On the Scene at the Boston Desktop Linux Consortium

by Peter Linnell

Another sign of the acceptance of Linux in the enterprise and beyond, the first ever Desktop Linux Consortium conference was held outside of Boston this week, at Boston University's Corporate Education Center. Although widely covered in much of the specialist and general media, most of the conference coverage has focused exclusively on IBM's embracing of Linux on the desktop for its clients. That is a great headline, but it has overshadowed some other good news from the conference. This report is a overview of other parts of the conference and their newsworthy items. The sessions ran concurrently and had some scheduling conflicts, so it was impossible to visit all the breakout sessions. Some ran well over their allotted time, due to attendees piling on the questions to presenters.

The fact there is such thing as a Linux Desktop conference is encouraging. This is doubly true when you consider the high caliber of presenters and some of the new technology that previewed at the conference. Most of the presenters focused on the enterprise angle, which From my vantage point is 100% true. Most enterprise IT shops have the UNIX skills and mindset to translate the advantages of open source and Linux into better IT for their companies.

The conference was principally organized by the Desktop Linux Consortium (DLC). It was led by Bruce Perens, acting executive director of the DLC and chaired by Jeremy White from Codeweavers. The attendees and presenters were a mix of the top tier of Linux desktop developers, including Nat Friedman of recently purchased Ximian, to other folks in the Linux desktop community, such as Sam Hiser from OpenOffice.org. Reactions and comments from the attendees I spoke with were uniformly positive, and the overall atmosphere of the conference was collegial and relaxed.

I spoke with Jeremy White about his reaction to the conference.

Jeremy White: The truth is Jill Ratkevic has really been the driving force behind this conference. She really brought it all together, and she, along with the very generous folks at BU, really made it possible.

Linux Journal: Did it meet your hopes and expectations ?

JW: Absolutely! It was enormous fun; I think the presentations were excellent and of a very high caliber. It was a great place for me to reconnect with many of my peers. And the food and hosting by BU was absolutely top notch. [Ed note: It was.]

LJ: What did you think was the best part of the conference?

JW: For me the highlight came in the afternoon as I was out in the hall chatting with a guy from IBM and guy from HP. The IBM guy said, "15,000 desktops, that's probably the most in the world". Then the HP guy said, "Oh, sure, by numbers, but on a percentage basis, HP is way ahead of IBM. And Martin Fink runs Linux on his laptop." Think about it: two of the worlds biggest IT companies were having a pissing match about who used more Linux on the desktop!

LJ: What is next for the Linux Desktop Consortium?

JW: Next comes a membership drive, followed by board elections. Once the board is in place, our job (the formation committee) will be done.

Finally, Jeremy added, "I think Nat [Friedman of Ximian] said it best--I'm paraphrasing, don't recall his exact words--"The Linux Desktop won't come with a bang. It's here already, stealthily creeping in and around everywhere."

Notable Presentations

John Terpstra, one of the Samba team founders, gave an thoughtful and detailed presentation, "State of the Art FLOSS: No Roadblocks Ahead", that discussed the differences and the strengths of the open-source development model. His main theme was how it can produce superior software. He made some important points, including the open-source model puts more control back into the hands of the end user. Not only can the end user modify or fix problems in the source, but the revenue model gets reversed from an item-costing model to a service model. This new model cannot be monopolized by one vendor. John gave some well diagrammed examples of the development process and how eventually as software matures, it becomes more of a commodity--a trend the Linux community has mastered. This is the kind of message in a format readily understood by CEOs and CIOs that needs to be driven home by Linux advocates in and out of the enterprise.

Chris Lahey from the GNOME project and Ximian was there showing off the latest bits of code going into the next version of GNOME 2.6. Watching the demos, it was clear that a lot of attention has been paid to ease of use and strictly following HIG from GNOME in the basic desktop functions.

KDE developer George Staikos showed attendees a preview of the upcoming KDE 3.2. KDE 3.2 looks to be the most polished and refined KDE version to date.

There was, of course, a lot of chatter by attendees about the recent purchase by Novell of SuSE. This kind of announcement in the general business news sections has the positive side effect of bringing to the larger business world the value Linux adds to its IT solutions.

Besides his introductory remarks, Bruce Perens gave a separate talk updating attendees on the SCO lawsuit. He said many other ISVs that have UNIX source code licenses have looked but cannot find significant evidence of SCO code in the Linux source code. He again noted the dangers to free software development posed by patents and digital rights management.

