Bdale Garbee has become a rather well-known presence at linux.conf.au,
having attended and spoken at every instance of the conference since 2002.
Until his retirement in 2012, he was also the public face of long-time
sponsor of the conference, Hewlett-Packard (HP). His keynote speech on the
opening day of linux.conf.au 2013 was entitled "The Future of the Linux
Desktop". However, given the various interests and projects that he has
championed and spoken about during his long involvement with the
conference, he also took some time to update the audience on some of those
Bdale, FOSS, LCA, and rockets
Bdale noted that his first personal contribution to what is now called
called open source was in 1979. "My suspicion is that a few of you in
the audience weren't alive then." The first LCA that he had the
"privilege" to attend was in 2002, when was invited to participate in the
Debian miniconference. He noted that attending LCA that year had a
significant impact on his life thereafter. At the conference, he was
encouraged to run once more for the role of Debian Project Leader (DPL),
and was this time successful, which had a ripple effect in many other
areas of his life.
Thus, for example, as DPL, Bdale was invited to be a keynote speaker at
LCA 2003. He was invited
to be a keynote speaker again at LCA 2004, and in the same year
his employer became a sponsor of the conference. After that, he noted that
there was a shift in the content of his talks at LCA. "I had
achieved a standing in the company that let me do things like flying at
company expense to Australia to talk about my hobbies."
As many people know, one of those hobbies is rockets. "On my
last official day of employment at HP, I was in Kansas at a rocket
launch." As well as launching his own rockets at great speeds and
to great heights, Bdale has also been involved in the creation of the Tripoli
Mentoring Program, which allows children as young as twelve to become
rocketry. Bdale and Keith Packard have also turned their rocketry hobby
into a successful 100% open source small business, Altus Metrum, selling rocketry
Bdale remains involved with the FreedomBox
project, the subject of one of his talks at LCA 2012. He noted that
work on the project was taking longer than hoped, but was moving
forward. He leaves LCA on Friday to go straight to FOSDEM in Brussels,
where he will present the current state of FreedomBox with Eben Moglen.
How do we define the Linux desktop?
Bdale began his discussion of the Linux desktop with the observation
that the metaphor of a desktop is somewhat stale. In most parts of the
world, there has been a dramatic transition away from computers as things
that sit on desks. A question that follows from that observation is:
"When we talk about the 'desktop', are we really just talking about
the user interface of the device in front of us?"
Bdale's answer to that question is "no". His fridge and TV may be
running Linux, but he does not want a desktop interface for them. Rather,
what he sees as the desktop is the interface that is provided by a
universal computing device—one that lets him read mail, browse the
web, design rocket components, design objects for 3D printing, give
presentations, do accounts, develop software, run simulations, and so on.
Will Linux ever displace Windows?
Bdale is frequently asked "when will HP start shipping Linux on
desktop systems?". His answer is "a whole bunch of years
ago", since HP has for several years been shipping computers running
Linux to many parts of the world. However, he acknowledged that the user
interface that most people get when they buy their universal computing
device is likely to be Microsoft Windows, especially in the developed
In "green field deployments", there have been many cases where Linux
desktops have been successfully rolled out. Here, Bdale noted a few of the
more well-known deployments, such as the deployment of Linux on around
80,000 desktops in the Extremadura school system, and deployments in the
city of Munich and the French parliament. But, he noted, if you have an
existing body of users who have been using Microsoft Windows, then the cost
of change can be pretty high. Reeducating users onto a new computing
environment can be a major task.
There are strong disincentives for OEMs such as HP to move away from
Windows. People used to ask Bdale whether HP might not save a lot of money
on license fees if they moved away from Windows, and instead preinstalled
Linux on the machines they sold. He used to ask the same question himself,
until he had the experience of spending six months working with HP's
netbook and notebook division in 2009 with the goal of helping them develop
an open source strategy. He made the mistake of trying to explain to the
senior vice president (SVP) with whom he worked that Linux could
save the division a lot of money.
However, the SVP explained "You don't understand. This doesn't
cost us money. The preinstalled software on a PC is a substantial
source of revenue." All of the preinstalled software that is
present on new Windows machines is there because two things happen once an
OEM starts shipping millions of PCs. First, the OEM starts paying much
lower license fees for Windows. Second, the OEM becomes in effect a major
software distribution channel. Software producers and providers of network
services want, and will pay for, the opportunity to appear in front of
millions of users. Thus, the ecosystem of preinstalled Windows-based
software subsidizes the cost of a PC; replacing that with Linux would
actually increase the price of the system.
In Bdale's opinion, it's difficult to displace Windows as the operating
system that is preinstalled on new PCs. Either one has to abandon that
idea, or come up with a user experience that is sufficiently
compelling that users prefer your system. We've already seen this happening
in the mobile device space, he said.
Displacing Windows is also difficult because of the joint-marketing
opportunities that companies sometimes engage in. Bdale mentioned the
example of the Media Vault, a small personal network-attached storage
device that runs Linux and Samba. Microsoft approached HP proposing
to build a similar higher-specification device based on Windows. Over
time, the two companies invested significant amounts of money in developing
and marketing the new device, to the point where it ultimately displaced
the earlier free-software-based device from the market. Given the amount of
money that companies are prepared to invest in order to create successful
products, a result such as this is a natural outcome; it is difficult for
individual developers to compete with these sorts of perfectly legitimate
Bdale noted that similar challenges apply when it comes to considering
whether Linux could displace Apple. In addition, there are other
challenges as well, such as the extent to which Apple's devices and walled
gardens "captivate" users.
