Q&A with Joe Brockmeier at Novell

If you read the Linux section of the Neowin forums recently, you will know that Neowin was recently given the opportunity for a Q&A session with Joe Brockmeier. Also known as Zonker, Joe has been using Linux since 1996 and currently works as the openSUSE Community Manager at Novell. I had a few questions of my own, but found the best questions came from our members.

What first got you interested in using Linux?
I first discovered Linux with Slackware 96. I was interested in learning about Linux because it was Unix-like, but the licensing meant it was affordable (free to download, and cheap to buy on CD-ROMs, which was important when I was a college student) and generally appealing.

At the time, I wanted to learn how to administer a *nix system with Apache, with the idea that I'd be able to work in Web publishing later on. I was studying English and Journalism, and wanted technical skills to back up my writing. That seemed to work out, in the end.

Along the way, I've become fascinated by the Linux and FOSS community. The fact that so many people, from different backgrounds and even competing companies, can work together so well is a real inspiration to me and I hope a model that other industries might learn from.

What are your favourite and least favourite parts of Linux/openSUSE? Are there any features that you think could go into a list of "top annoyances" like we often see for Windows?
I have a lot of favorite parts, hard to narrow down, actually. Starting with the abundance of free and open source applications that are available -- everything from The GIMP for photo editing to Inkscape and Scribus for desktop publishing, and of course Vim for those of us who still believe in text editing rather than word processing. :-) (I have the Vim keystrokes permanently etched in muscle memory at this point, and it's hard to write in any other editor productively.)

Of openSUSE specifically, I really enjoy YaST as an administration tool, and Zypper is a great package management tool. I also think we have great implementations of KDE and GNOME. Everything from the way that the releases are packaged -- and in the case of KDE, the way features from 4.2 have been backported into 4.1 for the benefit of users -- and the artwork, I really think that the openSUSE desktop shines.

And, of course there are occasional annoyances with Linux -- though, often the annoyance isn't so much Linux as it is poor manufacturer support or Web sites designed by developers who only think about IE. It's frustrating sometimes that it's not dead simple to pop in a DVD and watch it under Linux, due to the fact that we have some truly dumb laws in the United States and the media companies that own the rights to certain IP have restrictive policies about DVD playback.

Can you tell us what new features users can expect in the next release of openSUSE (11.1)?
Sure -- first of all, there are literally hundreds of updates in terms of new releases of software since the 11.0 release.

In particular, you'll find the latest GNOME (2.24) and KDE (4.1) in this release, as well as a new Linux kernel (2.6.27). The most recent release of OpenOffice.org (3.0), which is a major update over the previous release in openSUSE 11.0. (See Go-oo.org for more on our distribution of OpenOffice.org) We also have Mono 2.0 and MonoDevelop, Banshee 1.3, and a bunch of other updated programs.

In addition, we have some updates specific to openSUSE. We've added or updated several YaST modules -- including the printer module, the partitioner, and a security module that gives a report on system security and suggestions to improve your system's security.

This release will also include a set of components called Nomad, to provide a better remote desktop experience on openSUSE: http://en.opensuse.org/Nomad

We're also changing the set of packages to allow easier redistribution - so all the packages on the main media will be redistributable. We're also changing the license agreement, making openSUSE (as a whole) available under the GNU General Public License version 2.

You can find the full list of packages on DistroWatch here: http://distrowatch.com/table.php?distribution=suse

Microsoft is currently aiming for a 2009 release for Windows 7 and it has been said their main rival now is Linux. Are there any concerns about how you can compete with Windows 7 in the future and can you give any hints as to what features you hope to include to rival Windows?
As always, we'll be working to make openSUSE 11.2, and beyond, the easiest Linux to obtain and use. We don't at this time have a list of features that will be included in 11.2 (which would be expected around July 2009) or later versions. However, we do our planning in public, so your readers will be able to follow our planning and even participate if they're so inclined.

With the openSUSE Build Service, we now do all of our development transparently -- so any interested party can submit patches or new features to our Factory distribution (that's the testing version) and collaborate there.

