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Wednesday, 20 September 2006 04:46

A conversation with Anthony Towns

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Ever had the experience of contacting someone for an interview, getting the subject's agreement and then not being able to carry it through for some reason or the other?

The normal reaction from said subject, were one to return with the same request, would at the least be a healthy dose of scepticism.

Not so with Anthony Towns. The Brisbane resident, current leader of the Debian Project, was getting ready to attend the annual Debian conference in June, when I contacted him in May. We agreed to get back in touch after he returned from Mexico but I never did.

Six months elapsed, and then, given the current focus on the project due to the rather noisy resignation of a developer, I made contact again, prefacing my request with an apology. Towns was gracious, unlike a host of others I've encountered, and what follows is the result of his willingness to be interrogated.

When the Debian GNU/Linux project made its second release in January 1994 — version number 0.91 — there were a few dozen people involved. The project was five months old and the release itself had no name. The last release, in June 2005, version 3.1 codenamed Sarge, contained around 15,400 binary packages and 14 binary CDs in the official set. There were more than 1000 developers involved.

One would think that, with this number of people involved, a huge management structure would be needed, with memos flying hither and thither, with meetings occupying most of the day and with politics ruling over process. The reality is that there is a structure, there are teams, there are leaders but the conversation flows between equals, not superiors and hirelings. There is politics as there would be when more than one human is in a place for any length of time. But in toto, this is the one of the best examples of a volunteer project producing high-quality software. It is also the best example of a democratic project.

Atop this whole mass of humanity sits the the Debian Project Leader for whom a formal election is held every two years. Towns, a product of Brisbane Grammar School and the University of Queensland, has been leader since April 17 this year, and is the first Australian to hold the post.

Unlike many others, he tends to see the popularity of derivatives - other distributions based on Debian - as a plus, not a negative. In recent times, there has been much muttering about the popularity of Ubuntu and claims that it takes from the project more than it gives.

Says Towns: "Personally, I think Ubuntu has done an excellent job of bringing Debian to a group that, personally, I'd never expected Debian to be successful at introducing people to Linux. I thought it would always be the distribution people ended up using once they'd had a few years experience, having them essentially using Debian from the start of their Linux lives is absolutely awesome, in my opinion."

At the same time, he recognises that there are problems and is working to resolve things. "One of the changes I've been working on is a 'partners programme' so that we can work more closely with the various derivatives - certainly including Ubuntu, but also Linspire, Xandros, Knoppix, and many, many others. The idea is to provide some simple steps that derivative distributions can take to make it clear they support Debian's ideals, and thus give people the confidence that they're not trying to harm Debian and they're good people to work with."

He's also more than aware that the problems with Ubuntu are more pronounced. "There have been a few Ubuntu specific activities happening to make things work better there; one is the Utnubu project, which incorporates people from Debian who are working to include Ubuntu's changes back into Debian (hence the name, "Ubuntu" in reverse). I believe they're hoping to have a report of what's been going on out in the next few days. Matt Zimmerman's been doing a lot of work from the Ubuntu side in trying to get things working out, and I think he's hoping to be able to include a 'demystification' page as part of the report to better explain how Ubuntu works from a Debian perspective." 

Despite having a relatively small population, Australia has a relatively large number of developers of free and open source software in prominent positions; apart from Towns, there is Andrew Morton, who holds a senior position in the Linux kernel project. Asked for possible reasons why this was so, Towns cited the prosperity, education levels, the well-known "tyranny of distance" and the lack of a really strong entrepreneurial software streak, among others.

Additionally, "we have a kick-ass developers conference that attracts the best Linux and free software developers in the world, along with a small enough populatio that it's pretty easy for anyone who's interested to go along and learn more."

Towns agreed with the concerns about leadership which developer Matthew Garrett had expressed about the Debian project when announcing his resignation; referring to the functioning anarchy that Debian often resembles, Garrett had said that "having one person who can make arbitrary decisions and whose word is effectively law probably helps in many cases."

"I was disappointed when he resigned. He's still a part of the community though, both through his involvement in some Debian discussion channels and lists, and his work on Ubuntu and other free software, so he hasn't entirely left," he said. "I hope he'll entirely return eventually though."

Towns prefers not to think about the release of the third version of the General Public License, slated for March 2007. "I'm pretty happy with the GPL v2 and BSD licenses, so I mostly just don't think about it."

A compromise that helps everyone to move to GPL v3 would be best, he feels. "I hope the FSF (Free Software Foundation) will be able to find a way of meeting the needs of various big companies that have developed their own free licences, so that they can standardise on the GPL v3. Without that standardisation, we have artificial barriers to re-using code amongst open source projects, which doesn't really help anyone; the differences between Sun's CDDL (Common Development and Distribution Liecnse) and the GPL make it difficult to share work between Linux and OpenSolaris, and are one of the major issues in the recent forking of cdrkit, for example," he said.

Towns has been part of the Debian project for nearly nine years. He's not sure of the direction which the project will take next but finds it "absolutely amazing how quickly Ubuntu's efforts have spread Debian to a whole new group of people, and I expect the future will bring similarly fascinating changes that I never would have believed."

He and four other senior developers set up a project called Dunc a couple of days back, something separate from Debian, to raise funds so that people working on Debian could be paid. "As you might guess from my involvement in the Dunc-Tank announcement, I'm personally interested in finding ways to make working on free software be an easy decision to make - we already know it's an efficient way to create software, and a fun thing to do, so the only real challenge is making it just as easy to support yourself as it currently is working on non-free software."

Towns sees bigger changes happening in other areas. "Debian has a very strong emphasis on internationalisation, and supporting users and contributors in every part of the globe. We've seen earlier this year how easily Bhutan bootstrapped DzongkhaLinux, a version of Debian customised for the local language - as China and India improve their information technology, where Microsoft sees the potential for billions of dollars in licensing fees, we see the possibility for billions of new contributors; and to me that's a lot more exciting than any amount of money."

Strange but true – one more young man who isn't fascinated by the almighty dollar. For him, code seems to do it.


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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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