July 12, 2002

DebConf 2 summary, including notes from Michael Robertson's keynote

- By David Graham -

Lindows CEO Michael Robertson took a day out of his schedule to address DebConf
2, held at York University a few days ago in Toronto, to
discuss the past, present, and future of the Debian project. Lindows' business
model, he says, is built around marketing and the need for users to pay a
$99/year subscription fee that, while isn't required, provides access to software that makes the system fully usable. First though, is a summary of some of the more interesting discussions that took
place at DebConf 2.

Commercial Use of Debian

Debian Project Leader Bdale Garbee
discussed at length the history of Debian's commercial ventures. Corel, now flying under the banner of Xandros, is the best known of the commercial
attempts of Debian, but two other companies may be getting somewhere with the

Progeny, run by Debian founder Ian Murdock,
employs six Debian Developers and is working on commercially distributing Debian.

Lindows.com, run by MP3.com founder Michael
Robertson, does not appear to employ any Debian Developers. It has created a
graphical installer for Debian and has repackaged a number of Debian packages.
For a $99/year subscription fee, Lindows hopes to grab some market share from
the "Mom and Grandma" section of the Linux market.

Extreme Perl

Friday night Damian Conway gave his interpretation of extreme programming with
his presentation "Extreme
. The talk discusses a 999 byte perl program which does some amazing
feats and is rather obfuscated. The short program has a variety of features from
replicating itself to displaying a text marquee on the screen. If you can get to
one of Damian Conway's talks, by all means go. It is very enlightening.

Free Software in the Third World

Among the topics discussed were the use of free software in third world
countries such as Brazil, presented by Henrique de Moraes Holschuh.

Henrique reported how the use of free software is beginning to narrow a social
gap in Brazil by allowing access to computers without having to pay exhorbatant
licensing costs. Software in Brazil costs an average of 4 times what it does in
North America measured by a function of average income, buying power, and actual
cost. This puts legal commercial software well out of reach of most Brazilian users.

He described conditions in Brazil as being in a state of civil war. The economic
divide between rich and poor is tremendously wide and no one can move up in the
society without any skills. Unskilled labour is easy to come by and not worth
very much.

Free software is allowing people to set up operating systems like Linux on old
hardware and learn to use computers without fear of being talked to by the
authorities about using illegally-obtained software.


Saturday night, Lindows.com CEO Michael
Robertson spoke to DebConf about his history of running mp3.com and Lindows.com.

Robertson started his talk by discussing his first venture: a digital
camera business. He said the business failed miserably because, and he repeated
this several times through the night, he hadn't listened to the market.

Down on his luck, he started a digital music exchange site and found that most
users were searching for something he had not heard of before - "MP3." Not
knowing what it was, he contacted the owner of "mp3.com" in an effort to buy the
domain. The owner of the domain asked what he wanted it for, and Robertson
responded that he wanted to set up an MP3 information site.

The owner of the domain responded, "What is mp3?"

The site got 10,000 unique hits on the first day of operation, and that,
Robertson said, meant he was listening to the customers.

After telling the conference this story, Robertson got on to the meat of his
discussion - Lindows.com.

Lindows, he said, was the frequent target of criticism from NewsForge. For that
he got a chuckle from the whole room.

Lindows, as mentionned above, is based almost entirely on Debian GNU/Linux. For
his presentation, he plugged a laptop into an overhead projector and put in a
Lindows CD. On booting, the installation asked if the system should coexist
with Windows. Upon an answer of no, the installation promptly installed and
booted into a KDE-based graphical environment.

From there, the Lindows system allows the user to pay an annual subscription
service to get access to a service they have termed "Click-N-Run". Essentially
it is a graphical version of Debian's apt utility. It downloads a program and it
then becomes available to the user.

A paid subscription service to use a version of Linux? The most enlightening
part of Mr. Robertson's talk, certainly. It completely explains Lindows' name
and Microsoft's
concern about similarity

Robertson was also pleased about Lindows' deal with
MicroTel and Walmart.com
to sell cheap computers pre-installed with Lindows at Walmart's on-line store.

Lindows being available on a cheap computer from Walmart sounds really good on
the surface, but is it really any help?

Consider that Microsoft is asking users to pay a subscription fee for Windows
XP updates. The concept is remarkably similar to Lindows' concept of a subscription fee-based system for additional services -- primarily upgrades. Now consider that
people buying MicroTel's computers at Walmart are probably choosing those
computers for their economy: They're cheap, they come with Linux on them, and
for users not philosophically inclined to use Linux, these computers' primary advantage comes from their low cost. So lo, "mom and grandma" type users have bought this cheap computer
in an effort to avoid the high cost of ownership of a Windows system, and bam,
to get the services they are told they need, they have to pay
a $99/year subscription fee. The advantage of cost has just been sent out the

Ultimately, it seems, Lindows' efforts can't help Linux. When a user uses it,
they'll find it to be not terribly different from the Windows they left,
including its cost, and Linux will not seem like much of a "free" alternative.

I'm sorry, Mr. Robertson, but yes, we do pick on you quite regularly and it
seems to me we've got reason to.

That said, thank you Lindows for supper Saturday night. I was getting kind of
tired of fast food from the student centre.

Linux Standard Base (LSB) and Debian -
Matt Taggart's talk

Matt Taggart opened Sunday morning with a discussion of Debian and the Linux
Standard Base. The Linux Standard Base provides a set of standards by which all
Linux distributions should set up their base systems. This does not preclude
multiple distributions and multiple layouts, it only ensures that it is not
impossible to cross-port applications within versions of Linux.

Debian expects to be the first fully compliant distribution by version 3.1.
Debian is being used as a pilot project for LSB to test the standards and make
sure they make sense and there are no gaping holes.

Supporting the users

David B. Harris spent Sunday afternoon discussing how projects like Debian
should go about supporting their users.

Harris is a package maintainer for Debian and spends a lot of time trying to
help users in channel #debian on irc.debian.org. From there he has gained a good
deal of experience with helping users and has a number of recommendations for
the Debian community.

His main recommendation is the creation of a knowledge database. Currently there exists an
attempt at a knowledge database in the form of an IRC bot named 'apt' at the aformentioned
channel. When a user has a question, a quick instruction to
the bot will often tell the user the answer they need, and this is sufficient to
help the majority of users seeking help. A further knowledge base would be a
more complete version of that bot which could be used both on and off IRC.

Mailing lists are another
major source of support for users. Debian has a mailing list called
debian-user@lists.debian.org. This list has an enormous amount of traffic, and
often the same questions are asked over and over. An improved mailing list
system is needed, Harris argues.

One suggestion was the creation of a support@debian.org address where users
could respond to users from the knowledge database, or, failing that, forward
the email to the appropriate developer or list. This would allow filtration of
questions, and important questions would get asked in lists with a good signal to noise ratio.

The Debian/BSD project

The maintainers of the Debian/FreeBSD, Debian/NetBSD, and Debian/OpenBSD
updated present members on the status of each of their projects. Essentially,
all three of the Debian ports have bootable versions, but none of them are ready
for mainstream use.

When the Debian/BSD projects are complete, Debian will be supported on 12 hardware architectures
and 5 kernels:
Hardware platforms:

Supported kernels:

The conference was concluded by a totally off-topic but very interesting talk by
Debian Project Leader Bdale Garbee on his involvement with AMSAT - an organisation which has so far put 40
amateur satellites into space.


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