Why do netbook vendors make their own distribution?

Netbooks are very small, lightweight, cheap laptops. For $350-600 you get a mini-laptop, perfect for surfing the web or writing a quick document. Many of them, as I've pointed out in previous posts, have open source software desktops.

The thing that's disappointing to me is that they all have their own Linux distribution. As a matter of fact, the Eee PC I talk about so much, comes with a custom version of Xandros that is based on Xandros and KDE. (I apologize if in previous releases I made it sound like it came with GNOME. It comes with KDE and a simplified desktop based on KDE. I think the simplified interface is probably quite good for a large percentage of users. And because it has a free and open source solution on it, you can put any other open source distribution and desktop you want on it. Which I think is a big strength. I put a disto with GNOME on it, however I go back to the default option often in hopes that they've fixed everything.) Xandros isn't alone in making a custom distribution. Dell worked with Canonical for a distribution for their netbook. Rumors have it that HP is making their own distribution for their netbook.

So why is this? Why do the netbook vendors make their own distribution? On one hand, I'm glad free software gives them the ability to make their own distribution. On the other hand, I worry that we aren't meeting their needs. (My Eee PC is not perfect whether it's running the standard distribution it comes with or one that I put on it.) I hope over time, as we get more netbooks into the hands of open source software developers, those developers will make KDE, GNOME and Linux in general work better on systems with small hard drives, screens and keyboards. Netbooks, like other mobile devices, have different needs than a full laptop. I hope we can live up to the challange quickly so that users have great free and open solutions.

Sneak preview of my talk next week: “GNOME as the computing platform for the future”

Next week I’m speaking at the South Tyrol Free Software Conference where the theme is “free software for innovative business.” If you are in the area, you should come – the conference is free and has good speakers and lots of interesting attendees.

I know you are traditionally supposed to post the transcript of your talk after you give it. However, any feedback I get between now and then can only make the talk better. Also, the real talk, in person, with voice, slides and a chance to ask questions is very different experience than reading it in a blog and commenting. So I think one does not compete with the other.

Here’s my talk. As always, comments and questions welcome.

GNOME as the computing platform of the future

Often when people talk about open source software businesses they immediately think about companies like Jboss or MySQL, companies that developed open source software products and then had tremendously successful exits. (Jboss
was acquired for $350 million, MySQL for $800 million.) But these are just a few of the companies that are successful because of open source. They are software companies, open source software companies. But many other companies are also doing well because of open source software. Here’s a few you may not have thought of:

  • Supersonic Imagine. They make scanners that detect breast cancer. They save people’s lives. They
    are in the medical business. Medical instruments, not software, and they use open source software (some GNOME technologies) to develop products that create successful businesses and save lives.
  • Garmin Nuvo. Here’s a company that also sells a product solution, not software, although software is
    very much a part of their solution. Their technology is enabled by open source software. Again there is GNOME technology in this GPS device. How do I know that? Not because they contacted GNOME and bought a support agreement. No, all their use of and support for open source has gone through normal GNOME channels, primarily source code repositories and mailing lists or a third party. We know because they made their source code public and one of the GNOME developers looked at it and saw they were using GNOME.
  • Mobile devices. Well, maybe you would have thought about this one. Most of the new mobile devices
    from Nokia’s tablets to school science devices are using open source software on them. In this case GNOME technologies enable companies to build on existing technologies, changing them and modifying them to meet their needs. This way they get to market faster (without reinventing the wheel), build on existing solutions and enable others to cooperate and work with them, enhancing and strengthening their solutions. As an example, when I went to the Maemo Summit (Maemo is the what the software on Nokia tablets is called – it uses GNOME) I saw non-Nokia people present solutions translating for doctors, letting police officers use tablets and some really unique note taking, personal journaling solutions.

I’ve also seen small consulting companies spring up to help larger businesses use open source they way they need to. They might provide assistance or customization or complete solutions.

So all these companies – and many more – successfully use GNOME technologies to improve their business. How does that work? What is GNOME and what about it makes it good for businesses and society?

I think in order to understand what’s important about GNOME, you have to look at what GNOME is and how and why GNOME was written.So what is GNOME? GNOME is … a desktop, a development platform, a mobile solution toolkit, with some key characteristics like accessible, internationalized, easy to use. It’s also a lot of applications from music players to email clients.

Why was GNOME written? To create a free and open source desktop for the world. Over time that has evolved from desktop as in traditional desktop like the machine on your desk at home to everything from your laptop to your cell phone to even your car with its onboard navigation.

How was it written? By the community. Like traditional open source software, GNOME spans from a core group
of committers to a group of users.

At the core we have people that write the source code – the committers. These are the people that actually wrote the project. However, however much work they do, they don’t do it all alone.

