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Brainshare Day Two

Today has made Brainshare worthwhile for me, partly because I got to meet Miguel de Icaza again (he's always fun to talk to), but partly also because I got the chance to chat to Gerald Pfeifer. His job title is "Director, Inbound Product Management", which is Novell terminology for "the guy that handles SUSE Linux Enterprise Server".

At the beginning of this conference I described Brainshare as "part pat-on-back ("aren’t we great!"), part putting heads together ("how can we make more money?") and part training for end users ("look how much better your life would be with such-and-such product!")". Pretty much all I saw yesterday confirmed that view, but Dr Pfeifer was different: he's a director at one of the largest Linux companies around, and yet he hacks on GCC, works as a port committer for FreeBSD, and submits patches for things like Wine and Alpine. What's more, he said he makes it an assessment objective for all his engineers to spend time working on OpenSUSE and the SUSE community.

This is a side of Novell we don't hear much about, and I think it's a shame - through all these engineers (even the ones at director level) and events such as Hack Week (300 hackers, two weeks a year get to work on whatever project they fancy), Novell is giving a whole lot back to the community. And yet here at Brainshare, all we hear about is SAP, partners, leveraging and the like.

In fact, the amount of corporate spin here is so great that I proudly present the Novell Brainshare drinking game:

  • Drink 1 shot when you hear "infrastructure"
  • Drink 1 shots when you hear "leverage"
  • Drink 2 shot when your hear the word "heterogeneous"
  • Drink 3 shots when someone pronounces "Xen" as "X-E-N" (presumably to distinguish Xen from ZENworks?)
  • Finish the glass if you hear the words "ecosystem" and "synergy" in the same sentence.
  • Eat the glass if you hear someone explain the Fossa Project in plain English.

Anyway, back to my point here. Brainshare is, of course, an event for partners and customers, hence all the buzzwordery and spinnage, so it felt good to talk to someone who was really passionate about Free Software and building up the community. In the comments for a previous blog post, someone was very upset about the way Novell had handled package management in the past, and Gerald made it clear that it won't happen again: he wants OpenSUSE to be the best community distro, and for SLES to be the best enterprise distro, but that one shouldn't try to force features on the other.

I also (predictably) questioned Miguel about the patent issues with the Moonlight project to clone Microsoft Silverlight on Linux, and he raised two interesting points. First, Moonlight only becomes encumbered when you want to use the patented codecs from Microsoft - without them, sure, you can't watch Windows Media video and such, but Moonlight is still a powerful tool and you can do a lot with it. Without those codecs, Moonlight is unencumbered, and in fact it already supports numerous open codecs in place of Microsoft's closed codecs, so Ubuntu, Fedora and other distros can package it up and do cool things today - not entirely unlike the way Gnash replaces Flash Video with Theora.

Miguel's second point was that he knows it's not perfect that Microsoft's "we won't sue you" patent covenant only applies to people who download Moonlght from Novell, but that Microsoft simply wasn't ready to give blanket coverage. In fact, saying "we'll allow one company to do it" is actually a big step forward from Microsoft in the first place - it's still not ideal, but at least they are moving forward in the right direction. Miguel (along with Andi Gutmans from Zend and some other open source gurus) are actually working with Microsoft to help foster open source growth inside the company, and I think it's going to see some big results this year.

So, to summarise: I think it sucks that you have to get Moonlight from Novell in order to avoid potential Microsoft problems. But I'm glad that it's available in a patent-free version (similar to Linux Mint), and I hope that Microsoft's desire to displace Flash will encourage it to be even more open in the future. As you may know, C# is the primary programming language for me nowadays, so it's great to get the chance to talk to Miguel - and it's even better to hear that he's still working hard to push software freedom wherever he is.

The other interesting thing from today was that I had a short chat with Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier of NewsForge/Linux.com/you name it writing fame - he's the new community manager for OpenSUSE, he's a big fan of Max Spevack and Jono Bacon, and wants to build upon some of the great work they've done and help build up the (admittedly flagging) OpenSUSE community. Will we see an OpenSUSE Live this year? I did ask whether he missed having Ubuntu's level of user mods (eg Xubuntu, Ubuntu Christian Edition, etc). His response: "I'm not terribly disappointed that we don't have a Satanic Edition."


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