August 1, 2006

Final thoughts on OSCON - with video!

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

The eighth annual O'Reilly Open Source Convention wrapped up Friday with a half day of talks and a farewell address by Eben Moglen, general counsel for the Free Software Foundation and chairman of the Software Freedom Law Center, on the importance of software licenses. Moglen's talk provided a perfect end to an excellent conference.

The state of Jabber

The first talk I went to was Peter Saint-Andre's Jabber presentation, "The State of the Bulb." Saint-Andre started the talk by discussing the amount of time it has taken information to get from one place to another. For example, in the 1800s, it could take years for a message to travel from Europe to the United States. The time it takes for a message to get from one part of the world to another today has, with technologies like Jabber, been reduced to less than a second.

Saint-Andre then went on to discuss some of the applications for the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) used by Jabber and other projects. XMPP has made its way far beyond simple instant messaging systems. According to Saint-Andre, XMPP is being used by investment banks and first responders like the Capital Wireless Integrated Network (CapWIN), and for Internet whiteboard applications, and quite a bit more.

After Saint-Andre's talk, I sat in on part of chromatic's discussion on Perl Hacks You Never Knew Existed, then wandered out to soak up the hallway track.

Making contacts

The best part of OSCON is the opportunity to get close to some of the leading minds in open source.

Kernel developer Greg Kroah-Hartman gave a couple of talks on the state of the Linux kernel, as well as a write a working Linux driver tutorial. In between presentations, Kroah-Hartman talked to me about the general state of the kernel, and how users can get involved with kernel development.

For 2.6.18, Kroah-Hartman says that we'll see more driver and device support for new hardware, and that devfs will be coming out of the kernel. He also says that 2.6.18 will have a new IRQ layer, a new timer subsystem that got in "after many tries," and a long list of fixes.

Greg Kroah-Hartman - click to view video

If you're interested in getting involved with kernel development, Kroah-Hartman suggests checking out the Kernel Newbies site. He says there's also an IRC channel and mailing list for users who don't want to post questions to the regular kernel development list. According to Kroah-Hartman, "It's almost impossible to ask a stupid question on the mailing list."

Kroah-Hartman also suggested the Kernel Janitors project as a way to help out with kernel development, for those who might not be interested in maintaining a driver or kernel subsystem. The TODO list is pretty hefty, and should give potential kernel developers a good way to cut their teeth on kernel development.

Non-developers can contribute too. Kroah-Hartman suggests following the development kernels and reporting any bugs found in the devel trees. He warns against using the kernels on any systems where you value the data.

I also had the chance to chat for a few minutes with Guido van Rossum, the creator of Python. Van Rossum talked about the rest of the 2.x development cycle, and the upcoming Python 3.0 development cycle -- also known as Python 3000. Van Rossum noted a couple of times that Python 3.0 will not be a major overhaul of Python in the same way that Perl 6 will be a redesign of Perl.

Guido van Rossum, creator of Python - click to view video

Of course, one of the first questions I asked van Rossum was about the new and exciting features to be found in Python 3.0. He says that "journalists always ask for exciting new features and capabilities," and that while Python 3.0 will "almost certainly" have new and exciting features, it's too early to say what they'll be.

Development isn't stopping on the Python 2.x series either. Van Rossum says that they'll be releasing Python 2.5 "in a few weeks," and that development will continue in parallel with Python 3.0.

Just before the Ubuntu Birds of a Feather (BoF) session on Thursday, I sat down with Jeff Waugh to talk about what's going to be in the upcoming Ubuntu release, codenamed Edgy Eft, scheduled for October of this year.

Jeff Waugh, business and community development, Canonical - click to view video

Edgy may not be quite as edgy as one might expect. Waugh says that "a lot of [developers] want to work on infrastructure stuff and cleanups. There's going to be a bunch of things related to testing and debugging." That's not to say there will be no new features in Edgy -- Waugh says that Xen will be going in to Edgy -- but a lot of the focus is going into testing support and language support for the upcoming release.

Waugh says GNOME is also undergoing a cleanup release, which means that it will also be "unedgy" for Ubuntu, but it will see a great deal of performance work -- so users should see better performance in GNOME on Edgy. He also says that Evolution is undergoing some interesting development, and the next release should allow users to run separate Evolution components rather than the monolithic application. This is good news for those of us who would like a high-quality calendar application without having to deal with Evolution for mail.

