Havoc Pennington: Linux has its Nails on UNIX’s Coffin

Today we feature a very interesting interview with Havoc Pennington. Havoc works for Red Hat, he is heading the desktop team, while he is well known also for his major contributions to GNOME, his GTK+ programming book, plus the freedesktop.org initiative which aims to standardize the X11 desktop environments. In the following interview we discuss about the changes inside Red Hat, Xouvert, freedesktop.org and Gnome’s future, and how Linux, in general, is doing in the desktop market.

1. Looking Red Hat’s recent press releases and web site lately, it reveals a new, stronger effort to shift focus further into the Enterprise and leaving Red Hat Linux to the hands of the community for the home/desktop market. This seems to leave a “hole” in the previous target of Red Hat at the “Corporate Desktop market”. The new Red Hat Linux might sound like “power to the people”, but to me sounds like an action that will have consequences (good & bad) in the quality, testing, development of what we got to know as your “corporate/desktop” product. Given the fact that Red Hat is the No1 Linux distribution on the planet, do you think that this new direction will slow down the Linux penetration to the desktop market?

Havoc Pennington Havoc Pennington: In my view it’s a mistake to create an “Enterprise vs. Desktop” contrast; these are largely separate dimensions. There are enterprise desktops, enterprise servers, consumer desktops, and consumer servers. Quite possibly small business desktops and servers are another category in between.

I don’t think we’ll see a slowdown in Linux penetration into the desktop market. In fact I hope to see it speed up. Today there are many large software companies making investments in the Linux desktop.

2. How have things changed internally after the [further] focus shift to Enterprise? Is your desktop team still fully working on Gnome/GTK+/X/etc or have developers been pulled into other projects that are more in line with this new focus at Red Hat?

Havoc Pennington: We’re still working on the desktop, more so than ever. (Including applications such as Mozilla, OpenOffice, and Evolution, not just the base environment.)

3. In the past (pre-SCO), Red Hat has admitted that was growing wary of patent issues that might arise in the future. Do you believe that desktop open source software written by many different individuals around the globe might be infringing on patents in some cases without the knowledge of these developers? At the end of the day, we have seen some patents that were issued so shortsightedly that many have said that writing software is almost impossible nowadays. What kind of solution for this issue might OSS software developers find, to ensure a future that is not striken by lawsuits left and right?

Havoc Pennington: As you know we’ve been more aggressive than other Linux vendors about removing potentially patented software from our distribution, specifically we took a lot of criticism for removing mp3 support.

One strategy for helping defend the open source community is to create defensive patents, as described here.

Another strategy is the one taken by Lawrence Rosen in the Academic Free License and Open Software License.

These licenses contain a “Termination for Patent Action” clause that’s an interesting approach.

Political lobbying and education can’t hurt either. These efforts become stronger as more people rely upon open source software.

4. What major new features are scheduled for GTK+ 2.4/2.6 and for the future in general? Once, you started a C++ wrapper for GTK+, but then the project got sterile. Do you believe that Gnome needs a C++ option, and if yes, do you believe that Gtkmm is a good one? Are there plans to sync GTK+ and Gtkmm more often and include it by default on Gnome releases?

Havoc Pennington: GTK+ 2.4 and 2.6 plans are pretty well described here.

Havoc Pennington One theme of these releases are to make GTK+ cover all the GUI functionality provided historically by libgnomeui. So there will be a single clear GUI API, rather than “plain GTK+” and “GNOME libs” – at that point being a “GNOME application” is really just a matter of whether you follow the GNOME user interface guidelines, rather than an issue of which libs you link to. This cuts down on bloat and developer confusion.

The main user-visible change in 2.4 is of course the new file selector.

The other user-visible effects of 2.4 and 2.6 will mostly be small tweaks and improved consistency between applications as they use the new standard widgets.

At some point we’ll support Cairo which should allow for some nice themes. Cairo also covers printing.

Regarding C++, honestly I’m not qualified to comment on the current state of gtkmm, because I haven’t evaluated it in some time. I do think a C++ option is important. There are two huge wins I’d consider even more important for your average one-off in-house simple GUI app though. 1) to use a language such as Python, Java, C#, Visual Basic, or whatever with automatic memory management, high-level library functions, and so forth; 2) use a user interface builder such as Glade. Both of those will save you more time than the difference between a C and a C++ UI toolkit.

5. What do you think of the XFree86 fork, Xouvert? Do you support the fork, and if yes, what exactly you want to see changed with Xouvert (feature-wise and architecture-wise for X)?

Havoc Pennington Havoc Pennington: The huge architectural effort I want to see in the X server is to move to saving all the window contents and using the 3D engine of the graphics cards, allowing transparency, faster redraws, nice visual effects, and thumbnailing/magnification, for example.

The trick is that there are *very* few people in the world with the qualifications to architect this change. I don’t know if the Xouvert guys have the necessary knowledge, but if they do that would be interesting. It may well be that no single person understands how to do this right; we may need a collaboration between toolkit people, X protocol people, and 3D hardware experts.