A few rants regarding the Linux desktop
Bdale then noted that there would be "a few rants that I'd be
remiss in not mentioning". One of those rants springs from
observing how successful Linux has become (in the form of Android) in
the mobile market. One of his frustrations in this area is the amount of
energy that has gone into open source mobile projects that didn't succeed.
Furthermore, environments like Android use a lot of open source software
and employ many developers to work on open source technologies, but the
resulting products and ecosystems are not very open.
There is technical work being done in the mobile space (for example,
work on the kernel)
that is certainly proving
useful to the universal Linux desktop, Bdale said. On the other
hand, can one user interface really span all sorts of devices? The idea is
appealing. But the problem with user interfaces is that the capabilities of
devices vary so widely, with a wide range of screen sizes and input models
that range from keyboard-centric to touch-centric. These differences have
a big impact on the model of how a user interface should work.
"I thought the whole idea of personal computers with free software
was to really empower people." Our licensing structures are designed
to allow any user to also become a developer. Nevertheless, it's
perfectly okay to want to expand the user base of our software to welcome
people who don't consider themselves programmers. But the problem is that
some desktop projects seem to have become confused about who their
target audience is. "The problem is that so much of the work
that has gone into some of those projects has left me—and a lot of
users like me—feeling abandoned by Linux desktop developers."
Any time you think you're designing something for someone else, and not
something you want to use yourself, then you are on a slippery slope.
Bdale said that he had had some horrifying experiences over the years
with desktop developers who were clearly not eating their own dog food. By
way of example, he noted that in conversation with some Evolution
developers at GUADEC some years ago, he found that not one of the
developers would admit to using Evolution to read their own
mail. "They laughed at me for using it to try and read my
mail." In this case, one of the fundamental tenets of free software
was being cast aside: the developers were not scratching their own itches.
What really matters on the desktop?
Recently, Debian changed its default desktop for the Wheezy release.
The problem was that GNOME became so large that it could not fit with the
rest of the Debian system on a single installation CD. As a consequence,
Joey Hess, one of the Debian maintainers made an arbitrary decision in
August 2012 to change
the default desktop environment to the smaller Xfce desktop system, which
allowed the Debian install system to fit on a single CD. [Note: As commenters (and Bdale) have pointed out, the Xfce switch was never uploaded, so the report is "accurate", but the speaker misspoke. ]
Bdale noted that the decision to change Debian's default desktop
generated relatively little heat. One reason for this is likely because the
user can change the desktop after installation. But, in his view, there is
also another reason: most people care more about applications than
desktops. The desktop doesn't matter until it gets in the way. Bdale's
key point here was that users are happy as long as they can run any
application on any desktop that they choose. Conversely, applications that
tie in certain desktop dependencies are a source of frustration for users,
who don't want to be forced to include software components they didn't
Another point that really matters to users is inefficiency. When users
get a faster computer, they expect their applications to run faster,
although this often doesn't turn out to be true in practice. Users also
really care about efficiency because of battery life. Bdale's point was
that a lot of the things that people get excited about in the desktop world
aren't that exciting to him. For example, he is not so interested in
compositing and other "bling" graphics features that tend to be expensive
in terms of CPU load and energy consumption.
Customization is another thing that really matters to users. For
example, when Bdale's then small daughter first encountered Star Office,
she wanted to know how to do things such as changing the font type and
size. This sort of customization is, he said, part of the process of taking
ownership of technology.
The ability to automate repetitive tasks is also
important. Scripts are many people's first step toward programming.
Providing graphical interfaces to allow common tasks to be quickly executed
is fine, but don't hide access to text interfaces that may be useful for
scripting repetitive tasks.
The final aspect of the desktop interface that Bdale noted as being
important is hackability. The interface should be something that the user
can work on and improve. We should be thinking of building a world where
the people using our systems want to learn our systems; we have
nothing to win by competing with people who are intent on creating
appliances that don't require any understanding by the user. "This
is why I hope we'll refocus on building things that we really like to
Being able to understand and fix the software we use is important.
Bdale ultimately gave up trying to build the Evolution mail client because
the build environment was just too complex. That sort of complexity
prevents casual contributions to a project, because the effort of trying to
understand the system is too great. Bdale noted the Linux kernel as an
example of a project that has done a better job of managing complexity in
the build environment. He also referred to the statistics on Linux kernel
contributions that show a long tail of contributors who make just a single
improvement to the kernel during each release cycle. Those long-tail
contributions occur because users feel able to master the tools that are
needed in order to make a contribution.
What does it all mean?
Bdale finished up with a few summary points. First, it's great to feel
good about the success of Linux in the mobile space, in the form of
Android. Second, we need to pick realistic goals when developing desktop
software for Linux. There are some powerful market forces that make it
difficult to unseat Windows on the PC. Instead, we should put all of our
time and energy into building the systems that we want to use. Our
collaborative model is "awesomely powerful" and allows us to make huge
changes in the world. The key to success is that when we choose to
differentiate, we should do so in interoperable ways. Finally, we should
always empower users to contribute, so that we get the long-tail
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