May 10, 2007

Red Hat Summit 2007: Day 1 - desktops and licenses

Author: Joe Barr

The first full day of the Red Hat Summit flew by at furious pace. After the opening keynotes, which I reported on yesterday, I attended a session on GPLv3 by Eben Moglen, met one-on-one with Chris Blizzard, the man in charge of developing Red Hat Linux for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, and attended two press conferences.

Yesterday's big news was Red Hat's announcement of plans for Global Desktop, a partnership with Intel that is scheduled to go live this summer. Global Desktop will see hardware and software combined in a single offering, apparently aimed at expanding the Linux market in developing countries.

The new desktop brings the Red Hat total to three: Fedora for hobbyists and developers, the Enterprise Desktop for corporate worker bees, and now Global Desktop for developing nations. Strangely, none of the three seems to line up well with the picture painted of Red Hat's desktop of the future by Brian Stevens, Red Hat's chief technology officer, during the opening keynote yesterday morning.

Moglen on GPLv3

Professor Eben Moglen of Columbia Law School, the Free Software Foundation, and the Software Freedom Law Center, yesterday made the first of two presentations he is slated to give on the status of GPLv3. He was a keynoter at last year's summit and was such a popular speaker he was invited to speak again this year as part of the In the News track. He will repeat his presentation on Friday morning to give more attendees a chance to hear him.

Moglen spent half an hour recapping the history and development of GPLv3 to date, then opened the floor. So many people had questions that Mark Webbink, general counsel for Red Hat, who introduced Moglen at the start of the hour, had to cut the answers off at the end of the hour to keep things on schedule.

During the session Moglen explained the flurry of activity by Microsoft in disposing of the coupons it purchased from Novell for copies of SUSE Linux. Time pressure is building around the use those coupons because of the pending arrival of GPLv3. The new license is scheduled to become available for use in December, and it turns the very weapon Microsoft sought to use against the Linux community -- its patent portfolio -- against Microsoft.

The first draft of GPLv3 attempted to prevent the use of patents as weapons to deprive users of rights by requiring that software developers provide keys for any DRM mechanisms which might stop users from being able to examine or modify the GPLed code. Under the latest draft, any patent protection offered to customers of a GPLed product are automatically extended to all downstream users. In the agreement between Novell and Microsoft, for example, SUSE Linux customers are afforded protection from the threat of patent infringement suits by Microsoft. Under the GPLv3 license, this same agreement would extend that protection to anyone and everyone, thus neutralizing Microsoft's patent weaponry. This explaining why Microsoft is dumping its SUSE coupons to Wal-Mart, Dell, and elsewhere as quickly as it can.

Chris Blizzard and the OLPC project

After Moglen's session, I sat down with a very busy Chris Blizzard, the leader of the engineering team responsible for completing the software for the OLPC project by September. Blizzard says that the hardware is further ahead than the software. There is not much code left to be written, it seems, but there is plenty of cleanup work on the table that needs to be done in the short time remaining.

Blizzard, who had a working unit with him, says he has enjoyed the opportunity to work on both the hardware and the software. After seeing the laptop for myself, I can appreciate that point of view. It is unlike any computer I've ever seen. Blizzard showed me the crisp, sharp, backlit color display in the room where we were talking. It's small, but very clear. Then we walked out on the patio, in the direct afternoon sun. The display changed to black-and-white mode, but no clarity was lost. It was as easy to read outside as it had been inside.

The keyboard is a single sheet of plastic laid over bumps and buttons beneath it, presumably to extend life by keeping dirt and dust outside the unit. The interface, called Sugar, is different too. Keys and icons both are organized not by document but by activity. One button shows you who else is around. Another shows your friends. Others show activities. It's a new way of looking at computing.

The infamous crank handle is long gone, replaced by a completely separate device for power creation. The current prototype is being field-tested now in Brazil and elsewhere. The early reports are good; children love it. Blizzard noted that girls found it most appealing; they stayed behind in the classrooms and made music or videos with the device when the boys jumped up to go outside and play soccer.

Later in the afternoon, Red Hat held an informal press conference with Stevens, Matthew Szulik (Red Hat's CEO, president, and chairman), and other top Red Hat executives, in attendance. Many of the reporters were having trouble grasping Red Hat's desktop strategy, and most of the questions concerned that. The day ended with an outdoor dinner party hosted by IBM on the hotel grounds, with a view of sailboats and small craft sailing past. IBM also included blinking-LED-lined red sunglasses and frisbees as party favors.

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