In this interview we talk with Warren. In specific, we talk about:
- The origins of SimplyMEPIS
- Ubuntu’s role in the larger community
- Differences among distros from a developer perspective
- Corporate use of free versus for-fee Linux
- The Linux desktop and the future of client-side Linux
- Future directions of note: IPv6 and DNSSEC
Sean Campbell: Warren, could you introduce yourself and tell us about some of the things you have worked on during your career?
Warren Woodford: Sure. I’ve been pushing electrons for a very long time. I grew up with what is now the computer industry, and I was already working at almost the VP level when the first microcomputers came along.
My background includes telecommunications, entertainment, field service, mini computers, micro computers, mainframe computers, PCs before they were called PCs, real time processing systems, software for business, software for home, software for government, and tools that people have heard of if they’ve been around a long time–always on the bleeding edge.
That’s the way I worked until the Internet bubble burst, at which time I kind of withdrew and decided to take it easy while the economy was down, not realizing it was going to be so volatile for so long. It was in 2000 or 2001 that I first started looking at Linux.
Aside from the philosophy and technical foundations of Linux, there was a lot there that I really didn’t like, frankly. Because of my background, I had been a champion of GUI interfaces since the early ’80s, and that aspect in particular was very inadequate at the time.
The bottom line is that, when I first found Linux, it was too rough around the edges for me. That represented the possibility of opportunity, not that I was really looking for work. This will piss off a few people, but there was a certain amateur quality about it.
Around 2001 was the first time I used a version of Linux that felt pretty good, which was SUSE, but it also had some significant bugs. It was pretty mature, but it was stiff–just too rigid in the way it did certain things. Mandrake seemed like it was on the right track, but there were bugs in the installation process and things like that.
Still, I felt that there was promise, so I started using Mandrake around 2001, and as I got familiar with everything, I decided that it was marginally good enough. Then, in 2002, Mandrake stumbled badly with their release in the September/October timeframe. They made some big mistakes, in part because of pure hubris.
It was around that point that I started thinking about building a version of Linux, instead of depending on other people. I jumped into it, deciding to pursue it as a way to learn technology that I didn’t know.
It has always turned out that when I learn a new technology, opportunities arise, whether my original reason for getting involved worked out or not. That’s how I got into Linux and decided to develop MEPIS. It was first for myself, and then I decided to see what would happen if I gave it free reign.
It got picked up by Distrowatch and went to #10 in one month, and that told me something. I started spending almost all of my time on it, but then in 2004 I had an injury that laid me up for a long, long time. During that time, MEPIS made it to #1 at Distrowatch, but I couldn’t really do much to maintain it.
Then it slid. Mark Shuttleworth saw opportunity and forked Ubuntu off of Debian. To be clear, I think that has ultimately been good for Debian, and Ubuntu contributes a lot back to the Debian community, but it is clearly a fork.
Sean: What do you think about Ubuntu’s strategy? They contribute upstream–more as of late, in fact–but at the same they time fuzz the distinction for users that Linux is really a collection of sub projects that are traveling in the same direction at roughly the same velocity.
I actually think what he’s trying to do isn’t all that bad, but I may have the luxury of some detached pragmatism. I see it as a logical, commercially driven decision, but I’m curious what you think about it, because you’ve obviously got a lot more history in this than I do.
Warren: I’m not bothered by anything that Ubuntu does. I think that Ubuntu pushes the boundaries regarding purity, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing, although that gets me in trouble with some people.
Some people call me a whiner about the GPL, while from my point of view they are the whiners. The GPL deserves to be scrutinized closely and to be debated, as does any legal document that restricts people’s rights. Calling a person a whiner because they care enough to challenge, question, or state positions about something is itself whining.
I think it’s good that Ubuntu challenges the boundaries regarding what is and is not proper open source. I think that what Ubuntu contributes back, both upstream and cross-stream to Debian, is good. And I think that the way that they kicked Debian in the collective butt has been good for Debian.
The fact that Mark is out there trying to make commercial deals actually may or may not make a big difference in the long run, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. For example, I know that a couple of years ago he negotiated with IBM to get Ubuntu approved as a platform for running DB2. That would make it very easy to get that DB2 approval extended to Debian if anybody wanted to, and I think that’s OK.
