Debian Rules

by Don Marti

I might as well start with a disclaimer. Debian is my favorite Linux distribution - make that GNU/Linux distribution - and I'm using a Debian box now. There. And, by the way, if anyone at Linux Journal writes something incorrect about your favorite distribution, it is not a harmless error. It's the result of our deep-seated prejudice against your distribution of choice and the main ethnic group in your distribution's "home" country. If we do make a mistake, please send us e-mail IN ALL CAPS RIGHT AWAY to point out that we're hypocrites and bigots and all that, otherwise we'll never learn. Thanks in advance, and back to my LinuxWorld notes.

My Debian-o-philia aside, Debian 2.2, the "Joel 'Espy' Klecker" release, is still pretty impressive, because it doesn't make an impression. It's seamless. Just do an apt-get dist-upgrade, and your Debian box is upgraded from the last version. The only reason to even get a new Debian CD is if you're someplace with a heinously slow Net connection, or if the kernel on the old CD doesn't support your hardware. All that work looking for a black CD-ROM drive, and I'll never use it again.

Installing Debian is as awkward as upgrading is smooth; but RTFM, make some coffee, and power through the install. It's worth it, especially if you're relying on informal user-group channels for support. I've been noticing more and more of the local user-group wizards going to Debian, so you'll find skilled support there.

I was going to call this conference "LarryWorld" because of the VA events, posters and machines I expected to see everywhere. They're the "cornerstone sponsor" of LinuxWorld. But VA was just another big vendor this time, with not much news - they sponsored a press conference for Debian, introduced a new web ordering system for customers to choose the software to be installed on machines they order, and reorganized the Andover properties, along with their own homegrown and sites, into the "Open Source Development Network". Sitting on the table in front of me is an OSDN media kit (the stuff they show to prospective advertisers) showing their page layout, which contains no fewer than five ads with a total size limit of 58k. Oink, oink, Larry! Even CNET and ZDNet pack only two or three ads. Got Junkbuster? But the lack of VA dominance is good news for the conference as a whole. Other vendors perceived Red Hat as exercising too much control over the old Linux Expo in North Carolina, which I think is why it ended up dying off.

So if it wasn't LarryWorld this time, whose world was it? Jim Ready World, maybe. Linux now rules embedded systems, as you should all know by now. And MontaVista Software Inc. looks like an embedded tools vendor that rules in the right places. First of all, Ready, the CEO, not only has 25 years of embedded systems experience, he also looks like John Cleese, which can't hurt. And it turns out embedded Linux can surf effortlessly on the you-have-to-run-Linux-to-be-a-studly-engineer wave. "People we're selling to have been building embedded systems for some time, and most of those people have fooled with Linux at home," Ready says. "I'm in fat city - they're pre-trained."

And somebody forgot to lock Bill Weinberg in an office full of yes-people and dancing hamsters when they made him MontaVista's Director of Marketing. He gets the point of free software, and actually said things like "Linux liberates [developers] from depending on one vendor" rather than boasting. Very cool development project hosted at MontaVista: Microwindows, a non-memory-hog GUI system, with both WinCE and X-compatible APIs. Anti-aliasing, alpha blending, open source, good, good, good. Beers to MontaVista for that and for their real-time kernel work.

When a computer company announces "we will continue to support our (whatever) customers", run for your life. Whatever the product with "continued support" is, you just lost the consensus reality platform war, and you'd better make plans to get off or get stuck with third-rate support. This time, the bell tolled for CDE, as Sun and HP announced that they would be switching to GNOME as the default desktop. If you're the one remaining CDE user, have a look at the site and start salivating now.

GNOME FUD, pro and anti, is all over the Web now: the main threads being, on the pro side, that KDE is dead; on the anti side, that dumbass UNIX vendors will mess up the Linux desktop. First of all, KDE is not dead, because there are a lot of people who like to write good GUI apps with Qt. KDE works. I personally don't like it quite as much as GNOME, but I can't complain about the functionality. GNOME users should thank the Lord for KDE, since real competition means that GNOME won't get foo-foo and ambitious and turn into a 20-year wankfest.

Just to clear up another FUD issue: Qt is free software now, even though the license isn't truly compatible with the GPL. But the license mismatch isn't worth the flamewar that has heated up debian-legal and other fora. If you take legal action because someone used your GPL code in a program linked with Qt, which is free but not under the GPL, you're a jerk. Even GNOME users like me will treat your license nit-picking as damage and route around you. I'll be happy when the KDE licensing mess is resolved, but it's not worth losing sleep over. Any KDE developer who wants free legal advice, mail me and I'll put you in touch with a KDE-using friendly lawyer who's familiar with the issue.

My prediction for the desktop winner? Any smart KDE or GNOME developer will be looking for opportunities to gobble up the other desktop's apps and components. The winning desktop will be the one that does the best job of assimilating the other's work, and the loser will be the one that arrogantly ignores anything Not Invented Here.

I've seen Nautilus demos before the official unveiling here at the show, and it looks like Nautilus is at the Mozilla level - usable and cool, but not quite all there yet. I'm impressed, but can a file manager be both easier than the Macintosh Finder for new people and acceptable to geeks who never use file managers? Definitely a program to try, though.

And as for the UNIX Vendor Kiss of Death Factor landing on GNOME, give these people a chance. Just because the UNIX vendors have been toxic waste sites, management-wise, doesn't mean there aren't some good people behind their rusty drums of evil licenses and NDAs. Don't just let them emerge, blinking, into the light - have a party and invite them. Attention GUI hackers for Sun and HP: come to ALS in Atlanta, and I will buy you your beverage of choice and introduce you around.

Speaking of beverages of choice, the parties at this show were very not bad. I don't know how pouring beer into me will help you sell more product, but keep doing it and I'll give you a very good explanation. At the Mandrake party, I got to meet John Perry Barlow, who told me I "don't get it" about software patents, so I'll have to get caught up. Bad news for partiers aged less than 21: some of the vendors locked your age group out of their parties entirely. Personally, I'll gladly give up the nightclub ambiance for a beige hotel ballroom, if that lets us avoid the Club Security Force. Papers, please? Please.

Enough about the US's strange beverage laws. Here's the good news. Nobody is afraid to say the F word any more. Freedom, freedom, freedom. Proprietary middleware and server software vendors spammed us journalists pretty heavily with press releases before the show, but didn't really draw much interest. It seems like just having something out for Linux isn't big news - you have to offer the user some freedom, so she knows you aren't wasting her time.

There were a lot of proprietary software vendors bouncing around the edges of their booths in eager puppy-who-wants-to-play mode - but attendees headed for the open-source stuff. Even telephony, CRM, and ERP have active free projects going, and as for the "I need to keep a proprietary OS partition to run Quicken" factor, I've got one word for you: Proprietary software just isn't cool any more. In a few years, a big stogie will probably be more welcome in the server room than a license manager. All in all, LinuxWorld was a good event, and worth attending next time if you can make it.

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