Last month Progeny Linux Systems ceased development on their own distribution in order to focus on selling professional services. In their announcement, the company cited the prohibitive cost of developing and publishing a distro. This move marked another firm in the wave of tech companies, Linux and otherwise, making significant changes to adjust to the market slump. Progeny’s distribution was based on Debian GNU/Linux, and many in the Linux community were closely watching the company because it was founded by Debian creator Ian Murdock. OSNews spoke to the President of Progeny Linux Systems, Steve Schafer, once the dust had settled on his company’s announcement. 1. In August, you stopped development on Linux NOW and you’ve just stopped publishing Progeny Linux. How was morale at the company once these decisions were made?
Steve Schafer: Both decisions made good business sense, but were still a bit difficult to make. Several people inside and out of the company felt very passionate about the NOW project, so it wasn’t taken as well as the Progeny Debian decision. Our commitment to the Debian Project was understood in the latter case, which helped with the reactions.
2. You mentioned the reaction from outside the company, how has it been from your clients and the community?
Steve Schafer: The response has been disappointment for the NOW announcement, understanding and support for the Progeny Debian announcement. There’s no getting around the NOW announcement since the project is, for all intents and purposes, defunct. However, our clients appreciate the fact that we are continuing to support Debian, so they all took the Progeny Debian decision a bit better.
3. Progeny was based on Debian GNU/Linux, which has a reputation for being slow to integrate new software developments. Was Progeny facing the same business challenges that other distributions were facing?
Steve Schafer: Debian integrates new technology just as quickly as other distributions, but the actual version releases are slower. You can buy the latest Red Hat version off the shelf, or run apt-get on the last Debian release to get relatively the same versions of the underlying software. (Note: Software that is not in the last Debian release is posted to an “unstable” and then a “testing” branch of Debian where it is available, but needs to be explicitly included in your apt sources. ) In some cases you would even be getting more up-to-date software than that on the shelf.
As for challenges, the Linux distribution “business” is very challenging today. In order to be a player, that is have actual business success with a distribution, you have to have a retail presence. Two years ago when I helped put the Mandrake/Macmillan deal together (bringing Mandrake to mainstream retail), it was much easier to get in, and stay
in retail. We’ve seen the market go from two prominent distributions on the shelf (Red Hat, Mandrake) to almost ten, and now back down to two or three-including the original two, namely Red Hat and Mandrake. Red Hat, Mandrake, and SUSE have all issued statements on how retail is not making money, and in some cases losing money. Since retail sales have slowed down the retailers aren’t as receptive to new products.
When you add in Debian’s slower development and release schedule, things get really tricky. The only way to release more quickly is to release a separate product, in essence forking from the main Debian distribution. We’ve seen this with every “derivative” distribution -Mandrake, Stormix, Corel. Looking down the road we saw Progeny Debian varying further and further from the Debian core, a path that didn’t benefit customers, Debian, or Progeny.
4. What can you tell us about Progeny’s plans to continue promoting Debian and make it a more viable platform for commercial users.
Steve Schafer: Many of our Debian improvements have been submitted to the Debian Project and will appear in upcoming releases. Others are being revised to be Debian generic and will be submitted ASAP. We also continue to offer support for Debian (as well as other varieties of Linux). Since the main criticisms of Debian are ease-of-use and lack of a commercial entity behind it, we hope we are helping to answer both concerns.
5. Who will maintain the packages that Progeny is folding into the main Debian archive?
Steve Schafer: Our Progeny developers, who are also Debian developers and package maintainers, will take care of the Progeny packages.
6. Will Progeny’s experience be a cautionary tale to others?
Steve Schafer: I think everyone needs to be a bit more wary in the Linux space. It’s still a very good alternative (if not a primary choice) for an operating system, but it’s not the cash cow everyone hoped it would be. Before basing a business on Linux products, one should take a hard look at the economy and the recent experiences of other companies. Also, “different” isn’t always better. Although the Linux Standard Base is doing great work, there are still more Linux distributions in the world than necessary. Why reinvent the wheel or put out something marginally different when the existing distributions will do? Why not spend the energy making the existing distributions more useful, through utilities, application software, services, and support?
7. Can you tell us about your vision for Progeny / Debian in a year from now?
Steve Schafer: Our hope is that Progeny can make a name for itself as being the commercial entity behind the Debian Project, helping Debian reach better market penetration in the enterprise. To that end I also hope we can have a positive impact on the project, spurring development to a faster pace (a release a year would be nice) as well as aiding the technical advancement of the overall distribution.