Obviously, competing with Windows is a pretty tall order -- Microsoft has quite a lot of money to throw at development and marketing, and the company is well-entrenched with OEMs, which gives the company quite an advantage in terms of adoption.

Microsoft's development dollars concern me much less than their marketing dollars and their OEM stronghold. One of the things Linux needs is to be better marketed to the public at large, and to have better awareness. We have done tremendous things via word-of-mouth and advocacy by Linux enthusiasts. However, there's a lot of ground to cover.

But as far as features, I think the FOSS community will continue to give Microsoft a run for its money.

One of the reasons behind the popularity of Ubuntu, Fedora and openSUSE is their improved ease-of-use, however Linux as a whole is still criticized by some for being too "techie/geeky". What else is being done to further improve the usability and ease-of-use of openSUSE in the future?
We do a lot of work on accessibility and upstream work to improve the desktop experience with openSUSE through the GNOME and KDE projects. We also are working hard to make Linux easier to install via our improvements in YaST and improve software management via improvements in YaST and Zypper.

Our redesign of the partitioner, for example, was conducted to make the partitioner easier to use and more comfortable for new users.

We've also put a lot of development time into OpenOffice.org to help make it a more suitable replacement for Microsoft Office for all the users transitioning from Windows to Linux. This benefits not only openSUSE users, but the community at large.

I'd also like to say that I think some of the criticism of Linux is less about it being "geeky" and more about it simply being different than the alternative operating systems. Many users come to Linux after years of using Windows -- of course there's going to be an adjustment and many people see "different to use" equating with "hard to use."

(markjensen) With Linux's shift from a "hobbyist" platform to a commercially-accepted and supported platform, where you do see the biggest opportunities for growth, and how do see the importance (or lack of?) community/hobbyist releases fitting into the big picture?
Community releases will always be the best source of innovation, because we don't have to worry about long-term support and issues that the enterprise distros have to deal with. Being able to release (on average) twice a year means that we can include the newest versions and features and have more flexibility to ship new features and gather feedback that ultimately benefits the enterprise releases.

It also provides a way for the community to contribute. Everything that's in the community version doesn't have to fold into the enterprise versions, so we have a lot more freedom to work on new technologies without worrying about the corresponding enterprise features.

We have enormous opportunity for growth in embedded systems and in what I call "targeted" devices -- netbooks and so forth, where manufacturers have the ability to create devices aimed at specific use cases (as opposed to general use PCs and notebooks).

Linux allows hardware manufacturers to tailor the OS to the type of devices that they see demand for. The netbook form factor that's gained popularity over the last year (yes, it's only been about a year since Asus debuted the Eee PC) was possible due to Linux. Yes, Microsoft now offers Windows XP on those devices, but only after Linux led the way.

(markjensen) I see that you posted a late November entry on your openSUSE Spotlight page on the subject of the elimination of the click through EULA for openSUSE. Do you view this as more important for the technical reasons you described, or for the mindset change it represents? Are there other past, present or future items you personally view as significant improvements for the end user on the openSUSE roadmap?
A little from column A, a little from column B. :-) The technical reasons are paramount. Distribution of openSUSE is important, and anything that hinders distribution of openSUSE is a problem. So, removing that hurdle was a major technical win for the project. But, yes, the mindset is also important. EULAs are for proprietary products, not open source offerings. The word "EULA" itself just carries a negative connotation.

Past improvements -- of course the installer was a major improvement for users in 11.0, and package management in 11.0 was a huge breakthrough.

We're also working on ways to allow not only easier redistribution, but customization of openSUSE via the Build Service and ultimately SUSE Studio when that's ready.

And we will be discussing the 11.2 roadmap very soon, and that will contain some major end user benefits as well as benefits for developers and contributors who participate in the openSUSE Project.

(lechio) With the incredible amount of GNU/Linux distributions available today, which ones do you think are the most appealing features in openSUSE? The features that could make a user switch to openSUSE from another distribution?
So, let me preface my answer with this -- I don't typically think about convincing people to switch from another distro to openSUSE. Our goal is to encourage the use of Linux everywhere, and if people are using Linux, it's a good thing, whether that's openSUSE, Fedora, Debian, or Slackware, or any other distro. It's a win. (Plus, I find a lot of hard core users switch pretty often - they don't need persuading, they want to try everything out there!)

