Interview: OpenSUSE's Joe Brockmeier


Previously at the OpenSUSE Conference we chatted with Program Manager Andreas Jaeger. Later on we caught up with Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier, the distro's Community Manager. Read on for his thoughts on the KDE-as-default-desktop choice, lessons we can learn from Apple's iPhone App Store, and why Linux is like The Ramones...

TuxRadar: First, we want to ask you a few things we asked Andreas earlier. What are your favourite features of the upcoming OpenSUSE 11.2 release?

Joe Brockmeier: Mainly, 11.2 is going to have refreshed desktops. WebYAST is very important. So overall in 11.2 I see a ton of enhancements... We should also have a Moblin version of OpenSUSE called Goblin - I'm looking forward to that for my netbook. We'll be shipping Gwibber, one of my favourite social networking tools.</p>

TR: Then there's the decision recently for KDE to be selected as the default desktop in the installer - what's your perspective on that? What was the process leading to the decision?

JB: Well, it was proposed in our feature tool, OpenFATE, so that started the discussion, and then the process that we normally use to select features depends on the feature. If it's something that requires implementation it usually goes to the maintainer of that technology.

So if you propose a kernel feature it'll go to the guys who maintain our kernel. If you propose something software-wise, it'll go to whoever deals with that, and they can really look at that and choose whether to implement it and so forth. Because this was more of a policy rather than a piece of software change, it kinda went up the stack and ended up in Michael Löffler's court.

He discussed it with a number of people and so forth, but ultimately he was the the guy who wears the hat and makes the decision. How did that go down with the community? The conversation was about as civil and polite as it could be for an issue that, you know, isn't always the most pleasant, to be frank. However, I think we weathered it pretty well. I think that the decision doesn't thrill everybody, but I think it's something that everyone can live with.

We just need to work very hard to make sure we re-iterate that both desktops are important to our community, regardless of which one has a majority user share. What is important is that any desktop, any technology, any upstream project has the opportunity to deliver its best work in our distro. We want to make sure that the Gnome team has all the infrastructure it needs, and all the support that it needs.

TR: Historically SUSE and OpenSUSE has been a KDE distro - people think of OpenSUSE and Mandriva as KDE distros, whereas with Fedora and Ubuntu it's Gnome. I guess it's hard to please everybody - unless you make Xfce the default choice!

JB: We talked about TWM... [Laughs] That was my suggestion. We'll just make TWM the default and everybody will be annoyed, but they'll all be annoyed equally.

TR: Have there been any big flamewars or rifts in the community since you've been here, that you've had to get involved in and stop?

JB: I've been around the Linux community for a long time, so let me preface what I'm about to say with that. I was a Debian user for a while and I was on Debian mailing lists. And compared to some of the skirmishes I've seen on the Debian lists, about much more minor things, I would say that our discussion was a walk in the park.

People got a little tetchy around the edges sometimes, but I wouldn't describe it as a major flamewar. It was certainly a burst of traffic on the mailing list - there was a lot more noise regarding it. But with very few exceptions I think that people were civil about it, to a much greater extent than you would expect on an open mailing list.

And that's really important, because it shows the strength and respect people have for one another in the project. Yes, some people got their feelings hurt. And that's unfortunate. I don't think anyone really intended for anyone's feelings to get hurt - it's just that, quite frankly, there were some positions that were entirely unresolvable to mutual satisfaction.

TR: A while ago we asked our readers why Linux Mint was becoming so popular, why they're using it. Many of them said they found it really easy to contribute to - just submit a patch and the next day it's in the distro, whoever you are. For bigger, more established distros, how do you still try to get people involved, get them fired up when it's a bigger process to contribute?

JB: We try to remove as many barriers as we can, without compromising quality, security, sanity - those sorts of things. Not to imply that they do any of that, but I'm just saying that we have a couple of considerations that Linux Mint does not. For example, ultimately OpenSUSE is a foundation for SUSE Linux Enterprise, so we can't have a no-holds-barred development process that means we accept anything, damn the consequences.

We have to have some quality control, because that's going to go up the chain to somebody who will, depending on the feature, evaluate it going into the enterprise version. If we don't have quality control there, we have to spend way more money down the road to fix things.

We want to enable as many contributions as possible, but we also have to do it in a sane process. Smaller, more agile things may move a little faster, but they wouldn't support the same sorts of things that we do.

Now, that being said, there are still hurdles we have to overcome to make contribution as seamless as possible. We're working on that - we've worked on forming a multiplier team for example. This is a dedicated team of people who will work exclusively on OpenSUSE, meaning that they don't have any enterprise tasks, that they are accountable for.

Historically, if you were responsible for a package, you were responsible for it in OpenSUSE and SUSE Linux Enterprise. So these folks, they have responsibilities only in OpenSUSE, so when we get onto the track of doing the next service pack, or the next release of SUSE Linux Enterprise, they're not going to be pulled away to work on that. Their goal, and their focus, is not only to produce OpenSUSE, but also to mentor and produce new contributors. Not produce in the biological sense... that would take a long time! [Laughs]

But to mentor new developers, making sure that all the processes are as smooth as possible, because they're going to be accountable for that. So my job over the last year and a half has been to go out and work with the community, try to figure out some of the areas that need improvement, and also to spread the word about OpenSUSE. Going forward, the multiplier team are going to be very close with the community, on an individual basis.

TR: Do you have a lot of contact with other people in a similar role, like Jono Bacon in Ubuntu?

JB: Oh yeah, I spend a lot of time at conferences talking to Jono, or Paul Frields, or other community managers and people who work in the community. In fact I really enjoy going to some conferences because I can get an opportunity to talk to people who I can only see at conferences.

