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Debian guru's plea for sane computing future

CANBERRA: When Bdale Garbee talks about the future of the Linux desktop, it is not so much a visionary view as a view of how he would like computing to evolve.

That was his topic at the Australian national Linux conference on Monday morning where he gave the first keynote.

Garbee has been a Debian developer since 1994 and, thus, is certainly well placed to talk about a sensible way that desktop development should take.

Though American, he can claim to be more Australian than most Linux conference goers in this land, having attended every single LCA right from 2002, presented at some and been a keynote speaker before.

In large part, his views appear to be shaped by the increasing complexity of free and open source software, complexity that is taking away the ability to enable users to do things their own way. The strengths that made free and open source software what it was are now being lost.

Garbee first dwelt on the traditional aspects of dominance in the desktop space, to dispel any myths that Linux could make headway based on these factors.

For example, OEMs spend little or nothing on pre-loading Windows on hardware; were they to load Linux then the cost of the devices they sell would be much more.

There is far too much of synergy in this marketing exercise for Linux to take the place of Windows, and Garbee asked his audience to have no illusions on this score.

He pointed out that the desktop, in reality, had no real hold on users; what mattered, for one, was applications that would work across desktops.

To illustrate his point about desktops, he pointed to the fact that his fellow developer Joey Hess had, in the quest for a single CD that could be used to boot the next release of Debian, changed the default desktop from GNOME to XFCE in August last year. There was little or no complaint, he added.

Another thing that mattered was efficiency. If an utility or application could run at its optimum speed, that was far more important than a shiny new interface and very powerful hardware that took much more time to get a job done.

Garbee said a third thing that mattered was the ability to customise one's interface, to make changes to suit oneself, rather than a situation where everyone had to do everything the same way.

It was also important to retain the hackability factor; to be able to fix things and share what one created or fixed.

Finally, he asked, what did all this mean? For starters, people were entitled to feel good about the way in which Linux was winning in the mobile space.

But developers should choose realistic goals and realise that OEMs could not be converted from Windows. "We should build the systems we want to use. Our collaborative development model is very powerful." he said.

Garbee called for differentiation to exist in an inter-operable way. Users should be empowered to be developers to give the long tail effect where everyone could contribute.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.