The next group is people that make contributions – they make code suggestions to the committers or they may contribute in other ways like marketing or answering questions on the mailing list or supporting the systems or answering questions on the mailing lists.

For example, one of the things that GNOME contributors do is man GNOME booths at conferences. They get an event
box – that was put together by a contributor, man the booth for the conference and then send the event box back or on to the next event.

But committers and contributors are not all there is. There is also a large user base. Users are very important. They spread the word of the project and contribute ideas as well as bug fixes – in a sense they are all testers.

Unlike many open source software projects, GNOME works really well with companies. It’s one of its strengths. Some of the ways we work with companies:

  • Community is open to companies. The community is excited and willing to listen to businesses that would like to use GNOME. When we found out Garmin was using GNOME, many people blogged and talked about it. The breast scanner company was invited to our annual conference, GUADEC.
  • 6 month release cycles. Seems very simple but it’s very crucial to companies and we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback. Companies need to know when a release is coming out that will contain the feature or patch they need. They used released versions, not the top of the unreleased stack. By knowing when releases are coming out, and being able to depend on that date, they can build plans of their own.
  • Accessibility/internationalization. Several of our core goals help companies meet their customer requirement.

One thing to note is that while companies are part of the GNOME community, their participation is different. They participate by building solutions with and on GNOME technologies. They hire people who work on GNOME and become part of the GNOME community and they can sponsor the GNOME Foundation and participate on the GNOME advisory board. All GNOME project technical decisions are made by the community – they have a release team that
runs the releases and what goes in them.

All these people the community – committers and users alike – as well as the companies, have shared values:

  • Accessiblity
  • Internationalized
  • Access to all
  • Easy to use
  • Beauty
  • Working well with companies
  • Having fun

These values are important to creating a common culture. All open source software projects and communities have a unique culture. Some have lots of flaming and arguments, others are very welcoming. Keep in mind that strong communities build strong projects. These shared GNOME values create the welcoming, productive and dedicated community of GNOME. Please come join us as a user or as a contributor.

So where do we go from here? GNOME has a great community, lots of developers, contributors and users. It’s deployed on 14 million systems world wide, it has great foundations, it’s internationalized, accessible, and easy to use and has a good format for working with companies with its advisory board and six month release cycles. So where do we go from here?

We will continue to make our desktop easy to use and accessible to all.

In GNOME 3.0 we will focus on user experience among other things. As people use the internet and web 2.0 apps more, what they expect from their desktop will be different. We need to make sure the world of the internet and your personal device – be it a laptop, netbook or phone – interact seemlessly as you expect them to.

Speaking of netbooks. Netbooks are taking off – they are providing affordable computing to people. Eee PCs along will bring 2.4 million more users to the Linux desktop this year. GNOME Mobile – GNOME technologies are used in many of the worlds leading mobile phone brands. Building on open source technologies enables them not only to get to market faster but to offer cheaper and more open solutions – I believe it is netbooks and cellular phones that will reach most of the world before the traditional desktop. 100% penetration in Europe. Most of the developing country will have cell phones before they have reliable power.

Multimedia. People are changing the way they interact with their computer and they are also changing the way they use their computer. Videos, through sites like YouTube, are extremely popular these days. People have the ability to make their own. Virtually everyone in the developing world has access to a video camera. How many of you have a cell that will take video? It’s replacing tv and pictures. Not to mention music, podcasts, etc.

The world is changing and you need free and open source software to keep up. You can’t afford to develop an application from scratch and you can’t build a business without participation from everyone. Users want to be creative – they want
to interact with their applications. Using GNOME as your computing platform and development platform gives you want you need to build the businesses of the future and gives your customers what they need to live fruitful lives.

What does a nonprofit board do?

I now work for a nonprofit board of directors, so when one of my friends told me that she just joined a nonprofit board and took a class on what it means to be on the board of directors, I got pretty excited.

Over lunch, my friend (Serena) answered all my questions and brought me her class materials. The slides looked like the discussion might have been interesting. The booklet she got (which she said they valued dearly and I checked, it sells for $20) was a good summary. It was less than 30 pages of content but it summarized the board of directors' duties well. (And I'm happy to say I've seen the GNOME Foundation's board doing all of these things!) There's an even shorter online summary here, as well as a lot of good (free) articles on the BoardSource website. From the book Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards:

  1. Determine the organization's mission and purpose. (They can and should consult with others but it's their responsibility.)
  2. Select the chief
    executive. (And decide what they should do.)
  3. Provide proper
    financial oversight. (Budgeting, planning, making sure the money is in a safe place.)
  4. Ensure
    adequate resources. (Make sure things can get done.)
  5. Ensure
    legal and ethical integrity and maintain accountability. (This is for the organization, its members and staff.)
  6. Ensure effective organizational
    planning. (Are programs in place to further the mission and goals of the organization?)
  7. Recruit
    and orient new board members and assess board performance. (Making sure the board continues to function well.)
  8. Enhance the organization's public
    standing. (This is telling the world about the organization and recruiting new members and support.)
  9. Determine, monitor, and strengthen
    the organization's programs and services. (Managing the day to day stuff including fund raising.)
  10. Support the
    chief executive and assess his or her performance. (Making sure the chief executive knows what he/she should be doing and has the resources to do it.)