TR: How can distros work better together? There's still a problem of cohesion... you get a binary package from one distro and it might not work on another. Andreas talked about that before, but as we're all in the same boat and want to promote Linux and free software, how can distro makers collaborate more?

JB: I have some ideas on that. We have a big challenge in terms of... I fly around a lot and I get bored on the plane and start talking to people. The inevitable question comes up: "So what do you do for a living?" Try explaining "Community Manager" to somebody in 30 seconds or less. It's hard!

TR: Especially when it's about Linux...

JB: So it's usually like... "Have you ever heard of open source?" "No." "Have you ever heard of Linux?" "No." OK, so I have to explain ten things before I can talk about my job. What I've found is, we talk to each other a lot, and it's easy to forget that 95% of the computer using population either has never heard of Linux, or has heard of it but has a lot of misconceptions or absolutely no background on it at all. There's an enormous amount of education that needs to be done, and we need to figure out a way between the distributions, "How do we educate people?"

I was talking to Bradley Kuhn. I like Bradley a lot - he's a great guy, he's very focused, he's knowledgeable as all heck, and he has the best intentions in the world. He and I disagree slightly on some things like Microsoft, and where they stand and where they're going in the community. So when we get together we usually focus on the areas where we disagree and end up debating.

We went out to dinner and got talking and somebody mentioned the Dead Kennedys. Bradley and I spent the next hour talking about the Dead Kennedys and it made me realise that one of the things that brings people together, aside from open source, is music. And I'm a huge music fan. So for my keynote at LinuxCon I'm doing a "Musical guide to Linux". I'm going to compare different ideas to music - so for example, what's the most successful band of all time?

TR: The Beatles...

JB: So if you look at The Beatles, if it were an operating system, that's what you'd aspire to, right? That's what you want to be. I would say Linux is more like The Ramones. Everybody agrees critically that The Ramones were great, a kick-ass band. They were innovative, they did things that no-one ever did before, they paved the way for a lot of things... But they never had and enjoyed real commercial success.

There are reasons for that. I'm going to talk about what The Beatles focused on, and what they did differently that enabled them to be a success, whereas The Ramones were well respected, technically excellent, all these things - but they were never a commercial success. If we want to have mass success, and bring people into open source, we have to be more like The Beatles than The Ramones.

TR: There are a million car analogies about Linux, or if distros were airlines and stuff like that...

JB: Those are fun, but I think Linux and open source really is much more like music, because if you look at the way open source works, it's all designed around rapid iteration and sharing. That's the way music works: somebody who's musically talented hears something, and they steal a little bit of that. But they do something new - they take that and they do something interesting.

If you look at The Beatles, and the evolution from Meet The Beatles all the way to Let It Be, they took music and they took ideas from other bands and they also innovated. But they took a lot from Chuck Berry, they took a lot from Carl Perkins, and so forth. And they iterated on that much like Linux took ideas from Unix and made them better. They did things that made them more accessible.

Now, you get a bunch of people together to talk about open source, and they start debating... Instead of talking about what makes us the same, they start talking about what makes us different. By talking about music it reminds everybody that we're all going in the same direction.

TR: A few weeks ago I was in a computer shop and there were loads of netbooks lined up. A couple were running Linux, but most of them had Windows. The saleswoman was telling someone "You don't want the one with Linux because it won't run your programs." I felt like getting involved and saying, "It won't run your current programs, but there are loads of replacement programs." I think that's one of the biggest problems.

JB: It's about applications, education, distribution. Those are the three things that are really holding us back. Applications because if you look at the iPhone for example, the application ecosystem is very robust and supplies pretty much anything you could ever want. A couple of months ago I had an original iPhone, and it got broken. I was in that weird space between when they were going to release a new version of the iPhone, and long story short, instead of going with the iPhone I was full of anti-Apple feelings and got a Blackberry instead.

Blackberry is for Linux guys, right? Android would be better but I'm on AT&T and it's too hard to get an Android phone. So I got a Blackberry. Hated it. Why? Hard to use, lacked applications. And suddenly... I've been a Linux desktop user since 1999. Suddenly I had an insight into why people don't choose Linux, because they can't find the applications, and because it's hard to use and it's foreign to them.

And after a month of using that Blackberry, I had a lot more empathy for people who make a decision that, even though there's lock-in on Windows and with Apple, why freedom matters less to them than the applications and what they can get done.

So yes, freedom is important. Open source is massively important. However, face it: the market doesn't care. Those people have never had that freedom, it's abstract, and as long as it's abstract and they don't care, we cannot convince them. We have to be technically as good - we have to be easy.

TR: Maybe we could do more in marketing Linux package managers, because in some ways they are "app stores" - much easier than finding software on Windows. Just rename the YAST package management bit "App Store"!

JB: Yeah, but the quality and consistency is a problem. The other two problems I mentioned are education and distribution. Education is huge because no-one is really taking it upon themselves. The application that you download on your iPhone probably has some company behind it that's expending some money to market it. And Apple makes it easy for companies to present their applications in a way that's easy for customers to consume.

We need to be as effective at distributing the software that's high quality as the commercial guys. That requires a lot of co-ordination and effort, because we don't have the marketing funds. I did some research a couple of months ago: if you take Microsoft's marketing budget for a single quarter, it dwarfs the yearly income for Novell, Red Hat, Canonical. Just their marketing budget.

Now to be fair, their marketing budget doesn't just encompass Windows and Office - it encompasses the Xbox, Zune, Windows Mobile... And never let it be said by the way that I would never say anything good about Microsoft. I've been a user of Microsoft keyboards for years!

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Here it is

This guy gets it. I hope he makes some real inroads with Linux at OpenSUSE.

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