16 February, 2011

FOSDEM 2011: building distro bridges

FOSDEM. I finally got to the "blog about it" todo I took from there. I have to talk about the distribution collaboration panel discussion Jared Smith (Fedora Project Lead), Stefano Zacchirol (Debian Project Lead) and myself led on Sunday (video here). We discussed what barriers there are to cross-distro collaboration and what to do against them. I can summarize the whole thing by saying pretty much everyone in the room agreed more collaboration would be good and won't be that hard. More specifically, the main arguments and their rebuttals that I heard:
  • We will lose our identity and become one big grey blob!
    Now first of all, grey blobs can be cool. Second, our identity does not lie in any single tool or application - our identity lies in the people, philosophy, culture AND technology combined. Collaboration on a software installer or init system won't change that!
  • We will never all agree on anything!
    And why is that a problem? Maybe openSUSE and Fedora work together on the init system without input from Ubuntu while Mandriva and Arch push forward a new Software Installer without Debian's collaboration. Boehoe. I'd say such a situation would already be a big improvement over each doing its own thing!
  • We all hate each other!
    No, we don't. As was said in the discussion panel, usually our users get a whole lot more passionate than our contributors. openSUSE and Fedora, Debian and Mandriva - we all DO work together already. Fedora and openSUSE collaborate on bringing LXDE patches upstream, KDE and GNOME packagers have worked together since ages. There is plenty good going on already.

It is not that hard

I think the last point makes clear what Vincents presentation on Appstream and the success of the cross-distro collaboration meeting on application installation also pointed out: we're doing it, NOW. The reason the Fedora and Debian PL's as well as myself wanted this meeting and are talking and writing about this has little to do with resistance to cross-distribution work in our communities. There's little of that. As I expressed at the panel, the issue is that when we encounter an issue and start thinking of possible solutions, working with other distributions isn't a high priority. Rather, we just don't think about it. That means we start to build a solution, only to discover later that there already are others under development. And I bet the result is often that all solutions have their pros and cons and none is as great as a unified solution might have been. Too bad! Because if you DO try to collaborate, you might find yourself in the same situation Vincent found himself in: he cautiously proposed "maybe we should try and work something out together?" and it turned out everyone loved the idea!

So our issue is awareness. I think we already did a lot to advance that at our last openSUSE conference: Collaboration Across Borders. It really made a difference and it is where Appstream was born.

A good example

To show how easy it is to communicate, let me point you to this recent email on the distributions mailing list on Freedesktop.org. In that email, Czech SUSE hacker Stanislav Brabec just tells people about a solution for a problem he's been working on: the maintenance of MIME defaults in glib and desktop-file-utils and making it all desktop-specific. This work can help applications integrate better within different desktops. For example, Nautilus in GNOME will start file-roller if the user opens a ZIP archive but if Nautilus runs in a Plasma desktop it will start Ark. If the other distribution people like this work and want to help out, that would be awesome. We would get better integration between Plasma, GNOME, XFCE, LXDE and the other desktop technologies on Linux. And the distributions would share the workload!

Help out

So, things are happening. But you can count on me to keep talking about this and trying to help make it happen wherever I can. Jared and Stefano promised to do the same and I hope other distribution leaders will follow suit. And I count on all of you to keep collaboration in mind! More importantly, do it, help push it, help make a difference. As I wrote before in my way or the highway, collaboration strengthens us all and is what makes open source work so well...