Communicating freely

Archive for May, 2006

A day with the boys from GLLUG

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2006

Recently I was lucky enough to speak at the Great London Linux User Group, a vibrant LUG right in the centre of London.  The meetings are held at Westminster University in a well equipped lecture theatre (no less than two projector screens lurk over the heads of the speakers), and the ‘amphitheater’ seating allows everyone to get a good view of the proceedings.  An additional benefit is that it’s possible to pelt bad speakers with fruit, paper and Microsoft CDs without undue effort.  Gravity does most of the work.

I was talking about Free Software, the Free Software Foundation Europe, and why things like GPLv3 are important.  That might sound like preaching to the converted – I was addressing a LUG after all – but we have lots of controversial topics on our collective community plates.  DRM is hovering around like an annoying bee.  Patents loom and loom again, threatening innovation in development.  Fights over terms like ‘Open Source’ and ‘Free Software’ cause bickering among friends.  If ever there was a time to reassess where we are, and where we are going, it’s now.  This is the moment to pull together and share a common agenda.

The GLLUG crowd was both sizable and enthusiastic.  I had been a tad worried that people would contribute to the conversation, but the opposite was true.  Intelligent, piercing questions appeared from all directions.  People wanted to know about business models, development models, challenges facing us, and the need to innovate.  It’s a genuine pleasure to engage with an audience who have things on their minds, and are not afraid to talk about them.  

I’m loath to label anything as a ‘favourite’ topic, but one strand of our conversation really grabbed me.  A gentleman from the BBC introduced an issue regarding the deployment of GNU/Linux and other Free systems in corporate environments.  Take-up is often sluggish at best, and often a non-starter.  Is it because upper-management don’t know about Free Software?  Is it because of institutional inertia?

My own opinion is that cracking corporate environments is a substantial and multifaceted challenge.  Many factors contribute to reluctance on the part of managers to adopt our system.  One such factor  is the lack of technical education on the part of decision makers.  Another factor is institutional policy.  However, I believe the larger issue runs deeper than this, and actually goes right to the core of what we do.

Free Software development models do not aways inspire corporate confidence.  That’s not unnatural.  We are hardly corporate in our approach!  Free Software often is developed in non-hierarchical casual groups, with few nominated managers, vague schedules, and even vaguer accountability.  That’s a pretty scary proposition for a business thinking of using our tools: they are often afraid that projects will not deliver, will not continue to evolve, or will not be supported long enough for a deployment lifespan to be completed.

Sure.  Red Hat.  I hear you.  There are companies that support GNU/Linux solutions, and they are not going to vanish overnight.  IBM is a fairly heavyweight asset to have our on side.  The problem is that the presentation of GNU/Linux solutions is not as mature as the proprietary solutions that have had time to prove themselves in the eyes of non-technical business managers.

Things are changing.  I love the IBM site about GNU/Linux solutions, because I think it’s really beating Microsoft at their own game.  Year by year GNU/Linux is gaining respectability and sophistication.  It even steamrolled Sun into releasing Solaris under an open source license.  We are getting to the point where our Free business models are matching the closed business models of the old guard.  However, we must not be complacent.  No matter how good our technology is, it counts for little if we are not competitive with the market leader.  Look at what happened to BeOS.

It’s an interesting discussion thread.  It might not keep the conversation going at frat parties, but it does generate a buzz at LUGs!

Later in the day another gentleman in the audience took me aside.  He also used to work for the BBC, and he described how the community environment of the corporation was ruined by the introduction of aggressive management policies.  In the old days the BBC departments used to pool ideas and resources.  However, now departments have been encouraged to stop helping each other, and to instead compete for increasingly limited budgets.  This set me thinking.  I mentioned earlier how issues like ‘Open Source’ vs ‘Free Software’ have lead to bickering in our community.  Is there a danger that as Free Software gets more corporate we’ll become like the modern BBC?  Competitive, uncooperative nuclear groups fighting to prove our worth in comparison to each other?

I don’t think so.

In Free Software these days I see more cooperation than ever.  Look at GNOME and KDE.  In the late nineties there was a lot of tension and (dare I say it?) FUD regarding our two main desktop environments.  These days the dragon and the foot are not only buddy-buddy, but they are working together to develop shared paradigms and innovative ideas about how user productivity can be increased.

Programmers and software architects may be annoying, eccentric, and occasionally unwashed, but they are as smart as heck.  We all have our reasons for spending ridiculous hours in front of computer screens, and these reasons have little to do with shallow egotistical goals.  

GLLUG is pretty much proof of this.  People asked me questions like “what do you think can be done to make Free Software more competitive?” That type of question sees me giving answers that are perhaps too business orientated for some tastes.  I like productivity analysis, quantitative research, and the application of structured frameworks.  However, instead of ending up in flame wars, we all shared different ideas, and mulled over problems with one goal in mind: finding ways forward that will work.  I think that’s why our software works, while Microsoft end up patching a sinking ship (XP) while the mythical Vista slips further away.

One of my favourite moments at the GLLUG meeting was the talk after mine.  Simon Morris was presenting a rather nice PBX system called Asterix, and things got technical.  It was fun to get down to the real hardware and software after spending such a long time talking about politics and ideology.  I love to learn about technologies, and on this occasion I had the opportunity to uncover a completely new patch of the ICT wonderland.  I had never realised that PBX systems were so easy to set up, or so flexible when it comes to configuration.  It’s a shame I only have one telephone in my house.

After the talks were done, GLLUG as a whole drifted out into the sunlight, and we promptly vanished into the dark basement of a pub to drown our sorrows and talk about geek stuff.  There was a gent with a beard (I apologise if you are reading this, but I don’t think we were ever properly introduced), and we ended up chatting about quantum encryption.  The photon encryption we are playing with now is interesting, but the hardcore geeks among us want to know when the quantum entanglement toys will be ready.

What a day.

If you are ever in London, do drop by the Greater London Linux User Group.  It’s a great example of how rich and diverse a LUG can be.  I had a wonderful time speaking, listening and sharing a pint.  Thank you to everyone for making my all-too-brief visit such a pleasure.  I’m already looking forward to going back.