May 8, 2001

Getting 'familiar' with Open Source handheld developer Alexander Guy

Author: JT Smith

- By Julie Bresnick -

Open Source people -
Alexander Guy started and
continues to work on the
Familiar Project
, an Open Source effort to put together a truly useful
handheld environment, from his converted 1930s garage apartment less than a mile
from the hospital in which he was born. It makes him feel a little "white
bread," as he puts it, but surely the implications of not moving away from home
are significantly altered when home is as charming a beach town as Santa Barbara. Guy, save the six
months at 9 years old that his mother arranged for him to experience Lyon,
France, has lived in Santa Barbara all of his 22 years.

As far as is discernible after a brief meeting and several probing
emails, this small-town consistency has failed to impair Guy's
worldliness. Santa Barbara, about two hours north of Los Angeles on the Pacific Coast Highway, may be a one-horse town but this kid bought leather pants at age 15, eats Sushi, alternates between rock star haircuts with Madonna-like frequency, and keeps big-city hours. He reflects on his rebellious adolescence with references to Randian philosophy and with the benefit of hindsight that normally takes another 15 years to foment. All this comes from a kid who "eventually" graduated from high school with a 1.0 GPA and never went to college. None of which, it is safe to say, was the
result of being lazy or stupid.

Young enough to be considered part of the Internet generation, perhaps this
pattern is proof of the potential of the Web, where he likes to
check in regularly to see what's going on in the world. It is also where you
can find the Familiar Project's first release, "call it Familiar Linux," a
distribution for handhelds currently available for the iPAQ.

Guy started his computing career in kindergarten, when he sat down at an Apple II+ and got impatient with the apparent inanity of the educational program running
on it.

"As the teacher would go out of site/ear-shot I'd start hammering on
random keys, trying to get a response. Eventually I got to the
combination of Control and C, and ended up getting a: ]. It took me a while to
realize what I had done, and how to reproduce it, but after that I was hooked.
I'd broken through the application, and gotten into the AppleBASIC
interpreter that's stored in ROM, which I never realized existed. At that point,
the machine was pretty much all mine."

By 11, he was building 386 boxes for friends of the family and
some of his parents' business associates, which provided exposure to
cutting-edge machines that he couldn't afford to buy for himself (he had an 8088 and
an Apple III.) Last year he bought an iPAQ and
a serial cable, grew tired of the "stale-bits" that people were using and
started the Familiar project.

"I had a Netwinder (which
uses a very similar processor), so I started building a new distribution,
based on work done by the Debian folks and the already existing handhelds.org
distribution. The first release was way alpha, and had a bunch of
serious problems. But by the time I released v0.2, we (people started
contributing right away) had a bunch of new functionality, like built in Python, a
new window manager (a modified version of blackbox, the old releases used
twm), and other miscellaneous stuff under the hood.

"Now it's going great. We're about to release v0.4, which is really going to be a landmark. We've moved entirely over to a network installable packaging format, which is unheard of in the handheld market. Users can now install, uninstall,
and upgrade, different software components over the Internet,
automatically. I think it's going to make development a bunch easier, and I think it
will result in less duplicated work."

With Guy as with many believers, his dedication to Open Source is
part of a larger more encompassing belief system. In high school, he carried a
Leatherman Supertool that had two blades built into the handle. The
authorities deemed it a deadly weapon and suspended him.

"I wasn't doing anything wrong with it, and I had no prior issues
with violence or threats, but they had a 'zero tolerance' policy. It was a real
eye opener for me as to how much bullshit exists. The [school had] a
zero tolerance policy but that policy has a clause for mitigating
circumstances. They wouldn't invoke the clause, even though I wasn't doing anything
wrong. We ended up taking it to the school board with a lawyer and a bunch of
letters of recommendation and people supporting me. After a month and
a half of being out of school, they let me back in."

Disappointed by what he'd learned about the nature of things, he
spent the next several years carrying a pretty big chip on his shoulder.

"My rebellion really just came down to getting in people's faces
about things that I thought sucked. I remember calling one of my bosses at
the time a corporate whore. We used to have a 'doesn't suck' section of
our engineering meetings, where I'd have to go through a list of things
that I thought didn't suck. At that time I was seeking this Randian purity in
things, trying to find a black-and-white honesty in everything I did.

"I lost track of why I was doing things, and where I was going with
them. I think I was in denial about the complexities of issues, and the shear
hypocrisy that everyone wades through in their daily lives. I think
I've hit my lifetime quota on screaming over coding styles."

It's an important quota to fill because now he can concentrate on a
solution instead of being angry at the problem. For him, Open Source
is something he can believe in both professionally and spiritually.

"Open Source practices provide a better way to get the job done.
You can wax bureaucratic, and try to figure out how many CPU licenses you need
to buy, or you can get the code, and come up with a solution."

And the use of it on handhelds does seem to provide the sort of
"black-and-white honesty" that he was looking for before he grew up.

"[On handhelds] you can achieve so much by having the source code
available, and the freedom to modify it the way that you need to. If
you have memory usage concerns of a program, you can modify it. If you
need special optimizations, you can optimize. If you've got a problem that
needs debugging, you can take a hands on approach and fix things, rather than
sitting on a support line, trying to convince a vendor that there
really is a problem. These points are totally pragmatic. Regardless of your
feelings on intellectual-property and software freedom, you can't stick your
head in the sand and say that the above isn't a good thing."

It's appropriate that someone so young be working on bringing Open
Source to the still nascent handheld arena and comforting, too. In general,
it's hard not to worry about the future of Open Source given its idealist
leanings which resemble other rare surges in the history of
civilization that elevated value above the conventional bottom line and burned out
in the hands of subsequent generations. I'm thinking most obviously, of the
'60s. But for some reason, I am inspired more by the initiative of
self starters like Guy than I was by that of the glassy-eyed chicks I used
to see weaving belts at Grateful Dead shows.

About Alexander Guy

Where he works now: Senior software engineer, at Openwave Systems.

Dream job: Doing research on a farm (or someplace green) trying to be
like da Vinci.

Favorite movie: Blazing Saddles.

Favorite book: Heinlen's, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Favorite album: KMFDM's Nihil.

Favorite video game: Hard Hat Mack.

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