" made sense as a way to group the
around specific tasks that users do. By using contexts, such as what time
it is and whether the user is at home or work, the interface can have an
idea of the "things you do at those times". Deriving the usage patterns
will help make it easier for the user, she said.
Contour is a user experience (UX) layer on top of the Plasma shell.
Other UXes are possible, including ones targeted at set-top boxes or
Designing the interface
The Contour interface evolved as the project tried out various ideas.
Brucherseifer put up images of different parts of the interface
(e.g. activity switcher, activity screen) as they changed from the initial
prototype to the final design (which can be seen in her slides
[PDF]). The activity switcher started out as a stacked set
of activities, with a slider to activate the switch. That moved through
a rotating "wheel" of activities that kept the slider to the final version
which kept the wheel idea, but made the activity thumbnails completely
visible and eliminated the slider. The three versions from her slides are
shown at right.
Similarly, the activity screen that shows the files, applications, and
other information associated with an activity went through a number of
iterations. It moved from a tree-like structure to something more like a
standard desktop. When she shows the interface to customers as an example
of what can be done with Qt and QML, "they love it".
There are still more things to do, including an application launcher and a
task switcher. WebKit integration is still lacking, but is needed
because HTML 5 will be important, she said. Private, password-protected
activities are another feature that will be added. Some of these features will
be needed for a real product, but the project couldn't get to all of
In addition to a tablet UX, basysKom created an in-vehicle
infotainment (IVI) UX as an internal project. It took two person-months to
implement, she said, and it still needs some polish. It was done as an
experiment to see how long it would take.
Designing the UXes went through several phases. It started with sketches,
which were then turned into wireframes using Photoshop. Promising versions
were then implemented using QML. Multiple iterations back and forth
between those steps were required, she said.
Getting the code onto devices was challenging. The project started basing
itself on top of MeeGo, because it believed that the two big companies
behind the distribution would make for a stable platform. That didn't work
out, of course, so a switch to Mer was eventually made.
The project "learned a lot" in getting its code running on two different
devices: the WeTab/ExoPC and the Archos G9. There was a need to create binary
RPMs for all of the packages as well as a single binary image that could be
installed onto the devices. Some of those things are not necessarily easy
to accomplish using volunteers in an open community.
In March 2011, Plasma Active was announced. A
workshop was held in Darmstadt, Germany where basysKom joined forces with
Sebastian Kügler of open-slx and Aaron Seigo of Coherent Theory to create
Plasma Active. Contour was adopted as the "activities and recommendations"
piece of Plasma Active. Several coding sprints were held and two releases
of Plasma Active have been made so far.
There were multiple reasons behind basysKom's decision to contribute Contour to
KDE. The company could have held on to Contour and sold it to customers,
but if it wanted to develop the technology upstream the code needed to be
free. Trying to set up a "joint process" between the community and
companies was another consideration.
Plasma Active is a chance for KDE to succeed in the mobile space,
which also factored into the decision. She (and, by extension, basysKom)
cares about KDE, so it made sense to contribute Contour to the effort.
There were a few challenges that Plasma Active has faced over the last year
or so. The cooperation between the community and companies can be hard at
times. Volunteers often work all day then work on Plasma Active at night,
which can make it hard to hit deadlines. The embedded development process
is "not there yet", she said, and encouraged anyone interested to help out
with that. In addition, desktop technologies are "too large and slow" for
embedded devices; Plasma Active is still too large for many devices.
On the other hand, a lot of things have gone well. There were lots of KDE
frameworks that could be reused, which made it relatively easy and quick to
get something working. It surprised her how quickly things could come
together. The project also produced
highly motivated people; there were basysKom employees who wanted to
continue working on Plasma Active
even after the company needed to scale back its commitment, for example.
Plasma Active is not done yet; what has been produced so far is a "starting
point", Brucherseifer said. There is currently no way to manage multiple
open applications, for example, which is "probably very solvable", but needs
to be done. More automation is needed in creating images for devices and
there is a need for release management and QA as well. Those who are
interested should get an Archos G9 and an image from basysKom to get
started. Support for the WeTab/ExoPC is still available, but those devices
are no longer on the market, so the project is focused on the G9 for now.
An audience member asked about how to get the design process used
by Contour and Plasma Active into KDE. Brucherseifer said that the most
important part is that developers need to be open to suggestions. basysKom
hired two UX people to work on the project, but they "didn't really enjoy
it". The developers had very different opinions from the designers, which
made things difficult at times. There is a need for a different culture
between developers and designers, "if both could give a little bit, it
would be helpful", she said.
At the end of the talk, Brucherseifer demonstrated the interface, including
showing how the recommendation system worked. The UX looks quite usable at
this point, though there are still things to do as she noted. It will be
interesting to see real devices shipped with Plasma Active (such as the Vivaldi tablet) down the road.
[ The author would like to thank KDE e.V. for travel assistance to Tallinn
for Akademy. ]
Comments (none posted)
Page editor: Jonathan Corbet
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