In this interview we talk with Joe. In specific, we talk about:
- Where openSUSE fits into the desktop Linux landscape
- Relationships between openSUSE and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server and upstream projects
- The effect of commercial agreements on open source projects
- The future roadmap for openSUSE
- Bringing together technical and non-technical users in open source projects
- Coordinating testing and bug fixes among distros and upstream projects
- Design coherence among distributed developers
Sean Campbell: Joe, to get us started, could you give us a little bit of your background?
Joe Brockmeier: OK. About 1999, I started writing about Linux as a freelancer. That eventually morphed into a career writing about Linux and open source as a technology journalist, more or less full time, much of that time as a freelancer. Around 2005, I joined Linux.com as editorial director, and then last year, I was with “Linux Magazine” as editor in chief. My educational background is in journalism, and that’s when I discovered Linux–when I was in university.
But last fall, Novell came and asked if I’d be interested in applying for the community manager job, which at that time was called the chief Linux evangelist. Having followed the open source community for so long, I was really interested in being directly involved with the project, as opposed to just observing and writing about what open source communities were doing, so I joined Novell in February as the community manager and have been pretty much going non-stop since.
Back in August 2005, openSUSE got its start when SUSE announced that they were going to start a community distribution. Prior to that, SUSE Linux had been developed in-house by SUSE before they were purchased by Novell, and while it was a very strong distro, there really wasn’t much community input into it. Novell decided to build strong community participation.
The project is going on about three years old now, and we are making pretty good progress regarding getting the infrastructure in place for external contributions and having transparent development.
We just announced last week the 1.0 release of the openSUSE Build Service, which adds the ability for external contributors to make direct contributions to the distribution, as opposed to going through the gatekeepers, so to speak. And we released openSUSE 11.0 in mid-June, with a lot of improvements, particularly in the installer and the package management, and of course all the normal improvements that go along with a version upgrade, such as new versions of KDE and GNOME and things of that nature.
Sean: Tell us a bit about where you feel openSUSE sits in the landscape of desktop distributions. What do you think it’s exceedingly good at, and maybe some of the places where you see challenges or opportunities?
Joe: Generally, my metric for success on the desktop is how well it fits what people need. I don’t really spend a lot of time comparing it to other Linux distros, because I really think we all have the same mission, which is to get people using Linux. So I don’t view them as competition, so much as inspiration, if anything.
The audience we’re trying to address includes home office users and others who want a good, solid desktop operating system that’s as easy to use as possible.
I think openSUSE is exceedingly good at package management, being easy to use, offering a top-notch desktop experience in GNOME or KDE, and providing a wide range of the best free and open source software available.
Our challenge is reaching new users and encouraging more users to become contributors.
The opportunity, right now, is that a lot of people are put off by Vista and are looking around at their options. I want those folks to find openSUSE, and another challenge we have is to find ways to make the jump from the audience that’s Linux-aware to the vast number of potential users who haven’t heard of Linux or know very little about Linux.
Sean: Every distribution seems to have an area that they don’t go after, or that they maybe feel they don’t have as great a degree of fidelity in. Is there some area where you think that’s true for openSUSE, where it’s not particularly geared for?
Joe: I was at Sun CommunityOne, and we had a Linux distro panel that included me, Jono Bacon from Ubuntu, Karsten from Fedora, and Glynn Foster from Sun. We were talking about this.
I think the only major difference is that we have slightly different philosophies. Fedora wants to approach the desktop with only free software, and they don’t want to ship anything that is proprietary at all. On the other hand, if you look at the retail box and the DVD that we ship, we include a little bit of proprietary software like Adobe Flash that we think people who are coming from Windows are going to want.
As much as I don’t like the fact that you have to have a proprietary program to view a lot of web pages, I think that that’s reality. If my girlfriend’s kids use a computer, they’re going to go to web sites that require Flash, and they’re probably not going to be sold on the argument that since it’s not free software, they should just not go to those sites.
I think it’s more important to successfully get people to use a 98 percent free software desktop than it is to ship a 100 percent free software desktop that no one wants to use.
Sean: So maybe we have to be OK with the idea of shipping a proprietary 3D driver because everybody has EVO integrated right now. We can either tell them to go spend seven days configuring it when they’re not competent to, or we can just roll over for two percent of what’s going to be in the distro.
Do you feel that’s kind of what’s going to have to happen in the interim, and then eventually the hardware manufacturers and the other folks will ship Linux drivers, and then maybe that’s not an issue as much anymore?
