August 23, 2000

The Foundation

Author: JT Smith

By: Jack Bryar
The Foundation

The Foundation

While last week's Linux World convention produced lots of
news, nothing,
not even a keynote address by long-time Microsoft ally
Michael Dell,
produced anything close to the buzz produced by the
announcement about
the formation of yet another Linux non-profit.

The announcement of the GNOME Foundation felt different
however, and
it was. For one thing the Foundation announced it was
going to be
professionally run
, and that it was receiving support
from
corporations outside of the traditional Linux community.
In addition to the usual assortment of Linux-centric firms
like Red Hat,
Eazel, VA Linux, Helix Code, Henzai, Gnumatic, TurboLinux,
SuSe, etc.,
the foundation was going to draw support from firms like
Hewlett
Packard, Sun Microsystems, and IBM.

The mission of the Foundation was different, too- it was
to do no
less than to extend Linux's functionality to include a
comprehensive
Office software platform capable of taking on Microsoft and
extending
office functionality to machines ranging from workstations
to the next
generation of Internet appliances and handheld devices.

It also intended to fuzz the divide between Linux and
Unix.

The GNOME Foundation is an attempt to accelerate the
momentum of the
last year or so as Linux went from curiosity to
(potentially) viable Windows
alternative. As one of the founders put it, in some ways,
"the success
of a platform has less to do with technology than
momentum." It was
momentum that generated excitement and developer interest,
and the
founders of the GNOME Foundation were determined to
generate momentum.
But it was also intended to alter the direction of that
momentum.

The Foundation represents a dramatic shift for many in
the Linux
community. It is the first "standards" organization to be
openly
corporate-driven. Instead of celebrating the differences
between Linux
and other Unix-derived systems, it intends to bring Linux
back into the
Unix family, and to help Unix developers use Linux and to
use the Open
Source movement to bring the various flavors of Unix closer
together.
If successful, the Foundation could provide Microsoft with
some real
competition in the desktop office marketplace. If it is
unsuccessful, it
may create deep rifts among developers and endanger the
spirit of
cooperation and volunteerism that has been of the great
strengths of the
Linux and Open Source movements.

It is already attempting to create winners and losers
among the
companies that have been supporting the Linux movement. It
may have
already created its first victim.

I listened in on the press conference last week. I was
impressed by
the ambitions of the Foundation's spokesperson and chief
visionary,
Miguel de Icaza, the founder of Helix Code, the
developers of a
series of office product modules roughly akin to a better
Microsoft
Outlook, and the authors of a componentized software
framework called
Bonobo.

As articulated by de Icaza, the GNOME Foundation is to
be focused on
five initiatives, any one of which would have a dramatic
impact on the
Linux community.

The first initiative is to transform the GNOME desktop
interface
into a comprehensive user environment that will bridge
Linux, Solaris
and HP and IBM's versions of Unix. Sun and HP announced
that GNOME
will become their standard desktops in the future. The
assumption was
that GNOME's open GPL licensing environment would be more
make it easier
to develop a common platform than traditional standards
models.

GNOME 2.0 would be the Foundation's first
release and would
marry up the features of present day GNOME with a series of
new,
vendor-supported technologies that provided a comprehensive
office
desktop solution for would-be users and developers. GNOME
2.0 would ship
sometime midyear 2001.

The second initiative was to create an Open Office
Technology
platform. This platform would be a modularized ,fully
customizable office
solution, scalable to PC desktops or smaller handheld
devices. The Open
Office is to be based in large part on Sun's "Star Office"
product,
which is being released to OpenOffice.org, an
Open Source
project that Sun has agreed to sponsor. The Open Office
will be
augmented by Helix Code's Evolution, a product which
includes
configurable calendar, mail and contacts modules. Other
parties, such as
Gnumatic, will be contributing a variety of additional
elements designed
to "fill in the gaps in today's desktop experience."
Gnumatic will be
contributing its GnuCash personal finance manager, as the
Open Office
will be designed to provide financial management tools and
components to
support electronic transactions.

As envisioned, the Open Office will be XML-based,
supportive of most
common file formats, will be able to interoperate with
MS/Outlook and
Lotus Notes, and will be made multi-lingual.

Open Office is nothing if not ambitious. The project
consists of 6
standalone components to be both integrated and modularized
so that
office applications can be developed and ported from
workstation to PC
to handheld device applications. Involving over 6 million
lines of code,
the Open Office Technology will be the largest open source
initiative
ever attempted. Developers from both large and small
companies are being
solicited for contributions.