New Technology Highlights

"The Open Desktop: Freedesktop.org", a presentation given by Havoc Pennington (from Red Hat, but he was presenting as a member of freedesktop.org) was most interesting. This site is hosting some intriguing technology specifically geared toward solving basic issues, including integrating applications with differing toolkits and developing specs and recommendations for common technology. The idea is all of this can be shared by GNOME, KDE, other window managers and toolkits. Freedesktop.org has become the host for many stable projects, including fontconfig. Keith Packard's fontconfig has done wonders to bring badly needed sanity to font management in XFree86. Freedesktop.org also is hosting other, more experimental software.

During his presentation, Havoc outlined the history of freedesktop.org and how it serves as an incubator of applications and libraries that enhance the Linux desktop regardless of toolkit. As he said, "It is a place to get work done." Freedesktop.org origins derive from the kde-gnome or gnome-kde mailing lists, on which key members of each team discussed interoperability issues. Freedesktop.org supports other forward-looking projects, and some smaller but important basic building blocks of the Linux Desktop are making it their on-line home. I would encourage any desktop application developer to have a good look at the site. It offers everything from MIME specifications to menu handling recommendations.

First, Havoc demoed some fresh new code, courtesy of Keith Packard, that showed new development versions of X extensions. The first was a new way of enabling transparency and shading for windows. This sounds like more eye-candy, but it actually works quite well in giving users simple visual cues about which window is in focus, and it is not toolkit dependent. It is eye-candy, but it also is a great UI enhancement, and it looks terrific on screen. Screenshots are available here, and you can learn more of the background here.

One of the other features discussed is a new way of handling window manager memory that enables the display to retain all of the open but out of focus windows in memory. This not only speeds up redraws but eliminates ghosting and flicker when moving or switching the focus of the windows. This is called the X Composite Extension.

Another surprise in this session was the appearance of Jim Gettys. The person who wrote the original X program was there, and it apparent he still is active in freedesktop.org, although mostly behind the scenes. During the Q&A after Havoc's talk, Jim talked about some of the things he is working on, such as using 3-D for applications in enhanced UIs for scientific and other engineering applications, not just games. Jim also is responsible for getting Bitstream to donate the Vera font family to GNOME. Later in the afternoon, he said more good fonts things are in the works, but he had nothing definite to announce. That is encouraging news, as one of the key missing ingredients on the Linux desktop is high quality fonts.

Chatting later on, Havoc related the ongoing work on Cairo, a library for vector graphics. Instead of using pixels, Cairo uses Postscript and PDF-like operators to draw items on the canvas. The idea is to render objects on the screen and for printing with the same methods. These kinds of building blocks are what the next generation of desktop applications will be made with.

While the exhibitor's space was small, a notable exhibitor was SuSE, who was showing off its latest 9.0 Professional release. SuSE's North American GM, Holger Dryoff, presented on Linux desktop successes outside the US. Codeweavers also was showing its freshly minted 2.1 release of Crossover Office. This new version supports not only MS Office, but also Adobe Photoshop, Macromedia Dreamweaver MX and Flash MX. The official support by Codeweavers of the Macromedia applications has been a long standing request by users of Crossover Office and Wine. Although Linux has some excellent Web development tools, such as Quanta in KDE and Bluefish (which now is a GNOME 2.x application), Dreamweaver has been one of those applications that has held back many developers from migrating to Linux. They no longer have excuses.

Wrapping Up

I was drawn to the Desktop Linux Consortium conference based on the makeup of the presenters, and I was not disappointed. I also went hopefully to raise the profile of Scribus, a Linux desktop publishing application featured in the November issue of Linux Journal. I went as a Scribus project team member but mostly as an observer.

The Q&A sessions were quite lively and proved to be a source of some scheduling conflicts. There were a few first-time glitches, but overall attending the conference was a worthwhile experience. Seeing the effort not only large IT companies but the world class developers from GNOME, KDE, Red Hat, SuSE and Ximian are putting into desktop Linux left me thinking I witnessed the beginnings of something quite special.

Peter Linnell is an IT consultant and principal of Atlantic Tech Solutions in New England, specializing in networks, pre-press and DTP. A self-described Windows refugee, the Scribus project is the first open-source project he has worked on.

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