One of the things I always thought would be intimidating about being on a board of directors (nonprofit or not) is knowing what you are responsible and liable for. I'm glad to see there are lots of resources out there for people willing to serve on the boards of nonprofits. (My friend's class, and the book, were free; provided by 211/United Way of Larimer County.)

P.S. Serena is helping Steppin' Out, an organization in Fort Collins that helps foster kids that have "graduated" out of foster care. When they turn 18 most of them are suddenly without a home, parents, savings, car, high school diploma, mentors, etc. Steppin' Out helps them find jobs, cars, training, etc.

Ubiquity: turning us all into power users

Ubiquity was officially announced this week. I installed it and I find myself using it all the time for really simple, but very useful, stuff. I use a calculator a lot. Now, when I’m in the middle of typing an email or reading a web page, I just hit two keys and type "calc 3256/3+2456" and there’s my answer. If I see a word I don’t know, I just hit two keys and type "define hello", read the answer and hit escape and go back to what I was doing. If I want to email something interesting that I’m looking at, two keys and "email this to mike" and it emails whatever’s on my web page to Mike. (Actually it gives me a choice as to what "this" is and then it brings up Gmail with an email all addressed to Mike and filled out with the information from the web page I was looking at.)

So easy, so fast.

Have you ever watched one of those power command line users? Or power emacs users? Or even people who use the keyboard exclusively? Their fingers just fly and magic comes out of their computer. I feel like Ubiquity brings that power to the average web user. With just a couple of keystrokes and intuitive commands, they can make the computer magically generate the answer they are looking for.

Ubiquity works in the web browser and can do most things I can do inside my web browser. Now wouldn’t it be cool if Ubiquity also knew about my computer and all the applications and data I have on my computer? So now I could also say "email myspreadsheet to mike" and it would find "myspreadsheet" and email it to Mike?

Luis pointed out that since Mozilla’s projects are all open, and the GNOME Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation work together, we should be able to do that with GNOME. And Abhijit Nadgouda’s post reminded me that we might not be the only ones who’d like Ubiquity to know about our desktop. Plus, GNOME already knows how to do task oriented commands – GNOME Do has provided Ubiquity like functions for a while now. (I’m a big GNOME Do fan as well.) Can we integrate those desktop tasks into Ubiquity?

It seems to me that since Ubiquity, Firefox and GNOME are all open source we should be able to make that happen. It’s a unique opportunity to integrate the web and the desktop. I shouldn’t have to remember what functionality is part of the desktop and what is part of my browser. If I say "add this to myspreadsheet", the data I selected on the webpage should just be added to "myspreadsheet" on my computer.

Fundraising for a technical nonprofit

The GNOME Foundation is a nonprofit organization, a 501(c)(3), and is funded by donations from individuals and companies. So as executive director of the GNOME Foundation I figured I should learn a bit more about fund raising.

While there are a lot of books about fund raising, there’s very little information out there about fund raising for technical nonprofits. And technical nonprofits really don’t fit the traditional nonprofit model. (Anybody up for a telephone drive where you call all your friends and relatives and explain what great things we’re doing and ask for donations? Not.)

So what’s the current status? GNOME is doing quite well. We get most of our funding from our corporate sponsors who give annual fees (which I think should more accurately be called annual donations.) We also get quite a bit of money from companies (our regular corporate sponsors as well as a number of others) to fund specific events. For example, GUADEC, our big annual conference, gets funding from our regular corporate sponsors as well as a number of others. Our third biggest source of funding (which is relatively small at the moment) is Friends of GNOME, where individuals can make contributions. (More on Friends of GNOME later, as we roll out some new features and marketing.)

