May 21, 2008

Famelix and the dangers of combating Windows

Author: Bruce Byfield

One of the perennial debates about the GNU/Linux desktop is how much it should resemble Windows. Usually, the debate is framed in terms of whether the desktop should look familiar to new users, or be developed in whatever way seems most logical. However, if the experience of the Famelix distribution in Brazil is any indication, imitating Windows and outperforming it can also leave you open to other threats, including accusations of piracy and changes of policy by Windows-centric management.

Famelix is named for the Faculdade Metropolitana de Guaramirim (FAMEG, or the Metropolitan College of Guaramirim) in the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina, where it was developed. The distribution is based on Debian and uses the KDE desktop, with wallpaper and other modifications designed to increase the resemblance to Windows XP, or, in the latest version, codenamed Hasta la Vista (Spanish for "goodbye"), to Windows Vista.

The distribution is directed by David Emmerich Jourdain, a German-born professor who has lived in Brazil since 1992. Jourdain became a free software advocate after hearing a speech by a local users' group while earning his master's degree at Stanford. When FAMEG offered him employment, the college had only a single computer room whose machines ran illegal copies of Windows. Jourdain said that he would accept the position only if he could deploy free software throughout the college and have time to prove its advantages. "My main intention was not working with proprietary software, whether legal or not," he says.

When FAMEG agreed to his conditions, Jourdain immediately ran into a problem: He was the only person locally with any knowledge of free software. As a result, he had to train his student assistants in kernel compiling and patching, as well as the Qt, PyQt, C++ and Kdialog programming and scripting languages.

Early on, he also realized that an interface too different from what he dismisses as "Teletubbies land" (presumably a reference to the default Windows XP theme) would be a barrier for acceptance, and decided to make the desktop as similar to Windows as possible.

Over the five years of Famelix's existence, some 70 students have assisted in its development. Currently, the distribution is maintained and developed by seven students, with occasional assistance from 18 others. During that time, Jourdain has seen the use of Famelix spread from his own private machine to the college's laboratories and administrative machines. In addition, "many students are using Famelix on their personal computers," he says, and have spread its use to their places of work after graduation.

As with any GNU/Linux distribution, exact figures for use are hard to come by for Famelix. However, other users of the distribution include 62 military units, and schools and digital inclusion centers throughout South America. On its home site, the distribution has had more than 22 million downloads -- at least 14 million of them in the last 12 months, thanks mainly to the first releases to support German, English, and Italian in addition to the original Spanish and Portugese. By any standard, the distribution seems a success.

Trouble with Microsoft

But this success seems to have attracted the wrong kind of attention. In 2005, Jourdain and FAMEG's manager of infrastructure received a visit from two Microsoft representatives in which they were offered the "wonderful" chance of buying Windows for the college at the cost of a few thousand dollars.

"My first questions were about the freedoms that we would have to develop and to get into the system," Jourdain recalls. "Of course we knew the answers. In this situation, I finished the conversation with, 'As you see, our interests are not the same. We want to create developers. You want to sell. I believe that the proposal does into interest us.'"

The Microsoft representatives said that, if the college did not purchase licenses, its only solution would be to use pirated copies of Windows. "My answer was quite direct," Jourdain says. "'We use GNU/Linux. Hence, whether we have or do not have your system does not make any difference to us. Have a good day.'"

Whether the Microsoft representative mistook Famelix for Windows or were acting maliciously is uncertain, but, two weeks later, the college received notice that it was being investigated for illegal use of software. A representative of the Brazilian Justice department, two police officers, and a computer technician soon descended on the college.

According to Jourdain, one of the police offices was a FAMEG student and was familiar with Famelix. He told the Justice representative that the investigation was a waste of time, but it went ahead anyway.

After checking all FAMEG's computers, the Justice representative apologized and filled out the necessary reports on the investigation. As he was leaving, he asked, "Can you install this Famelix for me?"

"After that," Jourdain recalls, "we never had problems with our Microsoft friends again."

But it still goes on

Unfortunately, Microsoft is not the only part of the Windows world that can cause difficulties for a successful distribution. Last month, Jourdain returned from a conference to hear that the college was being bought by Uniasselvi, a private educational concern whose image, according to Brazilian sources, is "not so good."

Jourdain was immediately concerned because Uniasselvi uses only Windows, and he believes that most of its copies are not licensed. Sure enough, when the sale to Uniasselvi was confirmed, the first point raised was whether Famelix should be continued.

The question of Famelix's future remains uncertain, and the lack of answers made Jourdain hesitate about whether to be interviewed for this article. However, in the end, urged on by Alexandre Oliva, a board member of FSF Latin America, Jourdain agreed to participate, hoping that the publicity might sway the college management's decision, and, perhaps, bring support and suggestions to help him safeguard the distribution's future.

Whether this latest threat is independent is uncertain, and really doesn't matter. Either way, Famelix proving itself an alternative to Windows seems only the first battle in its struggle for existence.


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