2011: The Year of Linux Disappointments

Tuesday Dec 13th 2011 by Bruce Byfield
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As years go, 2011 was a kidney stone of a year for free and open source software.

On August 15, LinuxCon celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the Linux kernel with a Roaring Twenties party, complete with swing bands and tuxedos and flapper costumes. The milestone was one that conference attendees were happy to celebrate, despite the obvious embarrassment of Linus Torvalds himself.

Unfortunately, 2011 as a whole didn't measure up to those few hours of partying. In fact, whether you are looking at business, the community, or the technology, for free and open source software (FOSS), 2011 was in many ways a disappointing year.

Not that any great disaster struck in the last twelve months. For many -- even most -- businesses and community projects, the year was routine, with new products and releases rolling out like any other year.

However, at the same time, opposition to free software continued to build in 2011. Nor was the year a lucky one for anyone taking a new direction. In fact, when you look back at 2011, most of the major events were disappointments, only occasionally softened by unexpected secondary results.

What made 2011 such an all-round downer? Here are some of the highlights (or should I say low points?) of the year.

Legal and Business Landmarks in 2011

Legal threats and the need for patent reform are problems that free software has lived with for over a decade. However, in 2011, the vultures seemed to circle a little closer.

To start with, the American Invents Act, which many hoped would bring about some much-needed reforms in the United States, failed to address major issues such as trolls and overly broad patents -- let alone abolish software patents, as many would advocate. Its introduction of a nine-month review after patent granting was generally considered a mild consolation at best.

Meanwhile, Oracle's patent case against Google continued, with the court date postponed until 2012.

In addition, Microsoft began trolling for patent settlements with manufacturers of Android phones. Many manufacturers knuckled under.

At the same time, the legal threats continued, with the semi-secret Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement (ACTA), which could criminalize many aspects of free software, has started to be signed by the nations who have worked upon it.

Within the United States, more general threats emerged in the form of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) (also known as the Internet Blacklist Bill), the Protect IP Act, and bill s.978 -- all regressive pieces of legislation that could cripple the Internet as we currently know it. Given free software's inter-dependency on the Internet, these pieces of legislation could affect the community even more than general Internet users.

Perhaps partly because of this increasingly ominous legal background, FOSS-related business was quiet in 2011. The one new company of note was Nat Friedman and Miguel de Icaza's Xamarin, which resulted when Attachmate, in acquiring Novell, jettisoned the Mono assets. The same restructuring also resulted in making SUSE an independent business arm of Attachmate, although so far little has been heard from it.

Otherwise, major business news was scarce in 2011. Much of the rest was negative, such as Nokia dropping MeeGo in favor of Windows 7 and Hewlett-Packard dropping both its Touchpad tablet and the Linux-based WebOS that powered it.

The facts that MeeGo was absorbed into the Tizen project, or that WebOS' source code was recently released can't disguise that neither was really tested against the market before being cancelled.

Yet another failure was Google's Chromebook laptops, whose productivity apps are almost entirely in the cloud. Announced as a sign of things to come, the Chromebook's sales are estimated at no more than thirty thousand, and have recently been dismissed as an idea that nobody was really interested in.

2011 in the Community

Patents and the legal threats to business affect the FOSS community just as strongly. However, the community faced its own problems in 2011. In particular, two major sites -- the Linux kernel server and the Linux Foundation -- were compromised.

These attacks were not only a symbolic blow to FOSS' claim to greater security, but a major inconvenience as well. The Linux Foundation took weeks to restore its community site Linux.com, and, three months later, has yet to restore the archives from the days that Linux.com operated as a news site -- an oversight that deprives the community of a valuable historical resource.

2011 also saw the rise and fall of Bitcoin, a peer-to-peer digitalized currency, an idea that resonated with many members of the community. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, for example, briefly accepted donations in bitcoins. Soon, however, concerns about Bitcoin's legality and stability as a currency forced the Electronic Frontier Foundation as well as many others to withdraw their support, or at least proceed cautiously.