But the features I enjoy most that are unique to openSUSE are YaST, Zypper, one-click installation, and the openSUSE Build Service. The build service is technically not a feature of the distro, but a feature of the community and project. But, a lot of excellent packages are maintained in the build service (like Gwibber) and I can install them easily using one-click.

(lechio) How do you see the OSS world in 5 years from now, do you think it will eventually play a bigger role than the one it currently plays?
Absolutely. I think FOSS will continue to expand in influence. We're really just getting started.

(Fish/Barney) The deal between Novell and Microsoft is something that is viewed very suspiciously by many in the Linux community. It is seen as a way for Microsoft to claim that it has some ownership and proprietary claims to SuSE and some previously open source software. In your opinion, do you think the Novell/Microsoft deal has ultimately damaged Novell and openSUSE's reputation in the Linux community?
So, first off, I realize that the deal is "seen" in many ways, but many of them are inaccurate or wildly speculative -- and suggesting that the agreement gives Microsoft ownership of SUSE or any FOSS is indeed inaccurate. Certainly the agreement has been controversial, particularly at its start.

But in the past two years, I think many people have put into perspective exactly what Novell contributes to the community and the fact is that Novell contributes a great deal to the community -- not only in the form of openSUSE, but also in terms of major contributions to KDE, GNOME, the Linux kernel, and much more.

(Fish) Do you think there will ever be a Linux Distro, aimed at desktop users, that would be a completely viable alternative to Windows and MacOS? So much so that it could be sold commercially based on it's content alone, rather than support options etc.?
I think we have several distros that are viable alternatives now -- I've been using a Linux desktop since 1999.

But you're probably referring to drop-in replacements with the commercial software like Adobe Photoshop and more games than are currently available for Linux now.

I do think that the market will evolve to that point, yes. The netbooks we've seen so far have shown that Linux is a perfectly viable OS for many use cases and if vendors continue to ship a variety of Linux netbooks, I believe we'll start seeing more commercial software for them that is in demand by Mac and Windows users.

Further, I think that netbooks and mobile devices running Linux will ultimately replace desktop machines for a lot of people. I doubt the desktop market will look quite the same in five years as it does now.

(Kreuger) Do you think there will ever be enough unity for Linux to become more accessible and mainstream (such as one window manager/desktop environment)? Personally, I don't have a problem with multiple choices but a lot of people seem to find it overwhelming.
Well, I hope we never eliminate the choice of desktop -- I like having the choice of GNOME, KDE, and Xfce. But could we unify behind one or two desktops that would be "mainstream" enough for major commercial acceptance? Yes, absolutely.

(Elv13) Do you think mono is the way to go to attract new programmers and enterprise to Linux?
It's certainly one way to do so. :-) There's a lot of .Net programmers out there and organizations with a lot invested in .Net skill sets. Refocusing their efforts on Mono instead of .Net would give a great deal of flexibility in terms of platform deployment and also help them tap into the open source community.

To finish, a few members seemed interested in trying Linux after reading the review and comparison of Ubuntu, Fedora and openSUSE. Any words of wisdom?
My first suggestion would be to make sure that you are making the switch when you have time to experiment and learn about Linux.

Also, understand that while Linux is a great OS -- it's not Windows or Mac OS X. It's different. Not bad, but different. You will have to learn new ways of doing some things -- and find some new applications to replace familiar ones. Don't be afraid to find a forum to support your transition and ask for help. Forums.opensuse.org are great for this.

If at all possible, locate a nearby Linux User Group and attend a meeting or installfest. Most Linux users are happy to help new users.

Best of luck, and enjoy!
- Zonker

A big thanks to Zonker for taking the time to answer our questions, as well as to all the members who contributed questions via the forums, and to David Fretwell at Novell for his efforts in making this Q&A possible.

For those interested in giving openSUSE a try, the new version (11.1) is due out on December 18th.

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