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Open standards and the community

An open source issues and strategies expert explains the most recent progress being made with open standards and describes work being done by the newly-formed Linux Foundation.

How far has Linux come with developing uniform standards? Have organizations like the Linux Foundation made any significant moves within the last few months? What's the status of the Portland Project?

The biggest news in the past few months is the merger of the Free Standards Group (FSG) with Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) to form the Linux Foundation (LF). The FSG itself was formed by putting together smaller organizations like the Linux Standards Base (LSB) and the whole merger evolution shows why Linux is not going away: it is becoming stronger as it gathers more resources (some 70 companies in the LF) and pools more technology. The LF employs key Linux personnel (like Linus), protects the Linux trademark and has a patent-defense component. It is not just for corporations, but involves individuals and the open source community as well.

Most people think of the LF (or of its components) for its technical projects, all aimed at creating and pooling open technologies and standards for the benefit of all developers and users.

The Portland Project is a less-formal cooperative of open source developers that cooperates with the Linux Foundation to improve the interoperability of the Linux desktop. Within this grouping of projects, freedesktop.org has developed a tool, xdg-utils, that has been adopted and released as Portland by the Linux Foundation. Further, the freedesktop.org D-Bus interface for communication among desktop apps has been adopted by the Linux Foundation as the DAPI interface.

The practical concerns of these groups involve the problems that Linux users (and wannabees) have been having with Linux for years, and that are slowly being addressed and solved.

  1. KDE vs. GNOME. Linux geeks like picking a windowing system and then picking a desktop, but the average desktop user simply wants to get on with the job. These users are not stupid, they just don't want to do much more than pick out applications and maybe their desktop wallpaper. DAPI and xdg-utils will help applications run on either system and simplify cut-and-paste and other basic operations for users moving between the desktops.


  2. Application writing and porting. Having a standard API to write to will simplify making applications run on different Linux distributions and speed the porting of applications from other operating systems to Linux.


  3. Library (and other critical file) locations. This is an old problem, but progress has been made over the years. It affects how much trouble it is for an application to be installed on different systems.


  4. Hardware problems (drivers and interfaces). Printer problems are the ones that the average user is most likely to run into, but close behind that come useful devices such as digital recorders whose desktop software is Windows-only.


  5. Multimedia problems. How does the user get all the necessary components and where should they be installed?


  6. Security and DRM issues. The world certainly needs more intelligent and user-friendly DRM provisions than those supplied with Vista.


  7. Debian vs. RPM (the Red Hat Package Manager). RPM is a sort of de facto standard for packaging in the Linux world, yet it has its problems. Geeks generally acknowledge Debian packaging as superior, but how do you get the two to work together? Debian has the alien utility that can be used to put RPM onto Debian systems, but what if a user were not familiar with these wrinkles?

These problems exist because of the fecundity and variety of the open source community. On the other hand, Apple and Microsoft aim their products at average users and simplify the options for users and developers alike. So the strength of open source is its weakness -- notice how the cooperation of the community is working to overcome these problems. The work is slow because it is cooperative. The RPM is what it is because Red Hat saw that Linux needed a package-management standard and came up with RPM. By going to the expense of publishing a large book about how to use it, Red Hat spread this standard. It takes both individual innovation (RPM and Debian) and group cooperation (LF) to build a better Linux.

Finally, the Linux Foundation is actively trying to involve Asian developers in its activities. There has been a lot of Linux activity in Asia, but many people believe that not enough of the innovations and improvements developed there have been seen over here.

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