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Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier discusses OpenSUSE 11.1
by Henry Kingman (Dec. 22, 2008)

Last week, the Novell-sponsored OpenSUSE project achieved version 11.1 of its community-supported Linux distribution. Because the release includes watershed changes like a new license, new build system, and significant upstream integrations, DesktopLinux collared Community Manager Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier for perspective about what it all means. Enjoy . . . !

Q1 -- When I installed OpenSUSE 11.1, I had to agree to the new license first, but it only seemed to be available in English. Given SUSE's proud history as Europe's top Linux desktop, are there plans to translate the license to, for example, German?

Q1 -- Well, translating a license is a little trickier than translating program code or menu options. I know we discussed translations, but I'll have to look into what the outcome was to say for sure if we're going to translate it.

Unfortunately, [not translating] is probably the norm. For example, no translations of the GPLv2 were ever officially endorsed [by the Free Software Foundation], as far as I know. GPLv3 might have been internationalized -- that was a goal -- but I'm not sure they accomplished it yet. If you look at most of the OSD-compliant licenses, most do not have translations, unfortunately.

The "translations" dialog is English-only, for now
(Click to enlarge)

UPDATE -- Joe sent along this follow-up -- I checked with Michael Loeffler (the product manager for OpenSUSE) and it seems we have translations for Deutsch (German), Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Chinese. I'm not sure why they didn't turn up in the installer. You can find the Deutsch version here. I don't think the others have been copied up to the wiki yet, but the translations have been worked on.

Q1b -- How would you characterize the new license, in layman's terms? It seems more complicated than the usual warranty disclaimer I'm used to seeing in Debian, for example.

A1b -- Basically, it's a step away from the old EULA [end-user license agreement -- 11.0b version archived here] used with 11.0 and earlier. That license was more restrictive, because we had some bits of software that you couldn't redistribute freely. The new license just says that OpenSUSE is made up of a lot of different components, each with their own license. However, the aggregate work that we're distributing -- the disk itself, in that form -- is copyright Novell and distributed under the GPLv2. So, if you want to redistribute the entire disk, that's the license.

We went through a lot of discussions about what we want the license to do. I had conversations with community representatives, and with Paul Frields [Fedora Project leader -- mini-interview here]. We settled on not reinventing the wheel, but rather to apply the "open source principle" and with Fedora's blessing, lift their license, more or less. It has been a very successful license for them. [Fedora's licenses are typically presented at first-run rather than before the installation, and are archived here.]

A few years back, the OSI got on a kick about reducing the proliferation of licenses, and I'd like to start applying that principle to things like distribution EULAs and trademark policies.

Q1c -- Yet, there are big differences between Fedora and OpenSUSE. You include things like Adobe's Flash player and Acrobat reader, whereas Fedora places a lot of emphasis on keeping things really clean for potential re-distributors.

A1c -- Fedora is focused on software freedom as an end goal. At OpenSUSE, we have no philosophical objection to things people need to get the job done. Evince and some of the other viewers work well for most things, but there are still examples where you don't get the same fidelity or features [as with Acrobat]. Our goal is to get Linux to as many people as possible.

Q2 -- For its first decade or so, SUSE took a lot of criticism from folks like RMS for having proprietary, closed software like YAST ("yet another system tool") and SaX (simple X tool) at the heart of the system. But, that stuff has all opened up, right? Are any core SUSE and/or OpenSUSE components still distributed only in binary form?

A2 -- YAST and related components are basically GPLv2 at this point. That happened a couple of years ago, after Novell acquired SUSE. Furthermore, we'd very much love to see those things adopted by other projects. Toward that end, we have separated out the display component, so that if you are using GNOME, GTK is used [as the graphics framework]. If you use KDE, then Qt is used. On a system without a graphical desktop environment, you'll see the ncurses version. So, you could use the YAST display library for any kind of menuing system.

YAST, in GTK trim
(Click to enlarge)

Q2a -- Ah, similar to how mconf shows up in all kinds of configuration screens, from the Linux kernel to busybox to axTLS. But SUSE, I imagine, retains some proprietary bits, much like Red Hat?

A2a -- There may be some commercial bits in SLED or SLES. Being completely free is obviously not a goal on the enterprise side.

Q3. Through the years, Novell has contributed heaps of code to open source. From IPX/netware support, to heavy Samba contributions. More recently, Mono and Moonlight are high-profile contributions. Does OpenSUSE 11.1 benefit from especially deep integration of these Novell contributions, in the way for example that Fedora often highlights the most recent upstream code from the Red Hat-sponsored

A3 -- If you want to do open .NET development, Mono tends to be very well-represented in SUSE. And, we've included the most recent upstream code from Go-OO, the Novell Edition of Open

OpenSUSE's has all the bells and whistles
(Click to enlarge)

Q3a -- Go-OO? Can you explain that a bit?

A3a -- Sure. A couple of years ago, there was a bit of a dust-up over some parts of Open Office that we did not wish to contribute to Sun under their "joint contributor" agreement. License agreements like that make sense with an organization like the Apache Foundation, where there's not a single commercial entity in charge. But with Sun's agreement, we would essentially have given them the right to change the licensing -- including changing it down the road to a commercial license. It would also have let them include it in StarOffice [Sun's commercial version of OpenOffice]. We did not want to do that. We do still contribute a great deal [of our Open Office work] to Sun [under the agreement], but not everything.

