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By Jonathan Corbet
August 10, 2011
Despite some severe setbacks, the MeeGo project continues to develop its platform. The software is getting better, and we are starting to see a few places where it can be had on real hardware. Unfortunately, MeeGo has just run into another snag involving the hosting of a proposed third-party application repository. The project can survive this rough patch too - without even all that much bother - but only if the participants can gain a better understanding of what is going on. What may look like a serious community disconnect is really a simpler story which has been muddied by poor communication.

Some developers within the MeeGo project have been working for a while on, intended to be a repository for open-source MeeGo applications written by individual developers. Plans include a vetting process to ensure the quality and benign nature of applications to be hosted there. Things were getting closer to being ready for deployment when the process ground to a halt. David Greaves described the problem this way:

The Linux Foundation have told us in private conversations that they will not permit to be served from the infrastructure hosted by them. They do not have the resource at this time to provide a statement giving their reasons. We can not assess what other services may be impacted in the future.

The Linux Foundation is in a position to make this decision because it is the nominal owner of the MeeGo project, the MeeGo trademark, and the domain name. One of the parent projects - Moblin - was handed over to the Foundation in 2009 as a way to establish it as a free and independent project; when Maemo was merged with Moblin to create MeeGo, the combination remained under the Foundation's management. The intent was to ensure that MeeGo was not driven by the needs of any one specific company, but, instead, to help it be a fully independent project.

In a separate "problem statement," David says that, in private communications, he has been told that patent worries are behind this decision. In the absence of an official statement from the Linux Foundation, David's statement has shaped the public discussion. LWN was able to get some more information by talking to a Linux Foundation VP Amanda McPherson and from an IRC conversation held on August 9. As one might expect, the full story is more complicated - but also more simple.

Patents - or something else?

The legal concerns are a good place to start, though. The Linux Foundation does a lot of work that is not related to MeeGo at all. It hosts Linux-related conferences around the world (and funds developer travel to those events), runs a growing training operation, helps companies join the contributor community, promotes various standards activities, provides a vendor-neutral paycheck for Linus Torvalds, and more. One could reasonably argue that putting all of those activities at risk for a MeeGo-related application repository would be an irresponsible thing for the Foundation's management to do. It is also possible to argue that this risk is not zero; there are organizations which might see value in disrupting the Foundation's operations. The risk of simple patent trolls is also, clearly, something that must be kept in mind.

So it is not possible to immediately conclude that the Linux Foundation's refusal to support is unreasonable or improper, even if legal worries were the only consideration. There may indeed be real concerns that could lead to collateral damage far beyond the MeeGo project itself. It would be a shame to see Linus on the street with a "will pull git trees for food" sign, so this is an outcome that is well worth avoiding. But, the Linux Foundation says, legal concerns are only a part of what is going on here.

The real issue, according to Amanda, is simply a matter of resources. Setting up this repository would require comprehensive legal review, certainly, but it also requires system administrator time, trademark and branding attention, and little things like user support. Even if the repository has big warnings to the effect that applications are unsupported and guaranteed to set devices on fire, there will still be a stream of users with battery life problems contacting the Foundation for support. The Linux Foundation is a small operation lacking much in the way of spare staff time; it simply felt that the resources required to establish and operate this repository were not available.

Beyond that, it seems, plans for MeeGo never called for a central "app store." Instead, MeeGo is meant to be the upstream for vendors to use in the creation of their products; it was assumed that those vendors (or their users) would set up multiple application repositories as they saw fit. A central application repository blessed and operated by the MeeGo project could be seen as competing with (and discouraging) those efforts.

Questions and the way forward

All told, it seems like a reasonable explanation for what has happened here. That said, there are some questions that arise from this incident.

First among those is: why was the Foundation so secretive about its decision? Somebody clearly took the time to think the problem through, but, somehow, they could not find the time to explain - in a public setting - the conclusion that they came to. This time of year, allowances need to be made for vacations and frantic preparations for LinuxCon, but it still should have been possible to avoid being completely silent on the issue. Silence is, at best, unfair to the developers who have been working to make a reality. At worst, it feeds doubts about the Foundation's motivations and allows other mysteries to endure. For example, why is distribution of MeeGo applications via the project's open build server (something which has been going on for a year) less worrisome? We are told that the Foundation will have an official statement out in the near future; hopefully that will clarify things.

A more important question, though, might be: is the Linux Foundation the right home for the MeeGo project? If the Foundation's concerns and limitations get in the way of what the MeeGo project wants to do, it might be time to ask if MeeGo needs to find a home more suitable to the activities it is trying to pursue. Thus far, it must be said, the number of people asking that question in public is quite small.

Then, of course, there is the most relevant question of all: what should the MeeGo project do now? The above-linked problem statement offers three alternatives:

  • Keep the plan as-is under the assumption that somehow the Linux Foundation's resistance will go away. This seems like an unlikely outcome.

  • Move the application repository to a new domain outside the control of the Linux Foundation - probably Everything else would remain where it is now with the possible exception of the build server.

  • Move everything away from the Linux Foundation and place it under the control of a separate non-profit organization. The Foundation would retain the MeeGo trademark and compliance process; everything else would happen elsewhere.

One does not have to read too deeply between the lines of the problem statement to get the sense that David favors the final option listed above. But David (whose job is "MeeGo devices build systems architect" at Nokia) is not in a position to make that decision. Some other participants in the MeeGo community have called for the project to become more independent, but, if there is truly a groundswell in favor of that idea among serious MeeGo developers and the companies with stakes in MeeGo, it has not yet become apparent in the public forums. There does not appear to be any widespread desire for a new home - or a fork - in this community.

So what is almost certainly going to happen is that will be set up, probably on servers installed in Europe, and third-party applications will find a home there. The use of that domain name has already been approved, so there need be no fear of repeat of the Smeegol incident in this case. It also seems that linking to from sites will not be a problem; linking to external repositories was always in the plans.

This should be a solution that works for everybody involved, even if some participants would rather have seen the repository live within the domain. The biggest failure in this story is not, as it might have initially seemed, one of project governance; it's really just a problem of communications. That particular failure will, with luck, be remedied soon. The project will get its repository, and everybody can go back to the real problem: getting interesting MeeGo-based devices into the market where the rest of us can actually get our hands on them.

[Update: the Linux Foundation's Brian Warner posted an update on the decision shortly after this article was published.]

(Log in to post comments)

I have a dream

Posted Aug 11, 2011 11:01 UTC (Thu) by kragilkragil2 (guest, #76172) [Link]

I want an affordable N9-like handset from multiple vendors with a FOSS Swipe-UI that is available in my country and has access to an app store where all apps are FOSS.
OK, so much for the dream.

Reality check:
Affordable FAIL
Multiple vendors FAIL
Availabe FAIL
FOSS-appstore CHECK

So my dream is starting to become reality!

The story of

Posted Aug 18, 2011 15:18 UTC (Thu) by zander76 (guest, #6889) [Link]

After reading the update from David I can safely say that I would trust Intel over the Linux Foundation. If they aren't interested in dealing with an app store then get out of the way. You can't say we don't want to deal with the app store then and keep ownership and control. Isn't the linux all about freedom but the foundation is concerned with control and fear of lawsuits.

It would seem to me that a linux foundation should be about plowing forward and protecting the linux community. Instead we have a foundation that is saying you go first and we will hide behind you and see how it goes.

The story of

Posted Aug 19, 2011 10:39 UTC (Fri) by miahfost (guest, #51602) [Link]

I'd be wary of the Linux Foundation / Intel dichotomy. In the case of MeeGo it doesn't really exist.

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