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OpenSUSE searches for its strategy

June 9, 2010

This article was contributed by Koen Vervloesem

While Ubuntu is clearly focused on user-friendliness and Fedora has a "bleeding edge" approach (although it has sometimes struggled with its identity), openSUSE lacks a similar message. Who is the target user? What are the long-term goals of the distribution? What is its unique selling point? For the past few months, the openSUSE Board worked together with some community members on a more focused strategy. The question they want to answer to themselves and to the rest of the world is "Why choose openSUSE?".

To answer this question, the Board looked at data from various sources, including market share figures and the openSUSE 2010 Survey that the project ran in February, which produced some useful results [PDF]. They also held a series of strategy sessions on IRC with many discussions about the role and the future of openSUSE.

During the weekend of May 28th, the members of the Strategy Team met in Nuremberg to bring together all the collected data and discussion points into a cohesive and unifying statement. At this openSUSE Strategy Meeting, they also formalized a draft of the strategy.

The documents that are available are an interesting read. First there is the Process document that describes why a clear strategy is needed and how the strategy will be developed. "Understand the industry" is a document describing the broader picture, including openSUSE's direct competitors and a characterization of the market and its customers. And last but not least, the SWOT document gives a list of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Readers are warned, though, that these documents are the result of brainstorming sessions and are therefore subjective and unpolished.

Strengths and weaknesses

At the strategy meeting, the team concentrated on the strengths and weaknesses openSUSE has, taking into account the competition and the expectations for future changes in the way we use computers. Concentrating on the strengths makes sense, according to openSUSE Board member Bryen Yunashko:

When building a strategy, you acknowledge that you can't be the best everywhere, you can't be everything to everybody, if you want to be successful, so you need to choose your focus — the already existing strength might be a good start to focus on. Therefore we went through the SWOT analysis and summarized the strengths we do have.

The summary of strengths is a mix of community-related and technical topics. On the community level, there is for example the Boosters Team with their mantra "Grow Community by Enabling Community". This is a group of Novell employees who are dedicated to openSUSE development and working with the community. The distribution also has and attracts many users with a strong technical background. On the technical level, openSUSE offers an ecosystem of tools around the distribution, such as the openSUSE Build Service and the feature-tracking system openFATE; it has also some excellent in-system tools such as YaST and zypper. From the end user's point of view, openSUSE comes with good hardware support and high quality; it's also the only distribution where the user can choose among multiple desktop environments in the standard installer.

The weaknesses that came out of the SWOT analysis were not listed in the strategy meeting wrap-up, but it's interesting to check them out in the SWOT document (keeping in mind that it's brainstorm material). With respect to the market aspects, Novell is not seen as open source friendly as Red Hat. As for the quality of the distribution, a lot of features are not documented, with the result that they are not used or integrated. Concerning the software, Java support is called "awful". The openSUSE Build Service is deemed too complex to use and not well-known enough. And on the community marketing level, there are lot of weaknesses listed, including no dedicated professional graphics artists, not enough local events for contributors, and so on. The openSUSE community is also not considered welcoming to new participants and there is decreasing support from Novell engineers.

Choosing a strategy

Knowing your strengths is one thing, but then deciding on a strategy to build upon your strengths is a lot more difficult. The openSUSE Strategy Team was inspired by Michael Porter's approach at Harvard Business School for their strategy development process. It's important to note that strategy is always about trade-offs, its goals are always long-term (at least 3 to 5 years in IT) and it is always rooted in the context of competitors. In the domain of operating systems, this means for example that it really doesn't make sense if more Linux distributions have very similar strategies. They shouldn't be radically different, but the more distributions differ (within limits), the better it is for everyone.

That's why the Board brainstormed about competitive advantages, things that the distribution does better than the competition or that make it unique:

After the brain storming we had around 40 single competitive advantages which we then grouped to clusters to find a focus. We found 6 clusters and a number of competitive advantages we couldn't put into one cluster or which had relations to more [than] one cluster.

As outlined in the process document, three questions should be asked about any competitive advantage: to whom it is focused, how sustainable would it be, and what activities are needed to build it. A few competitive advantages should then be condensed into a strategy statement that is easy to grasp. The trade-off here is: if openSUSE chooses a strategy that is too broad, it will become less realistic to achieve the goals, but if the strategy is too focused the distribution will face the loss of a number of users for which it doesn't offer an interesting solution anymore.