Aside from that, most of the changes to X I’d like to see aren’t really to the window system. Instead, I’d like us to think of the problem as building a base desktop platform. This platform would include a lot of things currently in the X tarball, a lot of things currently on freedesktop.org, and a lot of things that GNOME and KDE and GTK+ and Qt are doing independently. You can think of it as implementing the common backend or framework that GUI toolkits and applications are ported to when they’re ported to Linux.

This may be of interest. If we can negotiate the scary political waters, I’d like to see the various X projects, freedesktop.org, and the desktop environments and applications work together on a single base desktop platform project. With the new freedesktop.org server I’m trying to encourage such a thing.

6. How are things with freedesktop.org; what is its status? Do these standards get implemented in KDE and Gnome, or do they find resistance by hardcore devs on either projects? When do you think KDE and Gnome will reach a good level of interoperability as defined by freedesktop.org? What work has being done so far?

Havoc Pennington: freedesktop.org is going pretty well, I recently posted about the status of the hosting move. See here, I also had a lot of fun at the KDE conference in Nove Hrady and really enjoyed meeting a lot of quality developers I hadn’t met before.

I find that hardcore devs understand the importance of what we’re trying to do, though they also understand the difficulty of changing huge codebases such as Mozilla, OpenOffice, GNOME, or KDE so are understandably careful.

There are people who think of things in “GNOME vs. KDE” terms but in general the people who’ve invested the most time are interested in the bigger picture of open source vs. proprietary, Linux vs. Microsoft, and democratizing access to software.

Of course everyone has their favorite technologies – I think GNOME is great and have a lot of investment in it, and I also like Emacs and Amazon.com and Red Hat Linux. These preferences change over time. When it comes down to it the reason I’m here is larger than any particular technology.

As to when freedesktop.org will achieve interoperability, keep in mind that currently any app will run with any desktop. The issue is more sustaining that fact as the desktop platforms add new bells and whistles; and factoring new features down into the base desktop platform so that apps are properly integrated into any desktop. So it’s a process that I don’t think will ever end. There are always new features and those will tend to be tried out in several apps or desktops before they get spec’d out and documented on the freedesktop.org level.

7. Gnome 2.4 was released last week. Are you satisfied with the development progress of Gnome? What major features/changes do you want to see in Gnome in the next couple of years?

Havoc Pennington: I’m extremely satisfied with GNOME’s progress. Time based releases (see here
for the long definition) are the smartest thing a free software project can do.

This mail has some of my thoughts on what we need to add.

Honestly though the major missing bits of the Linux desktop are not on the GNOME/KDE level anymore. The desktop environments can be endlessly tweaked but they are pretty usable already.

We need to be looking at issues that span and integrate the large desktop projects – WINE, Mozilla, OpenOffice, Evolution on top of the desktops, X below them. And integrate all of them with the operating system.

Some of the other major problems, as explained here, have “slipped through the cracks” in that they don’t clearly fall under the charter of any of the existing large projects.

And of course manageability, administration, security, and application features.

8. Your fellow Red Hat engineer Mike Harris said recently that “There will be a time and a place for Linux on the home desktop. When and where it will be, and wether it will be something that can turn a profit remains to be seen. When Red Hat believes it may be a viable market to enter, then I’m sure we will. Personally, in my own opinion, I don’t think it will be viable for at least 1.5 – 2 years minimum.” Do you agree with this time frame and if yes, what parts exactly need to be “fixed/changed” in the whole Linux universe (technical or not) before Linux becomes viable to the home/desktop market?

Havoc Pennington Havoc Pennington: I wouldn’t try to guess the timeframe exactly. My guess would be something like “0 to 7 years” 😉

On the technology side, we need some improvements to robustness, to hardware handling, to usability.

However the consumer barriers have a lot to do with consumer ISV and IHV support. And you aren’t going to get that until you can point to some desktop marketshare. That’s why you can’t bootstrap the Linux desktop by targeting consumers. You need to get some initial marketshare elsewhere.

There’s also the business issue that targeting consumers involves very expensive mass market advertising.

9. Have you had a look at the Mac OS X 10.3 Panther previews? Apple is introducing some new widgets, like the new Tabs that look like buttons instead of tabs, and there is of course, Expose, which by utilizing the GL-based QuartzExtreme, offers new usability enhancements, plus cool and modern eye-candy. Do you think that X with GTK+/Gnome will be able to have such innovations in a timely manner, or will it take some years before we see those to a common Linux desktop?

Havoc Pennington: I haven’t tried Panther, though I saw some screenshots and articles.

As I mentioned earlier, the big X server feature I think we need is to move to this kind of 3D-based architecture. If we got the right 2 or 3 people working on it today, we could have demoware in a few months and something usable in a couple of years. I’m just making up those numbers of course.

However, nobody can predict when the right 2 or 3 people will start to work on it. As always in free software, the answer to “when will this be done?” is “faster if you help.”

One stepping stone is to create a robust base desktop platform project where these people could do their work, and some of us are working hard on that task.

10. How do you see the Linux and Unix landscape today? Do you feel that Linux is replacing Unix slowly but steadily, or do they follow parallel and different directions in your opinion?

Havoc Pennington: I would say that the nails are firmly in the UNIX coffin, and it’s just a matter of time.


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