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Whither Mandriva?

By Jake Edge
April 18, 2012

The Mandriva distribution has suffered some serious blows over its lifetime. It has been in and out of bankruptcy, and has been, seemingly, perpetually on the brink of financial collapse over the last six years or more. Much of the community has moved on to the Mageia fork, but Mandriva still seems to limp along. How long that will continue at this point is anyone's guess.

The current status of Mandriva is a bit mysterious for a number of different reasons. In a blog post, Mandriva S.A. COO Jean-Manuel Croset notes that the company has been uncommunicative for "the last few months" without much of an explanation why. His post addresses the Mandriva community and is looking for input about where the distribution should be heading:

So, time has arrived to talk to our supporters, users, contributors and fans. I’m very interested to hear about your background, motivations, expectations and needs. I can’t promise to fulfill every of them, but I’m ready to read and listen and will certainly take them into account for the future.

Croset mentions that there is a shareholders meeting for Mandriva S.A. on April 30, where strategy and priorities for the next year will be decided. Presumably, his outreach to the community is focused on helping the company make those decisions.

In the meantime, though, it would seem that progress on the distribution has stalled. Some developers have moved to ROSA, which is a Russia-based company that is building a desktop distribution (ROSA Marathon 2012) atop Mandriva. For a while, it seems, ROSA was working within the Mandriva community but has more recently moved on. Much of that information comes from a thread on the Mandriva cooker mailing list—Cooker is the name of Mandriva's development distribution, like Fedora's Rawhide.

That thread, which was started by longtime Mandriva developer Per Øyvind Karlsen is unfortunately—perhaps mistakenly—marked as "not to be archived" (i.e. X-No-Archive: yes). The thread started on the closed maintainers mailing list, but Karlsen copied the cooker list because he wanted the topic to be more widely discussed. The flag on the posts means that Gmane, Google, and others will expire them soon, effectively purging them from the internet. So we won't be quoting from or linking to those posts, in keeping with the intent of the flag, but can at least summarize the discussion.

Karlsen is concerned that the Mandriva distribution is dying because the parent company has financial problems and because there has never been a neutral foundation set up to shepherd the distribution. Until recently, ROSA was working closely with Mandriva S.A., but that has ended because of some dispute between the two companies, he said. Meanwhile, Karlsen stopped working for Mandriva S.A. in November and has gone to work for ROSA. It is his belief that the distribution will disappear without a foundation behind it.

Dmitry Komissarov said that ROSA could support a Mandriva foundation, but that the main problems were the need for that foundation to receive the trademark as well as the need for a project leader to be identified. There were suggestions that one of the driving forces behind Mageia, Anne Nicolas, might make a good leader for the project or foundation, but that was questioned by others including Karlsen. The problem of the trademarks may be stickier, as it would seem that Mandriva S.A. is not necessarily interested in handing them over to some kind of independent organization.

Andrey Bondrov sees a schism between the ROSA developers and the Cooker team that is likely to effectively kill off Mandriva. From his perspective, ROSA is headed in a direction very different from the way Mandriva operates (in terms of its desktop focus, in particular). Komissarov disputed much of what Bondrov said, noting that ROSA had talked about making some of the changes, but had not acted on them, at least yet.

Suggestions that folks interested in Cooker move to Mageia were mostly met with disagreement. Various people feel that they have a lot invested in Cooker (and Mandriva) and are not willing to make a switch. The overall impression one gets by reading the thread is that there is a lot of confusion in the Mandriva community about what to do and how to go about doing it.

In many ways, the problem boils down to a distribution that has (or had) an active community, but was still driven by a company (and, importantly, that company's money). Now that the money has largely dried up, the community is somewhat adrift at this point. Because only the trademark holder can actually release a distribution called "Mandriva", the community is to some extent held hostage to the (as yet unknown) plans of Mandriva S.A.

According to a blog post by the founder of Mandrake Linux (Mandriva's predecessor), Gaël Duval, the idea of a foundation has been discussed since 2000 or 2001. He notes that he has not been involved in Mandriva since 2006, but he believes that a distribution-focused foundation would be a boon both for Mandriva itself, and for the public at large. He suggests an "OS in the Public Interest" as a possible future for Mandriva noting that Debian is for "servers & geeks" and Ubuntu is held by Canonical. Because of Mandriva's focus on the desktop, a public-interest OS based on it could serve as a way to break the proprietary stranglehold on the desktop, Duval said.

Any kind of movement in that direction requires assistance from Mandriva S.A., of course. It isn't clear what prompted Croset to ask the community for input recently and the silence from the company over the last few months has certainly worried many in the community. The crux of Croset's message: "For the time being and in short: trust us." may not really alleviate those concerns.

Mageia, on the other hand, seems to be thriving. It has just released the third beta of Mageia 2, and the final release is currently scheduled for May 15. It would seem that some part of the Mandriva community was able to move on. Given that Mandriva is based free software, all that really needed to be done was to pick a new name, set up some infrastructure, and start working on releases. Since Mageia has its own name, it was able to set up a non-profit association to govern the distribution as well.

While it is understandable that some feel strong ties to the Mandriva name, the murky future for the company makes those ties somewhat risky. As Duval notes, at one point Mandrake Linux was available in stores all over the world, and he says that he often hears from people who started their Linux experience using Mandrake. Since that time—and after a trademark dispute caused the name to change—Mandriva has had lots of ups and downs, but its users are often fiercely loyal. If the current financial problems for Mandriva S.A. mean the end of the distribution, that would be a sad outcome.

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