Gran Canaria Desktop Summit: a Study in Contrasts
Published 10:08, 07 July 09
Although I was only there for a couple of days, I had the opportunity to hear three other keynote talks, which presented an interesting contrast in styles and ideas.
The summit opened with a witty and flamboyant talk by Robert Lefkowitz, aka r0ml. His talk was entitled “Liberal Software”, and it was an entertaining look at free software/open source (for which suggested the new, neutral term “liberal software”) from the point of view of the classical tradition.
In particular, he suggested that rhetoric was an important aspect of the free software world, since much of the time leaders there need to motivate people to work on their projects for no payment.
The other idea that really chimed with me was that software was a liberal art, not merely a useful one. One insight from viewing things in this way was that copyright, not patents, is the appropriate way to protect code creation – as used by the GNU GPL - just as no artist would think of seeking patents on a sonnet or symphony (actually, given today's crazy world of intellectual monopolies, where people *do* try to get patents on film scripts, maybe that's not such a good comparison.).
I particularly like this line of thinking since it was very similar to one that I'd put forward myself in in Rebel Code, whose middle chapter is entitled “The Art of Code”, and looks at how the artistic impulse has always been an important factor in the history of free software. r0ml's parting shot was that liberal software should be defined as software that a gentleman would use, which seemed fair enough.
The next talk was given by Walter Bender, who took a rather different approach. He's head of Sugar Labs, the software team that broke away from the One Laptop Per Child project when the latter decided to put Microsoft software on its machines, thus ensuring that young minds were enslaved by Windows even earlier.
Indeed, it was evident from Bender's presentation, albeit quite low-key, that he believes passionately that children have a right to free software, for the simple reason that they cannot truly learn with any other kind.
As the Sugar Labs site puts it: “emphasis on learning through doing and debugging: more engaged learners are able to tackle authentic problems.” That is, free software gives the unique possibility of allowing students to explore and modify their tools, whereas Windows- based solutions are simply used as given, with little flexibility.
I think this is a crucial point that not enough people in the world of education grasp. For them, software is simply a dumb tool, like a pencil: you just use it. For Bender, it's something much more exciting: it is part of the educational experience. If a learner can't hack it, it's not fit for the purpose.
He also emphasised how important the Sugar on Stick offering was. This is simply the Sugar software environment provided on a USB drive that can be plugged into any PC, and run without affecting the latter:
The Sugar on a Stick project gives children access to their Sugar on any computer in their environment with just a USB memory stick. Taking advantage of the Fedora LiveUSB, it's possible to store everything you need to run Sugar on a single USB memory stick (minimum size 1GB).
This small USB device can boot into the Sugar learning platform on different computers at home, at school, or at an after-school program, bypassing the software on the those computers. In fact, Sugar on a Stick will work even if the computer does not have a hard-drive. With Sugar on a Stick, the learning experience is the same on any computer: at school, at home, at the library, or an after-school center.
This has two advantages. First, it means that existing PCs – even ones running Windows - can be used without change; and secondly, it allows children to carry their work around with them, from school to home, for example.
I've always thought this ability to put a complete distro on a USB was one of free software's most powerful features: even though it could be done, technically, with Windows, legal restrictions mean that it is unlikely to be much practical use.
This would be a good area for the free software world to explore further, since the combination of power and simplicity is extremely seductive, and allows people to experience free software with almost no effort, and certainly with no risk.
The final speaker was none other Richard Stallman, whose first act, once he mounted the stage, was to remove his shoes (but not his socks, happily). He then proceeded to sketch out the background to the evolution of the free desktop environment, starting with KDE, and how GNOME was set up to avoid what many saw as KDE's fatal problem: its dependence on the Qt libraries, which at the time were proprietary software.
He then noted how Qt later became free software, thus solving that particular issue, and transforming the KDE coders into what he regarded as good free software citizens.
Not content with rubbing the KDE community's noses in their slightly contentious past, he then proceeded to do the same to the GNOME community because of the use of the C# programming language, developed by Microsoft.
This is a very hot subject at the moment, and tempers flared in the questions session afterwards. RMS emphasised that he approved of working on free alternatives to Microsoft's .NET framework, so that people could run existing C# programs on free software, but that he was worried that producing too many good C# programs, even free ones, would increase the “pressure”, as he put it, for these frameworks and C# support to be included as standard.
After this characteristically unbending harangue - even-handed in that it managed to upset everyone - Stallman then switched mode, transforming himself into St IGNUcius, complete with hard disc halo. There was also the obligatory auctioning of the GNU fluffy toy to raise funds for the FSF, and the singing of the Free Software Song.
All in all, it was a very curious mixture, contrasting the most uncompromising, Old Testament prophet-like aspects of his character, to the most childlike and playful.
I got quite a strong sense that a fair number of people in the audience regarded RMS as increasingly irrelevant to their present-day preoccupations, and his hardline purism as unhelpful. That's a pity: we must never forget that without that unbending dedication to freedom we would not have GNU/Linux, nor everything that has flowed from it (which was the main theme of my own talk).
However, even I must disagree with Stallman on one thing he said. He noted that it was rather inefficient having two rival desktop projects, and suggested that it would be good if one day they might be merged – two alternative versions of the same underlying code.
But as someone who has switched between KDE and GNOME many times, I appreciate the friendly but serious rivalry that exists between them. This is a classic case where competition really drives both players forward at a far faster rate than would occur were there only one.
Although it was great to see the large numbers of hackers from the GNOME and KDE communities coming together at this joint conference, I think it's vitally important that they continue to go their separate ways, each convinced that their approach is best, but each ready to be stimulated by – and learn from – what their colleagues and rivals are up to. As with the keynote speakers, the contrasts between them help to bring out the particular strengths of the different individual approaches.