With this information about clusters of competitive advantages, the team tried to find some valid strategies for openSUSE. The openSUSE Strategy Meeting ended up having three possible strategies:

  • openSUSE the home for developers (distro, tools, apps)
  • openSUSE the base for derivatives of any kind (eg. openSUSE Education, openSUSE XYZ)
  • openSUSE for the mobile world (be the glue between mobile services (clouds) and mobile consumers)

On June 8, these three proposals were to have been presented and opened up for 30 days of public discussion, but the release date has been postponed to June 17. After publication of the proposals, feedback will be used to enhance or change them, and after that, openSUSE members will be able to vote on which strategy is the right one to go with.

Reception

On the opensuse-project mailing list, Marcus Moeller posted a response to the strategy meeting wrap-up, which kicked off an interesting discussion about some of the listed strengths and weaknesses. In the comments on the wrap-up blog post, the strategy proposals were fairly quietly received. For example, one person pointed out the risk of targeting developers:

I think we need to be careful about remaining the same closed shop and only allowing developers to develop what they want. It should be about what users want. We tried the other way for much too long and suddenly it seems like linux is Ubuntu. You need to ask why?

Alberto Passalacqua also made the valid observation that the proposals don't seem to be focused well enough:

I really appreciated this discussion, and let's wait [for] the actual proposals to actually understand what's going on. At the moment I can just say I hope the headlines are a bit misleading and/or not exclusive because they look either too specific (for developers / for mobile world) or too generic (for any kind of derivative).

Independence

A separate and somewhat heated discussion spun off about the distribution's dependence on Novell. Trifle Menot put it this way:

Under the present arrangement, openSUSE is like a fetus. If the mother dies, the baby dies with it. OpenSUSE needs to be born and get its own life.

Yunashko disagreed, replying:

You say it's time for openSUSE to not be a fetus and be born. I say it's time for us to move into adolescence. We were already born a few years ago.

But there is a concern that openSUSE would not survive without backing from Novell. It's difficult to attract volunteers for a project that is in that state as Trifle points out:

The majority of opensuse development is done by salaried developers paid handsome sums by Novell. But the project calls for unpaid volunteers to do work too. Fine, I don't have a problem with that. But if you expect me to donate my time, the project needs a self sustaining infrastructure that can survive without a major corporate sponsor. I'm not wasting my time on a project that can go down the drain, because the major sponsor pulls out.

That leads to a chicken-and-egg problem, though. Without volunteers, it's difficult for openSUSE to be independent. Vincent Untz describes the problem:

If you want to have openSUSE "independent", then the first step is to actually contribute so that openSUSE can live without Novell resources. I understand that you don't want to contribute until it's independent, but I hope you realize that it's a chicken and egg problem, in that case.

And is the dependence on Novell really such a big problem? Passalacqua argues that Novell's commercial backing is a strong point for openSUSE:

I don't think openSUSE aims to be as Debian. The goals of the project are different, as well as the target. These differences are part of the reason why I use openSUSE and not Debian. I see a distribution backed by a company with a strong expertise in the field as an advantage, not as a problem. It has direct consequences on the quality, the usability, the possibility of obtaining commercial support, and, in the end, of sustainability of the project itself.

All in all, some openSUSE members are not happy with the power that Novell has in the openSUSE project and think that independence from Novell would result in a better openSUSE. The fear that Novell will be bought by a party that pulls the plug clearly exists. According to Andreas Jaeger, though, openSUSE is already evolving into an independent community, and he maintains that the openSUSE Foundation that is in the works will be able to attract more corporate sponsors and build a stronger openSUSE community.

Conclusion

While the discussion about openSUSE's strategy spun off into the specifics of the project's relationship with Novell, many participants seem to be aware that there are more pressing matters: what openSUSE lacks, and what other distributions have, more or less, is a clear strategy, long-term goals, or a unique selling point. It remains to be seen if one of the proposed strategies is powerful enough to give the distribution its own raison d'être. Without the full proposals it's difficult to say, but, as was mentioned, the current one-line descriptions do seem either too specific or too generic.

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