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An update on openSUSE's strategy search

September 15, 2010

This article was contributed by Koen Vervloesem

In the first half of 2010, openSUSE tried to find its identity. Who is the target user? What are the long-term goals of the distribution? What is its unique selling point? The openSUSE Board ran a survey, held a series of strategy sessions on IRC, and had a strategy meeting in Nuremberg. This resulted in three possible strategies, which were discussed publicly. But at the beginning of September, openSUSE's new community manager Jos Poortvliet admitted that the whole process hasn't been a big success.

The openSUSE community didn't go through all this just because they felt the need for some introspection. You can't be the best everywhere, so if you want to be successful, you need to choose your focus. By searching for its identity, openSUSE can find its strengths and build upon them to maximize its competitive advantages. Ultimately, with a better understanding of its identity, the distribution should be able to attract more users and developers. More information about the motivations behind the search for an identity and a strategy can be found in our previous coverage of the process.

To reiterate: the openSUSE Strategy Meeting on the last weekend of May resulted in three possible strategies:

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

Back in June, one of the commenters on the wrap-up blog post made the valid observation that these proposals were either too specific or too generic. When the complete strategy proposals were published mid-June, another commenter exaggerated somewhat but nonetheless had a kernel of truth:

The task was to answer the question "Why openSUSE?", to get some direction and focus and perhaps even create some form of mission statement. And what you come up with is to focus on the narrowest of narrow niches, which will make openSUSE irrelevant to 95% of people, including alienating most existing users.

In the general feedback on the discussion, the same concern was voiced by several people: these strategies were too specific, with the risk of losing a number of users for which a newly focused openSUSE doesn't offer an interesting solution anymore.

The initial strategy proposals

So let's look at these strategy proposals and how they have been received. The first one is the home for developers. With this proposal, openSUSE would deliver an integrated platform for developers of all sorts, e.g. web developers, system developers, Qt/GTK developers, Android/MeeGo/WebOS developers, and so on. This would be done by delivering an out-of-the-box experience for all popular open source IDEs and integration of related tools, including deployment tools such as the openSUSE Build Service and SUSE Studio.

This proposal was discussed on the opensuse-project mailing list and on the openSUSE forum. For example, Guido Berhoerster commented:

While I don't consider any of the three proposals "niche cases" they inevitably imply specialization and this in turn has the potential to alienate both existing and potential new contributors and users.

The second proposal is the base for derivatives. With this proposal, openSUSE would focus on delivering a high-quality, long-term supported (LTS) core distribution, with tools and infrastructure to easily build derivative distributions on top of it. Tools like the openSUSE Build Service, the KIWI image system, and SUSE Studio can be used then to build spin-offs.

This proposal was also discussed on opensuse-project and on the forum. Martin Schlander made some critical remarks: derivative makers will not ask "What can I do for openSUSE?" but "What can openSUSE do for me?" and a successful spin-off will receive all the attention instead of openSUSE. His conclusion: "Being a good base for derivatives might be a good sub-strategy, but it's not a good main focus for the project."

The third proposal is the mobile and cloud ready distribution. This is an innovative vision where openSUSE would not only embrace mobile and social network services and integrate these with the Linux desktop, but also deliver a server solution to host these services, to be less dependent on companies like Google. OpenSUSE would collaborate with Android, MeeGo and WebOS to create integrated development tools for mobile platforms, and ship tools like ownCloud and Etherpad.

Once again, the proposal was discussed on opensuse-project and on the forum. Jan Engelhardt correctly pointed out that there are already enough other distributions to fill this area, so it would become difficult to have a unique selling point.

Additional strategy proposals

During the discussion of the strategy proposals, some community members presented their own proposals, and some of these were picked up by the openSUSE board and presented for discussion. The first one was not that surprising: openSUSE as the number 1 KDE distribution, which targets essentially what openSUSE already is, but will customize, fine-tune, and polish the KDE technology in the distribution.

Although this proposal sounds reasonable, Jos Poortvliet argued on his blog that it didn't make much sense as a strategy. By choosing KDE, this proposal focuses on a solution instead of a goal. Moreover, it's too specific: most users are not interested in the technology but in the result. And last but not least, Jos warned that openSUSE could lose all non-KDE contributors.

