Linux.Conf.Au Day 4 - Havoc Pennington;s Keynote

Jim O'Halloran • January 18, 2004

linux-and-open-source linuxconfau-2004

After a slightly late start Saturday morning, Havoc Pennington gave the final keynote on Desktop Linux. In contrast to the other keynotes this week, the Havoc was neat and well presented, short hair, clean shaven, etc. He looked nothing like the other "geeks" presenting, and he was the guy interested in the normal user. Probably doesn't mean anything but it was an interesting observation nonetheless.

Havoc sees the following as the main threats from Microsoft. XAML is coming with Longhorn, and allows user interfaces to be designed with XML and to work seamlessly as Windows Forms, or across the Internet. If XAML takes off it threatens to create a Microsoft centric web. Success of .net over Java also poses a threat to Linux desktops if there is no way to run .net applications on Linux. Finally there are the normal Microsoft lock in strategies including Microsoft Office file formats, Windows Media, DRM, Exchange and Active Directory.

Havoc then went on to outline some areas where Linux still needs work. Linux also needs to work on robustness and performance. We need better graphical management tools, so that when something goes wrong it can be fixed without resorting to the command line. Of course the command line should still be usable to fix problems, but there should be a graphical tool available for normal end users to use as well. Linux also needs to handle the reporting of daemon and kernel errors better. Where they can't be transparently fixed, there needs to be a mechanism for getting the error into the UI and displayed to the user rather than buried into the syslog.

Interoperation is crucial for success of Linux on the desktop. A Linux desktop needs to be able to work with MS file formats, and virtually all web pages. Linux should also work as a server to Microsoft clients, or as a client to Microsoft servers.

Hardware support needs OEM involvement, otherwise the lag between release of the hardware and the availability of Linux drivers becomes unacceptable.

Multimedia support is still a problem. This is principally a patent problem as many media technologies are patent protected which makes open source development of codecs and players difficult. There are also legal challenges in the areas of DVDs, and DRM. The long term solution for this is to promote open file formats such as Ogg.

Linux already has good usability, and studies have shown that for most common operations windows users can pick up Linux almost as fast as they can pick up XP. However, we need to continually pursue great usability so that we're not continually playing catch up to Microsoft. The community also needs to try and establish a meritocracy for usability in the same way they have for code. Usability is something that can be studied and learnt, and the community needs to recognise that not all opinions are equal in this regard.

There are a lot more Java and VB programmers in the world than C/C++. Offering only C/C++ to appliucation developers severely limits the pool of developers. Support for languages like C#, VB or Java is important for application developers who just want to get the job done in the least amount of time.

Linux developers also really need to consider the desktop as the whole network. Directory Services, Mail, Shared Calendars, File and Print Services, Authentication and Single Sign On services are all important for desktop systems but are not normally part of an open source desktop project.

Open Source Desktops also have a number of opportunities to be the best. Open source itself is an advantage because it's the one strategy Microsoft can't buy and shut down. Open source also prevents vendor lock in, because many companies, both large and small, can build a business around Linux.

Internationalisation could be a major area for Linux to shine. Some regions and languages are simply too small for commervial vendors to notice, or just aren't profitable enough to warrant localisation. Linux allows people in these areas to take the code and localise it for their needs, they don't need a vendor to do it for them. The lack of vendor lock in also means that local support is always available, and pricing of the product can be adapted to suit local conditions as well.

Linux Accessibility is already better than Windows in some areas, and still getting better.

Linux also provides a single platform for developers from server to client through to handhelds. This means developers only need to learn one API to get productive.

Linux can also win on price. Open Source is cheaper, but it also empowers the customer to chose when and how to spend their money. No forced upgrades.

Open data formats such as Ogg, documents, SVG, etc are a long term win because they ensure that even long after the original application is gone the data is still accessible. If you want long term access to your data, avoid locking your data into closed formats. Open source projects have a genuine commitment to open standards, its not just another bullet point on a feature list.

Security is another strength of Open Source. Linux was also designed as a secure multi user system from the ground up which is an inherent advantage. The many eyes principle also means that most bugs should be found and fixed before they become a major problem.

Managability is also an advantage with Linux. The many different configurations available on Linux (terminal services, workstations, etc) mean that Linux can be tailored for many different environments. There are also lock down tools available for Linux to further tailor the installation.

Overall Linux has a lot of strengths for desktop use, and there are a few areas for improvement. However, "When will Linux be ready for the desktop?" is the wrong question to ask. Linux is ready for some desktops now, a better question is "What do we need to do to get the next increment of market share?"