The third initiative was to integrate Mozilla, the open
source
version of Netscape, into the desktop, "now that it's mature
enough." Netscape, Red
Hat and Eazel have been leading this effort.

This integration represents the coming-out party for
Eazel's
long-awaited Nautilus file management and system
administration
software. In this integration, the file manager looks for
files across
the system, the network, and ultimately the web. Bill Gates,
call your
lawyers; you've been validated.

Among the differences, between The Open Office and the
Microsoft
approach is that this system, like all the others parts of
GNOME, is
highly modularized. Developers need only take the elements
they need to
make their applications work, and the system is envisioned
to be
scaleable to PCs, workstations or Internet devices.

Another element is an important
contribution by IBM -- a
scripting language called SashXB that
allows
developers the ability to rapidly develop network-based
applications
using the Mozilla interface. This too, is to be highly
modularized both
to simplify use and simplify third part development.

Modularity itself is the fourth initiative announced by
the Foundation.
Based on Helix Web's Bonobo component system, which is a
CORBA based
design, all the elements of GNOME 2.0 are to be modular with a
view towards
making this office environment scale from the most powerful
workstation
to the smallest web-centric handheld or wearable device.

All parties emphasized the modular design of these
elements. Red
Hat's Bob Young emphasized that the software was being
designed not only
for PCs and workstations, but for a net-centric, post PC
environment
composed of handhelds and
Internet appliances. Developers would be able to choose
only those
components they needed to run a given device. The GNOME
developers think
that these smaller devices will dominate the future. They
may be right.
The consulting firm IDC is predicting that by 2002 there
will be more
than 55 million of these devices in use, and that by 2005,
shipments of
these appliances will exceed shipments of PCs.

The fifth initiative involved the architecture of the
Foundation
itself, and the framework for ensuring collaboration among
the various
participating companies.

The Foundation is both open and quite closed. It is
closed in the
sense that it will be professionally managed. It will be
able to define
standards and fund development when it needs to. It, rather
than some
larger "Open Source Community," will determine what projects
are to be
considered part of GNOME.

Yet development works will still be solicited on a
volunteer basis.
Companies will participate in the development process, but
their
narrower corporate interests will not be allowed to dictate
development
or derail projects. de Icaza said that development was
being driven by
developers from these companies -- and anyone else who
wanted to join --
rather than by the companies themselves.

Red Hat's Bob Young also made the point that the
Foundation has been
put together with "no lawyers in the room," that there was
no formal
agreement -- "no contract." Young said that the open GPL
licensing that
governs Open Source "eliminates the need for trust."

Marco Boerries of Sun Microsystems said an objective
was to create a
development environment where members "won't need to be
worried about
somebody closing them out or eating their lunch."

For all the talk of collegiality and cooperation, not
everyone signed
on. Dell Computer Corp. and Gateway Inc. didn't join.
Neither did
several Linux vendors, such as Mandrake, Caldera or Corel.
Some PC
vendors were unwilling to support an initiative that seemed
designed to
encourage users to walk away from a PC platform. Others
felt that many
of the foundation members were less than wholehearted in
their
commitment to Open Source, seeing the entire Foundation as
designed to
weaken Microsoft and develop a market for proprietary,
Unix-based
solutions.

Others objected to the politics behind the foundation.
Kevin
Reichard
was typical of those who claimed that the
Foundation
represented a "sell-out" of the Open Software movement's
values. That
view was held by many hackers who had worked on KDE, the
alternative
desktop environment supported by a number of Linux
developers. When Kurt Granroth
was
asked
if he could ever envision an KDE Foundation
similar to GNOME
he said, "...if we did, we'd probably lose half of our
developers. It is
very important to us that the developers maintain total
control of the
plans and directions for KDE. We would not tolerate the
creation of any
kind of oversight committee."

Beyond the hurt feelings of rival desktop developers,
the real
casualty may have been Michael Cowpland of Corel. Despite
being the
leading desktop developer of Linux products, by far, Corel
was not on the dais with the members of the GNOME
Foundation. Cowpland
had bet on KDE. There was no disguising the impact of the
GNOME
announcement any more than there could be any disguising of
Corel's
dismal financial numbers. So while Corel staffers like Marc
Bellefleur
made brave noises about the benefits of healthy
competition, Cowpland
himself resigned last week, his company in
shambles.

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