Developer Interview: Ronald “wattOS” Ropp
Biff Baxter, real name Ronald Ropp, is a technology consultant based in Portland, Oregon. He's also the developer behind wattOS, an Ubuntu derived Linux distribution (see our overview). We were quite impressed with wattOS, so we got in contact with him for some Q+A.
How did you get involved with Linux?
I got involved in Linux a long time ago. I loaded Slackware 1.1 from a CD (that I copied to floppies) in the back of a web server book that I bought in 1995. I was setting up my first web server, and I had an unused 486DX2 50MHz machine that I loaded it on. I had no UI, and I didn't not know what to do with it when done, but it worked. From there it grew, and I moved to RedHat for a year or two, then to SuSE for a while, then on to the wonderful world of Distro hopping. Everything from Slackware to Gentoo etc. I got involved in security and ISP and networking work and it was a perfect platform for that.
How did wattOS come about?
I grew frustrated with Windows 95 and the constant upgrade cycle, money required, memory, bloat, viruses, etc. I was taking old Dell Optiplex desktop machines and installing Vector Linux on them to make a fast secure simple platform for people to use. I would get a lot of 10 of them from a local recycler, install Vector Linux on them and sell them on eBay or simply give them to people.
What is the ethos behind wattOS?
The goal is to balance responsiveness, function and footprint and to maintain a somewhat minimalist interface so you do not lose a quick, efficient way to move around your apps and desktop space while not having to be a command line ninja to do so.
From the beginning, my intent for wattOS (which I first released in July 2008) was to create a simple, fast desktop that can leverage the large Debian/Ubuntu knowledge base and repositories. I've tried to keep it somewhat minimal, while being as functional as possible for the average user. I don't want them to have to do a ton of command line work just to do the basics such as web, email, music, video, print, photos, word processing, chat, etc.
I've also created (or included) some basic tools to help minimize power use. Additionally, there are a ton of systems sitting unused, in closets, being scrapped, etc that are perfectly functional, and people who do not have a lot of money would be thrilled to have them.
There are several other distros that with similar aims, and many are pretty close, but I always found them lacking something, so I decided to do one myself.
How big is the team, or are you working on your own?
Its basically me. I have had some other community help from time to time - not to mention we all have the help of a massive, brilliant user base and developers in the case of Linux. The first power manager for wattOS was built by an all round good guy called Iggy Koopa who is skilled in Python and helped put that together. He is more active now in Crunchbang forums, but we trade correspondence at times. I have also gotten some advice and help from Kendall Weaver who is the maintainer of Peppermint OS and I think is also pretty involved in Linux Mint. He is also brilliant and runs on coffee, beer and code.
The overall roadmap and plans, release schedule, etc. are all mine.
Who uses wattOS?
I am always surprised what people use wattOS for. I have seen a little of everything. One interesting use is a netbook company in Indonesia that makes the Gecko Edubook. They were using and including a custom version of wattOS for a while. Not sure if they still are, but they have an interesting story and product. I have had some of their customers come to me with questions.
Could you take me, briefly through the method that you use to create a wattOS release? I take it you make use of Remastersys [our overview]?
The methods I have used to build wattOS have gone full circle. I have built by hand, I have even built some bases from Debian for reviving old PPC Macs, etc. But most consistently I have come back to Remastersys. However, the current release is the last one to make use of Remastersys. I will still include it in the distro, for the users as it's a good tool, but R4 (the next version) will be built by hand again as I have some specific things I want to do.
I usually start with the mini ISO from Ubuntu which is typically around 10-12MB and I start to pick the basics from there. That's the plan for R4 as well. After I get the base OS done, I typically install the apps one at a time, and then customize all the menus in terms looks and feel, scripts, etc. I then try to scrub any unneeded packages without breaking dependencies, and then start testing, adding, taking away, etc. Its not an efficient way of doing it, but I enjoy it. I like testing new apps, and I'm always balancing my desire to make things easy against memory and responsiveness. I'm always looking for new power management tools that are reasonably easy to use as well (like PowerTop, etc).
How do you choose the applications for wattOS?
I'm always hunting for new apps that are lightweight, simple and solve specific things. For example, I recently removed Gimp from the release and replaced it with a simple photo editor when I decided that most people simply want to resize a photo or look at their library and don't need a gigantic, complex program. They can always add it later, if they choose.
What do you have planned for the future of wattOS?
Its been an interesting process, because I am always quite dissatisfied with wattOS and realize how much more work it really needs.
I plan on continuing to improve it and to add tools that will make the end user experience better. The customization that I want to do has gotten to the point where wattOS will need its own repo for packages (in addition to the Ubuntu ones) and I have started that process. There are always new applications added or replaced with each new version as I find better/faster apps to solve simple problems.
Thanks to Ronald for taking part and sharing his experiences.
The wattOS website.
wattOS is on twitter at @wattOSLinux
Ronald's personal twitter is @biffbaxter
UK based freelance writer Michael Reed writes about technology, retro computing, geek culture and gender politics.