Another issue was that Sun's build system was not terribly conducive to building OO for Linux distros. So, in 2004, Michael Meeks created ooo-build, a branch of After Novell acquired Ximian, I believe that was used for And today, you may notice that the Go-OO version of OO is distributed by most distros, including Debian and Ubuntu. I believe Fedora also uses the Go-OO build system, though not all our patches.

In a nutshell, Go-OO came about because everybody has their own ideas about how they want their code to be used.

Q4 -- That reminds me to ask about the criticism Novell has taken in the past for its partnership with Microsoft. Specifically, Groklaw looked at Microsoft's Patent Pledge for Individual Contributors to and a couple of other documents, and concluded that Microsoft might be angling, through patent leverage, to get exclusive usage rights to work contributed to OpenSUSE.

A4 -- I don't want to dismiss people's concerns. Nor do I wish to endorse them too deeply, however. With some of the criticism out there -- we're talking tin-foil hat time.

With regard to the Microsoft deal, there was some legitimate concern initially. But, we're two years in, and it's had no ill effect on the free software community at all. By now, I would hope that if specific contributors were deeply concerned, they would have moved on to contribute somewhere else, rather than making it into a personal crusade.

Q5 -- Okay, enough said there. Beyond what I've asked about already, what should we be looking for as we evaluate OpenSUSE 11.1?

A5 -- The KDE improvements are first and foremost in my mind. I'm sure you are aware of the controversy over the transition from 3.5 to 4. With this release, a lot of people are saying that KDE 4 is starting to look like a viable successor to 3.5. The OpenSUSE KDE team did a ton of work polishing the release, and even backporting some features to 3.5. And, it is really good. Given SUSE's long history with KDE, we strived to create the best KDE experience out there. And, the KDE team deserves a prize for maintaining two branches of KDE for the release.

I installed KDE using the "patterns" feature, but actually switching to it proved harder
(Click to enlarge)

That's not to sell GNOME short. GNOME was already pretty strong in the 11.0 release, and the 11.1 version is well-polished. The GNOME team did a fine job, too.

Another accomplishment I'm proud of has been increasing the level of community involvement. We're working hard to involve the community in more decisions. We're already talking about the 11.2 release cycle, something that previously would have been a decision of Novell's engineering department."

Another example -- we supported two releases of KDE in OpenSUSE 11.1, because our community asked for it. After this, we'll move to just KDE 4, because the KDE project has just released 3.5.10, and that's pretty much it [for that branch]. We've got to start looking at the future. But we decided we'd do [KDE 3.5 support] for one more release.

OpenSUSE 11.1's installer offers several desktop options
(Click to enlarge)

Also, this is the first release we developed completely in the Open Build Service, a hosted service that we use to build a distribution. Developers can use it to build packages for SUSE, Fedora, CentOS, Debian, Ubuntu, and Mandriva. It makes it easier for people to maintain and package software for multiple distros, and it's important to get software to multiple platforms.

Fedora and Ubuntu also have build services, but as far as I know, ours is the only one that is both free software, and covers building packages for multiple distributions. That means you can host your own instance, if you're a developer or an ISV, and integrate it with our service. The folks who put this together -- it's some amazing engineering.

Q6 -- Can you quantify how well the OpenSUSE project is doing? Also, how is SUSE itself doing? Microsoft, at least, always seems to be buying up more and more redistribution licenses for it...

A6 -- In broad strokes, I think SUSE is doing well. Novell made a financial announcement to that effect recently, though I could not tell you the specifics.

OpenSUSE is not a revenue area for Novell. We're the foundation for the enterprise product, but do not produce revenue, except for the boxed version. Our goals are to encourage contributions, and increase Linux's adoption -- things like that.

Q6b -- Fair enough, but can you quantify the number of users OpenSUSE has, or the number of contributors? Is the community responding to your efforts to involve them more?

A6b -- Several weeks after the release of 11.0, the OpenSUSE community had either 6,000 or 4,000 users, I can't recall exactly. In late Oct. or early Nov., we passed the 10,000 user mark with our Open Build Service. And, we're seeing a lot of other signs of growth, as a result of our interest in working more closely with the open source community, through additions such as the new "contrib" area.

As for actual downloads, the response to the 11.0 release was huge, because it had a long release cycle, and a lot of pent-up demand. Yet, preliminary data from the 11.1 release suggests we are about on par. That means we are seeing sustained demand. We have not at all been disappointed by the download figures seen so far.

Q7 -- If I'm an OpenSUSE user, and need some software before it becomes available through the normal release cycle, what do I do?

A7 -- You can actually grab the latest release of anything through the Build Service. You can add repositories through YAST. It's not as simple as I would like it to be, but experienced Linux users should have no problems.

Also, for discrete programs, there's a one-click install. You go to a website, and click an icon, and get a "YMP" (YAST meta-package). It tells YAST to add the necessary repository, grab the software, and keep it updated in the future.

Q8 -- Thanks very much for your time, Joe, and best of luck to you and the OpenSUSE project! I look forward to trying out OpenSUSE's KDE 4 implementation.

A7 -- You're welcome!

For lots more screenshots of OpenSUSE 11.1, visit the screenshot gallery.

-- Henry Kingman

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