What can we do better? I’m open to everyone’s thoughts on this but here’s a few:

  1. When we ask corporate sponsors for donations, I think we need to focus on what their money will accomplish, not what they’ll get directly from the GNOME Foundation. So we shouldn’t say (as I was originally thinking), if you give us $10,000, you’ll get a seat on the advisory board. Instead we should say if you give us $10,000, with all the corporate sponsor money we’ll be able to send 20 developers to GUADEC, fund a usability study and have three hackfests. (And explain why that’s good for the company or why it furthers the company’s mission.) L. Peter Edles put it this way: fundraising is not begging. People want to be part of a winning team and most philanthropic efforts are to improve quality of life. (Note that the book had some good points but was rather antiquated.)
  2. Speaking of quality of life, we need to be able to explain quickly and clearly why GNOME improves a company’s business, an individual’s life, the quality of life for kids in developing countries, etc. I think we know these things and we have a lot of good stories that we can tell. Pointing out how One Laptop Per Child uses GNOME technologies is a message that would reach a lot of people that probably don’t know what GNOME is.
  3. Friends of GNOME. Friends of GNOME is our program for individuals and organizations to make donations. We do no advertising and yet many individuals and a few companies find our web page and make very generous donations. We are working on revamping this program to make it easier for people to make recurring donations and to spread the word. (This was started before I joined.) The FSF has a very successful associate membership program that brings in the majority of their funding.

So I think we need to continue to work with corporate sponsors as well as our individual fans to spread the word of GNOME!


Seven mentors!

So earlier I blogged that I had seven bosses. (It was mostly in reaction to the fact that I felt like I was getting way too much attention!) But I realized this morning that I really feel like I got seven mentors. What a way to start out a new job – with not one mentor but seven!

The GNOME board of directors has been great. They were very clear from the beginning that I should feel free to ask them any questions. When I expressed concerns that I was going to flood their mailboxes, they said, no, no don’t worry. (I think that was Vincent – I hope the rest of you agree. 🙂 They did tell me not to necessarily expect verbose replies and that I might see a lot of "+1"s which means "I agree" or "me too". So I’ve been sending them lots of mails, some important, some FYIs and some just downright trivial (who does x?) and they’ve replied quickly to all of them!

Most career management gurus would say that a mentor is key to success and I just got a whole team of mentors! Now I’d better get back to work.

[And I should point out that I feel like others in the community are also going out of their way to mentor and help. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Dave Neary – he’s been a great help!]

The Tipping Point of Marketing

I always figured that if you didn’t notice an ad, it was because it was either (1) in a place you were never going to notice it or (2) you’ve seen it and tuned it out. So I was quite surprised last night when Frank came in last night and said "You put GNOME stickers on the beer fridge!"

See, the thing is, I put those stickers on the beer fridge last year, after GUADEC 2007. But for some reason – maybe because I now work at the GNOME Foundation or because I just got back from GUADEC again or because I’ve been talking a lot more about GNOME – he noticed the stickers for the first time last night. (FYI, he likes the stickers.)

P.S. The stickers will be coming to the FSF store soon.

2008 is the year of the free and open source desktop

At the Linux Foundation Summit, in the middle of an interview, I decided that 2008 is the year of the Linux desktop. (Incidentally, the Collaboration Summit is where Dave Neary planted a bug in my ear about the GNOME Foundation executive director job.)

While my answer was a bit off the cuff (there’s nothing like being
asked for big predictions while being interviewed on video), I do think
that 2008 is a turning point for the free and open source desktop. What has surprised me since then is the number of people that express doubt – I’ve decided that they aren’t seeing it because it’s creeping up on them. I don’t notice too much when my 22 month old learns a couple of new words but when I’m gone a week and he learns 20 new words or so? Wow!

So here are some reasons the free and open source desktop has reached a turning point in 2008:

  • This CIO survey might not accurately reflect the enterprise, but it’s in the ball park. They report that "half of the survey respondents, 45 percent, are using desktop applications such as OpenOffice.org." I’m betting just last year that would have been less than 10%.
  • The number of Linux laptops has increased exponentially with the subnotebook market. Asustek shipped 350,000 Eee PC’s running Xandros Linux in one quarter alone last year! They are expecting to ship 2 million units running Linux this year.
  • Some very high profile projects like One Laptop Per Child are using Linux and other free software like Sugar to reach kids in developing countries.
  • More hardware vendors started shipping Linux preinstalled. Dell started shipping Linux on laptops last year.
  • And while it may not technically be a "desktop" there’s a lot of free and open source software on mobile devices.
  • People like Matt Asay aren’t arguing whether there’s a viable open source desktop but only if it’s necessary that every part be open source. (Granted Matt’s a big open source fan, but my point is, the argument isn’t about "if" but about "how".)
  • … and so on.

So while the Linux desktop may not have a huge presence yet, its market share is growing exponentially. And I’ll take consistent exponential growth over existing market share any day. (It’s a bit like using Chris Blizzards’ market share accounting method. 🙂


Not just one boss … but seven!

A lot of people have been joking about me being the "top dog" or "big boss" so I thought I’d point out that I work for the Board of Directors – 7 volunteer, part time directors who are doing a great job of running the GNOME Foundation. My job is to make them and the GNOME Foundation even more successful.

(And I could get 7 new bosses every year …)