From the point of view of what’s right and wrong, I don’t think there’s anything at all wrong with their fuzzying things a bit, as long as they don’t do it as much as Xandros did. Xandros at one point was blatantly changing copyright, renaming things and such, to make it appear that they had invented KDE or something. I can’t speak for what was in their mind, but something was going on there.
I don’t see Ubuntu doing that. I see them creating projects of their own to build utilities that represent their philosophy about how such things should be done, like the Adept project for a package manager. However if there’s a good product out there already, then there’s no good reason for them to be reinventing the wheel.
I think KPackage has been kind of so-so. On the other hand, I think Synaptic is awfully darn good. But Synaptic is GTK based, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I wouldn’t program in that world. For personal reasons, it would be too inefficient and take too long to do. I wouldn’t program in Python for the same reason.
I don’t see anything wrong with creating or sponsoring Adept, just as I don’t see anything wrong with the idea of starting Ubuntu in the first place. You can complain or you can say that competition’s a good thing.
Mark, for one, is probably not going to pursue something unless there really is a shortcoming to be addressed.
Sean: What about Ubuntu’s OEM strategy? They have done really solid work in getting Toshiba to push Ubuntu, for example, and of course they also have Dell with five systems. They seem to be doing a really bang up job in getting OEMs to ship, promote, and push the Linux based desktop, and that doesn’t even count the netbooks push that’s happening.
Do you think they may have figured out a strategy that could give them a certain position on desktops that others haven’t quite figured out yet?
Warren: An important consideration is that Mark is more or less a billionaire, and he made that money in the computer industry. He can talk to companies like Dell, IBM, Toshiba, and others with a level of credibility that no one else in the Linux industry that I’m aware of can match.
He can get in the door to propose things, and he can get things agreed to that nobody else can. That gives him an advantage when you consider one distro over another, but that’s just how things are.
That’s good for Linux as a whole, and it means that companies like Dell and Toshiba are starting to think about compatibility more than they were before. And that’s a good thing. There are people who have told me, “Hey, this is really great. I bought a Dell machine with Ubuntu and then put SimplyMEPIS on it and it all worked.”
Sean: You’ve got Intel producing video drivers and wireless drivers and you’ve got network managers, so this is where the Ubuntu fuzzing works both for and against you. On the one hand, it makes the user feel like the network manager is Ubuntu’s network manager, even though it isn’t, really. On the other hand, they can just go stick a different distro on it.
Warren: Yes. In that regard, they’re having a positive impact on Linux compatibility with mainstream hardware, by getting the mainstream hardware companies to think a little bit about compatibility.
Scott Swigart: How much difference is there, from an application developer’s perspective, between different Linux distros? And how much work is that to take into account, and how much does something like the Linux Standard Base help with that?
To put it another way, for an application developer, how much effort is it to support and test and ensure that you’re compatible with lots of different Linux distributions? And how much of that work is done by the app developer versus the distros themselves?
Warren: That is a very big question. About three years ago, some of the biggest companies in the computer industry brought together some Debian affiliated companies like mine regarding this very question. They wanted to explore having Debian-based Linux as a competitor for Red Hat and Novell, and it gave rise to the ill-fated Debian Common Core Consortium.
Those conversations arose from this very issue. You couldn’t have commercial applications or commercial support for a particular Linux distro without a known, stable base. That plays out at different levels, because it depends on what kind of application it is. If it’s something for server, then probably, you only care about a core set of packages.
You can have a core set of packages, and you can have standards around that. If you do, then at the very lowest foundational level, companies that are considering something commercial related to Linux have a common base that they can rely on. But what’s the real core if you’re running a practical application?
And if we’re not using straight X, then what toolkit are you using, and what version? Consider the case of Acrobat Reader for Linux. How are you going to release Acrobat Reader in a way that runs cross distro, when each distro and each release of each distro may have different versions of key libraries?
Adobe does it by basically bundling those libraries, so they only have to rely on the very minimum number of compatible packages, or libraries, on a particular release.
From the point of view of an application developer, the problem is that every distro and every release of every distro has variations in what versions of core packages are installed. And because each distro has a different philosophy about long term maintainability and about stability of the distro, it’s a moving target forever.
You know, it’s a miracle that Firefox works so wonderfully. Those guys are incredible, and so are the Open Office people. Figuring out how to write code that is compatible with so many different versions of libraries to run with or be compiled against is a huge job. This is where Linux has a really big disadvantage when it comes to building complicated applications that you want to distribute broadly.
Scott: Educate me on the Linux