Joe: Yeah. I think it’s a major chicken and the egg thing. You have to demonstrate that you have a certain percentage of the user base before you can expect companies to spend engineering time or be willing to do things differently than they have in the past.
I don’t buy the argument made by a lot of the manufacturers that they have to have proprietary code to be competitive. On the other hand, I do think it’s necessary for us to make the argument to them that there is some benefit to them when they ship a free software driver.
And the first thing that we have to accomplish there is to demonstrate that there are enough users that it will make an appreciable difference in the number of units that they would sell.
Scott Swigart: What’s the relationship between openSUSE and Novell’s enterprise distros for the server and desktop?
Joe: Basically, openSUSE is the foundation of SUSE Linux enterprise. We just released 11.0, and now we’re working on 11.1, which will be the foundation of the SUSE Linux Enterprise Server and Desktop products. The appropriate technologies that we develop in openSUSE are carried over into the enterprise product.
Scott: Would it be accurate, then, to say that newer technology might show up there, and then a decision is made in terms of what’s ready for the SLES and SLED distros?
Joe: We do sort of incubate technologies within openSUSE, although we also work on things that are of benefit to the openSUSE community that may not have an impact for our enterprise customers.
We are also careful to make sure that whatever we ship in openSUSE is usable and stable enough that our users are going to be satisfied with it and happy with it.
Scott: What are the usual things that you do when you’re putting together a distro? Where does the work of the upstream project stop and your work start?
Joe: In some cases, there isn’t a great deal of difference. For example, we have a team that works on GNOME, and we try to do as much work as possible within GNOME so that there’s not that loss between the upstream project and the distribution.
To illustrate one of the problems historically between distribution and an upstream project, say you have Fedora and Ubuntu and openSUSE and all these other different distros working on something. You get business when one project decides to innovate in one area or add a few patches or whatever, but those changes don’t necessarily make it upstream, or they do make it upstream but after the main project has also started working on the same feature or problem in tandem.
As much as possible, we try to work within the projects like GNOME for KDE that benefit us, rather than doing the patches in our little area and then maybe submitting them back, or letting them get them, or whatever.
Obviously, for the desktop, we add our own artwork and some polish in those areas. We also make some configuration decisions that may be aren’t handled by default GNOME or KDE, but largely, we really try to work with the upstream projects to avoid duplication of effort and that sort of thing.
Scott: How do you handle it when you identify upstream work that would be valuable to your customers when that work is produced after the last stable release?
Joe: For example, we knew the Mozilla folks would be shipping Firefox 3 sometime after we shipped openSUSE 11. We had to make a decision about whether we should stick with Firefox 2, which would be pretty old midway through openSUSE 11.0, or whether we should go ahead and ship a pre-release version of Firefox 3.
Ultimately, we decided to go ahead and ship Firefox 3 beta 5, and when the feature freeze came into effect, we stuck with that version. Since then, we’ve gone ahead and shipped the final, via the package updates.
For community distribution, it’s easier to do that sort of thing, because we don’t have the five-year enterprise contracts to worry about, which gives us a little more flexibility.
Scott: What about the smaller projects, like Pulse Audio, an IM client, or Pigeon, when there’s maybe not an official release, but you want to back-port a really important patch to the version you’ve shipped?
Joe: Generally speaking, the policy would be that if there is a security fix or something, we would back-port it. We usually don’t do full-version updates or anything like that, with some exceptions for major apps like Firefox. As for new features, though, we have a rapid enough release cycle that it makes more sense to just put the new features into the next release.
Sean: Let me ask you a question in a different area. Generally speaking, in the open source community, there’s a somewhat mixed reaction to Novell having agreements with Microsoft. Do you feel that any controversy in that area affects uptake of openSUSE?
Joe: When I took the job, that was one of the first things that I expected a lot of questions on, and I did at one time because everyone thinks that it’s the elephant in the room. But when I go to open source conferences and talking to users and whatnot, I generally haven’t found it to be as big of an issue as is generally suggested in the press. This is not to say that it’s not an issue at all, but it’s hardly the only issue, and after nearly two years, a lot of people have realized it’s not the catastrophe that some painted it as when it was announced.
I think there are some folks that are very active online trying to complain about this particular issue, and they’re welcome to that viewpoint. I would suggest that maybe if you are deeply committed to open source, perhaps