Waugh also says that Scott James Remnant is working on a new init system for Edgy. Waugh says the Ubuntu team is not interested in the whole "let's go parallel with the init stuff," like InitNG, but instead to "clean it up, so it's actually a nice system." Though the focus is not performance, per se, Waugh says the init system in Edgy should be faster.

There's a lot to be learned from the other attendees at OSCON as well. The so-called "hallway track" can be very productive. I had a chance to talk to several people who were working with open source software behind the scenes, which was sometimes even more interesting than talking to the leading lights of the industry.

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For example, I got to spend a few minutes talking to Greg Lund-Chaix, a developer with the Open Source Lab (OSL) at Oregon State University. Lund-Chaix explained that OSL hosts a number of open source projects and provides development infrastructure for projects such as Apache.

Greg Lund-Chaix of OSL - click to view video

I also got to talk to a number of people about how they use open source in their businesses, or how they plan to. I even spoke to a few attendees who told me about projects they'd been working on, and how they'd been inspired to look into making those projects open source.

OSCON also featured the ultimate in the hallway track, OSCAMP 2006, "a grassroots cooperative effort ... [that] seeks to organize the fringe of activity that has grown up around OSCON during the last several years so that the whole event can rock even more!"

I stopped in the OSCAMP room several times during OSCON. After the first day, OSCAMP really seemed to take off. Brandon Sanders, one of the OSCAMP organizers, says that part of the idea behind OSCAMP is to provide something free for local people "who can't afford to pay for a professional conference but would like to participate in the open movement." Sanders says that O'Reilly has "bent over backwards" to help with OSCAMP.

Brandon Sanders, OSCAMP 2006 organizer - click to view video

Sanders also points out that the time between sessions is often the best part of the conference, because you have an opportunity to talk to people one-on-one "and make deep connections." OSCAMP takes that a step further by providing a way for users with specialized interests to get together and discuss those. He says that OSCAMP helps attendees find the other attendees "who care about what you care about."

Saving the best for last

As Nat Torkington introduced Moglen Friday afternoon, he mentioned that they had "saved the best for last," and he wasn't exaggerating. While OSCON was packed with excellent speakers and presentations, Moglen's address on Friday was the highlight of the show.

I've had the pleasure of hearing Moglen speak a few times now, but this was by far the best talk I've been to. Moglen spent about a half hour discussing "Free Software and the Next American Century." As I've mentioned in previous OSCON installments, one of the big topics this week is whether open source licenses still matter in the face of Web 2.0 applications that run "in the cloud" rather than on our computers.

Moglen did an exemplary job of refuting the notion that open source licenses are obsolete, and says that the "idea of sharing has triumphed ... the future of information technology lies in software developed by people who share.

"Sharing has gone from something a few marginal people wanted to do, to something we all see works ... to something everybody needs."

The desktop isn't what matters anymore, nor is the desktop what's most commercially important, says Moglen. "Every pocket on Earth is the site of the most important commercial conflict now going on."

Furthermore, Moglen says that the manufacturers need the advantages provided by free software, "what we collectively make, and there is no other way to win the most important commercial battle in the world right now," because "sad experience has shown, if devicemakers pay per unit charges ... in the end it is the software maker that eats their lunch."

Moglen also talked about how the law has been bent in favor of those who say that the only way to innovate is not to share, rather than the original intention of the framers of the Constitution, who allowed for copyright and patents in order to encourage the sharing of information and spurring innovation. Because of this, Moglen argues, licenses still matter:

We have arrived now at a practical demonstration of the importance of alternatives to the formal law. Licenses, which are the record of our agreements about how to share, are the only documents that reflect what has transformed the software economy and begun the process of inventing a new era for American ingenuity.

I was not the only attendee inspired by Moglen on Friday; at the conclusion of Moglen's keynote, the OSCON audience gave Moglen a standing ovation.

The OSCON organizers arranged a guided tour of Portland bridges and a tour of the Free Geek facilities in Portland after Moglen's talk, but I didn't participate in those activities -- opting instead to head to Powell's bookstore and see just how many books I could buy and stuff into my luggage. (As it turns out, quite a few.)

If you missed OSCON this year, don't worry -- they'll be doing it all again next year, from July 23 through July 27, once again in Portland, Oregon at the Oregon Convention Center. I hope to see you there.

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