Another new proposal was about openSUSE for the productive poweruser, summarized as "We cannot compete with Ubuntu for the übernoob segment, and we shouldn't compete with Fedora on being experimental bleeding edge - instead we should pick the middle ground." Another proposal is that openSUSE should become a reference platform as a base for more specific distributions (which sounds a lot like the derivatives proposal), and a last proposal, made by Jan Engelhardt, is for the status quo: quantify what openSUSE tried to do in the past and do it better.

A fresh start

The additional strategy proposals are clearly less focused and also more in line with what openSUSE is now. So it's natural to ask: aren't the openSUSE users just happy with openSUSE as it is now? Last week, Jos Poortvliet wrote a strategy statement on the openSUSE blog where he admitted that the discussion had derailed:

Over the last weeks there has been a lot of discussion, both internally and externally, about the strategies which have been proposed. However, we also missed a lot of voices from our community. We take responsibility for leaving many of you behind by focusing on a very corporate-management solution to the initial question which prompted this process. A question we think still is relevant: The identity of openSUSE both as a Community and as a Project.

Jos explained that the openSUSE strategy team would like to go back to the start and focus on describing what openSUSE is, as a community, instead of finding new directions. The plan is to highlight the "story" behind openSUSE, to identify who are the target users and what openSUSE offers to them, and to "connect it with the issues that matter most to our community".

In an email interview, Jos explained what he means with that last sentence:

We want to make sure the new description of openSUSE is wide and can get everyone enthusiastic instead of defining a narrow direction for the future of openSUSE. It also has to be current and at least to some extent forward looking - just not as much as the initial strategies did.

The openSUSE community manager also admitted that the strategy team forgot the initial question ("Why choose openSUSE?") and moved into a direction that was too abstract for the openSUSE users:

Some have (maybe rightfully so) questioned that direction and even the term 'strategy' in the first place. It was a bit high and mighty for many in the community, most of which are down-to-earth engineers after all. We lost many community members somewhere in the first few paragraphs of the extensive 'strategy' documentation on the wiki... Still the initial question remained valid: what is unique about openSUSE, both as a community and as a product? So we had some discussions about this and I urged the team to try and go back to the basic questions - just trying to explain what makes openSUSE different.

The fresh start of the strategy discussion doesn't mean that all those discussions were in vain. The openSUSE project has learned a lot in the meantime and has received a lot of constructive criticism. For example, back in June, Guido Berhoerster made a suggestion to re-use the discussion material:

Although I agree there has to be some direction for the whole openSUSE project, this should IMO be kept much more general. I'd rather propose that such strategies should be adopted by respective teams diving the given objectives, i.e. the KDE team could adopt the "KDE#1" strategy, the Mobile team could adopt the "Mobile and cloud ready" strategy etc. The strategy for the whole project should then be rather general and encompassing superset of these.

In any case, the strategy team will, based on the input from all those discussions and many private chats the team had over the last months, create a new document with a much simpler scope: describe what openSUSE is. The team will put that description up for discussion in segments over the coming weeks, take the input from the community into consideration, and present a unified version at the openSUSE conference in October, where it will be refined. Jos thinks that the strategy team will get it right this time:

It might not be as ambitious but it will fit with what the community wants and needs. From the draft document we now have and the feedback I've gotten over the last few weeks, I feel we have something which is actually quite pronounced and powerful. OpenSUSE has a reputation of offering a stable base ("German engineering") and offering choice and flexibility (e.g. through the openSUSE Build Service0. I think these features are worthy of a professional, powerful solution for people who need to get work done. I think that's all the identity we need, and combined with the great technology we have (OBS not being the least of that) we've got a distribution to aspire to.


OpenSUSE is not the only distribution that is struggling with its identity. Even Fedora, which is known for its "bleeding edge" approach, is still not entirely sure of who its users are or how to deliver what those users want. In contrast, Ubuntu doesn't seem to suffer from this problem, probably because it has a benevolent dictator who chooses the direction for the distribution. However, it's interesting to note that Debian also doesn't seem to struggle that much, even though the distribution doesn't have a clear identity, nor a benevolent dictator or a corporate sponsor.

While openSUSE's search for a strategy has derailed, it's not fair to call it a failure. As part of the process, the strategy team has received a lot of input from the community. Maybe the most important input was that a community isn't interested in bureaucratic concepts like strategies and SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analyses. With luck, the strategy team will get it right this time and come up with an identity description its community can identify with.

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