About Fosdem

by Frank Van Damme

Fosdem stands for Free and Open Source Software Developers European Meeting, and it was first organized in 2001. Back then the conference was called Osdem, but Richard Stallman didn't appreciate the omission of the word "free". In the three years since, the event has seen a growing number of attendees. Now, it is officially a two-day event (this year's ran Saturday and Sunday, February 8 and 9), if you don't include the "pre-Fosdem drink" on Friday evening.

Fosdem isn't merely about trying to put as much technical data as possible into your head in one weekend. Above all, the meeting is a social event, in which developers and free software enthusiasts from around the world meet and chat. John "maddog" Hall was among the first to show up at the Roy d'Espagne bar at the Grand Place Friday evening; by the end of the night we could have filled the entire second floor. Apparently maddog has a thing for Duvel beer.

I had a nice conversation with (among others) Brian King, a good guy who ran a session about how to program applications that use the Mozilla framework and component model. For most people, Mozilla is simply a browser or an HTML-rendering engine. But there is much more to Mozilla. The extensibility of the Mozilla package is simply amazing. You can use it to create user interfaces for your application using a markup language, or you can use it to write full applications in, for example, JavaScript. Mozilla uses its Gecko rendering engine to draw the widgets for Mozilla and Mozilla applications. This is called the XUL interface. Mozilla even features a full built-in component model called XPCOM. Brian recently co-authored a book on the subject, titled Creating Applications with Mozilla. A good example of this kind of application is the full-fledged CSS editor Cascades, which fits neatly into the Mozilla composer.

The event itself typically is developer-centric. People speak about the innerworkings of their software, offer presentations on how to use it in other products or sit behind a table all day answering thousands of questions from the crowd. For this reason, I wouldn't recommend complete newbies come to Fosdem, as the technical level is quite high. Most of the sessions, though, are fairly comprehensible even by non-developers. Personally, I am currently trying to understand the writings of Steve Oualline in Practical C Programming, and I found Fosdem most interesting.


The event was officially opened by John "maddog" Hall, one of the fathers of the free software movement. He taught us a good history lesson about free software. During his one-and-a-half hours speech, he told us about his first experiences with computers, back in the days where you could (and had to) manually count the bits and bytes in punge cards, the age when computers were as powerful as the average basic anno 2003 calculator and costed many times more then his parents' house. Back then, however, the fact that software was free (as in free speech) was perfectly normal. Then, around 1980, came the evil, proprietary Unices, which were all hideously expensive things owned by their respective companies. Nowadays in poor countries, he concluded, free software gives people access to IT applications they could only dream about in a proprietary world. After his talk, Hall was given a box of Triple Westmalle beer, as he likes Belgian beer so much.

Richard Stallman was the next speaker, and he explained the dangers of patents to the crowd. In Europe, software patents aren't yet allowed. In the US, they are. So Stallman did the best he could to explain how software patents are a weapon in the hands of big corporation, who have enough of them to trade ("cross-license") them to each other. Software patents are like a minefield: with every feature you implement, however small and generic, you never know whether someone else might have patented it already--and you risk getting sued.

It is always a bit frustrating that at this kind of event the time is limited and the presentations are many. This is what I call a "positive problem", though, which will only become bigger in the coming years. Choices have to be made, and good presentations will be missed. Luckily I had good choosing skills this weekend.

Particularly interesting was Havoc Penningtons' presentation. Havoc works for Red Hat, which is making great efforts towards the standardisation of open-source desktops. Linux has two major desktop environments (KDE and GNOME) and dozens of other less-known graphical environments. These desktops typically do a lot of things "their way"; for instance, they each have a different way of dealing with Mime types. This creates inconsistency, replication of efforts, redundant code and other evil diseases. Therefore the Free Desktop Initiative was called into existence. It is mainly about documenting how desktops work (something that should be done anyway) and making them do certain things in common. Why should we have to associate PDF files with xpdf in both Konqueror and Nautilus? Why do file managers cache their thumbnails in different locations? In any case, it is good to see that Linux on the desktop is heading in the right direction at this point.

I also attended the presentation about the future Netfilter, by Harald Welte, a young German member of the Netfilter core team. With every kernel release, Linux has a new firewalling infrastructure. This time it has a horrible naming scheme, but we are promised better fail-over capabilities and better collaboration with (graphical) frontends through user-space libraries. Harald also has a thorough knowledge on exotic networking topics, such as the "electricity over IP" protocol and how a better graphics card can improve the performance of your router.

If, by the way, you're interested in a hardened Linux server distribution that doesn't specifically focus on kernel-based security, try Openwall GNU/Linux. It goes very far in privilege separation (ever seen a distro with a separate password file for each user?), but the man in charge of the project (he calls himself Solar Designer) succeeded in making his customised kernel crash in the middle of a presentation about Linux security. We'll assume that he wasn't running a production release.


Over all, Fosdem is a must-attend event. There is no commercial drive behind the organisation. Given that Fosdem is entirely organized by volunteers, it has an impressive number of speakers and visitors. The event is completely free; instead the organisation relies on sponsors (O'Reilly, et. al.) and on donations. A donation of 25 Euro or more will get you a cool T-shirt with the Fosdem "brain" logo on it. I've been extending my wardrobe with these since 2001 and will certainly keep doing so as long as Fosdem exists.

Additional information, slides and multimedia material can be found at the Fosdem web site and in the mailing list archives.

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