Your editor was once told by a free software conference organizer that
charging a registration fee was mandatory; without the fee, potential
attendees would not take the event seriously and would not show up. The Free and Open Source Developers' European Meeting
shows that this view does not always match up to reality.
Perhaps uniquely among major Linux events, FOSDEM charges no registration
fee, and, indeed, dispenses with the registration process altogether. That
did not stop some 2000 people from showing up last weekend and packing the
lecture halls to a level that would have sent a U.S. fire marshal into a
complete panic. FOSDEM, clearly, is a successful event.
FOSDEM is organized in a way which is well described by its name: it is a
meeting of developers. As such, it features a series of talks which are
likely to be of interest to the development community and a distinct lack of
presentations on how to configure the print system or on how Linux will
leverage your business paradigm shifts into the next generation.
Additionally, a set of "developer rooms" was occupied by various projects
and interest groups (Debian, KDE, embedded Linux, Tcl, etc.). Each of those
rooms was a place to gather, and most put up their own schedules of talks
as well. Throw in a (problematic) wireless network, a beautiful city with
no shortage of good food and beer, and support from a set of sponsors, and
you have all the makings of a free software conference with a distinctly
Keynote speaker Tim O'Reilly told the gathering that, while it is clear
that free software is changing the computing industry, nobody, least of all
the free software community, knows how. He pointed out that there are
already user-friendly Linux-based desktop applications which are used by
millions of people; they go by names like Google, Amazon, and Yahoo. These
companies are building massive proprietary applications with free software,
and, in many cases, giving little back. Tim would like to see free
software developers think more about the use of their code in web
application settings. He is also concerned about the implications of the
large databases being created by these companies; those databases, too, are
proprietary, and they can pose serious privacy threats. Do we, asks Tim,
need a "web services bill of rights" which is analogous to the licenses
which accompany free software?
Tim was immediately followed by Richard Stallman, who gave a fairly
predictable talk about the importance of freedom, "Linux" and "GNU/Linux,"
etc. The freedom issues are important, but will be familiar to most
readers of LWN. More amusing, perhaps, was the final part of the talk,
where Richard addressed charges that he adopts a "holier than thou"
attitude. Says Richard: "It's my job to be holy, I'm a saint." He then
donned his disk platter halo and proclaimed himself to be Saint Ignucius of
the Church of Emacs. Anybody can be a saint in this church, it seems; all
that is required is (1) to free your computers of all proprietary
software, and (2) make the profession of faith: "There is no operating
system but GNU, and Linux is one of its kernels." (In the same humorous
vein, Richard proclaimed that use of vi is not a sin according to the
Church of Emacs; it is, instead, a penance).
Richard did also address the web services issue. He is not concerned about
companies like Google failing to share their own code; what Google runs on
its servers is its own business, and has nothing to do with anybody else's
freedom. He is concerned about data stored on other people's
servers; his response is to not keep his data there. Richard allowed as to
how there could be freedom issues with web services, but he does not see
those as free software issues in particular. One gets the impression he
thinks he has taken on a big enough fight as it is; web services will be
somebody else's problem.
There have been persistent rumors that a third revision of the General
Public License would require that changes to code which are deployed in
public web services be released. When questioned about this idea, Richard
did not have much to say; there has been little time to work on such ideas,
apparently, though that could change soon. He did mention the possibility
of a "download source" clause. With this clause, the author of
web-oriented software could include a "download source" link which would do
exactly that. An optional license feature would require those deploying
that code to retain the source download capability - and to ensure that it
provides the source for the actual, deployed application. It is hard to
see such an intrusive license winning a lot of followers.
The final keynote speaker was, inevitably, Jon 'maddog' Hall. Maddog talks
resemble sitting in front of the fire with Grandpa and hearing his stories
from before you were born. The stories are interesting, well told, and
fun, but after a while you realize you've heard most of them before.
You're always there when Grandpa tells another set of stories, however.
Keith Packard gave a heavily-attended talk on the future of the X server.
In order to support many of the visually pleasing features envisioned for
the future Linux desktop, some fundamental server changes will be
required. In the new scheme, X clients no longer draw directly into the
frame buffer; instead, they draw into off-screen memory which is then
combined, under the control of a new "composition manager" process, into
the screen seen by the users. Keith demonstrated some of his "eye candy"
work which showed (1) how slick the Linux desktop can be, and
(2) how slow it can be when all of this work is done in software.
In the future, Keith sees the X server moving
into a fundamentally three-dimensional mode and speaking GL directly to the
low-level graphics drivers. Many 3D applications will also be able to send
GL directly to the hardware, and bypass the X server altogether. The
current crop of two-dimensional applications will be handled in a
compatibility mode. This change would pave the way for a new generation of
3D Linux applications, improve performance greatly, and would make vendor
support easier; most video card
vendors stopped wanting to deal with 2D modes years ago.
Keith also addressed the political issues currently being faced by the X
community; see Zonker's article (below) for more information on that side
LWN editor Jonathan Corbet presented two talks at FOSDEM; the slides from
those talks are now available. The first was a variant on the "2.6 kernel changes from the
inside" talk which has been presented at other events. Making its debut
at FOSDEM was "kobjects, ksets, and ktypes:
the device model from the bottom up," a low-level technical tutorial on
the glue which holds the 2.6 device model together.
Other presentations seen by your editor include Robert Love on providing
better support for the Linux desktop in the kernel (it is a good thing some
developers are finally seeing this support as an important priority), Bill
Haneman showing the features of the GNOME
Onscreen Keyboard, Hans Reiser on the underpinnings of the Reiser4
filesystem, and an interesting developer room session on hacking into
embedded Linux systems. There was far more going on than any one person
could possibly see; FOSDEM is an event which truly showcases the vitality
of the free software development community. It is not surprising that
attendance has been growing strongly every year; this is one event which
may have to find a larger venue for 2005.
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