Several long-established community projects saw a decline as well. As the Chrome browser continues to increase in popularity, Firefox saw a corresponding decline, until in November the two were within a few percentage points of one another. In response to Chrome's popularity, Firefox has moved to releases every few months, but this move has been criticized as causing a decline in code quality.

The decline of OpenOffice.org in 2011 was even more catastrophic. Acquired by Oracle with the rest of Sun Microsystems' assets, OpenOffice.org managed one mediocre release before being handed to The Apache Foundation. It is currently an incubator project, trying to organize itself to be accepted as an official Apache project.

From the whispers of ApacheCon, OpenOffice.org may never leave the incubator project. The intention may be to do a thorough code audit and produce one last, clean release that the rival LibreOffice can absorb. Since LibreOffice's growth and development was one of the few bright spots in the FOSS community this year, this might be the most fitting conclusion to OpenOffice.org's troubled history.

Still another disappointment was the Ada Initiative, a non-profit organized to increase the participation of women in open technology and culture. When first announced, the Ada Initiative seemed the logical next step in solving the problem of misogyny in the community, and I briefly joined its board of advisors.

Unfortunately, despite having spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000 in six months -- much of that apparently in salaries and travel -- The Ada Initiative has accomplished little that a volunteer group could not.

In fact, its founder's greatest success, the encouragement of conferences to adopt a model anti-harassment policy, was accomplished before the organization was founded. With its current fundraising campaign going so poorly that the progress bar was removed a few days ago from the home page, the non-profit seems to have failed to create the community support it needs to survive.

Being a new organization, The Ada Initiative might yet turn itself around or reinvent itself, especially if it finally manages to register as a charity. However its debut is distinctly lackluster, especially in contrast to the GNOME Outreach Program for Women which returned in 2011 with several successful rounds of internship, and in the process demonstrated how a well-organized program increases participants' chances of success.

Another largely unnoticed reinvention is the Debian distribution. Long dethroned by its derivative Ubuntu in popularity, Debian spent much of 2011 reinventing itself. In the past few twelve months, it has -- among other things -- tried to encourage cooperation among its derivatives, revamped its new member process, and experimented with IRC training sessions.

In short, Debian spent the year adjusting at last to its current role as an indirect influence rather than the major distribution. In the process, it provides one of the few upbeat stories in the FOSS community for 2011.

2011's Technology Issues

For a few weeks in September and October, FOSS technical news was dominated by concerns that the new Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI), the upcoming replacement for the computer BIOS, would prevent Linux and other operating systems being installed instead of Windows. The concern was sparked by Microsoft's intention to promote the use of UEFI with Windows 8, and was not subdued by Microsoft's sometimes ambiguous statements on the subject. However, Matthew Garrett's assurance that getting Linux to work with UEFI was relatively trivial did much to calm the concern.

At any rate, UEFI was only a brief diversion from the largest stories in FOSS technology in 2011: the release of GNOME 3 and Ubuntu's decision to default to the Unity shell on top of GNOME. Both GNOME 3 and Unity show the influence of mobile devices on desktop design. Both, too, are attempts to simplify the interface, and change the way that users work. Unsurprisingly, both have also received both intense defenses and criticisms, and became a major topic for 2011.

Exactly how numerous the discontented users of either actually are is uncertain. However, when GNOME 3 won the Linux Journal's Reader's Choice Award, and Ubuntu the Best Distro Award, numerous commenters online assumed that the voting was either rigged or represented the opinion of very few voters. While the percentage of complainers is uncertain, their anger and persistence seems undeniable.

Just as important as the interfaces themselves are the issues that they raise. For instance, Unity seems to owe its existence largely to Canonical and Ubuntu's inability to work with the mainstream GNOME project. How decisions were made about Unity also raises issues about the relationship between the community-based Ubuntu and the commercially-oriented Canonical.

Both GNOME 3.x and Unity also raise the question of whether the FOSS desktop is at the stage where video drivers with 3-D hardware acceleration can be assumed.

Other issues raised include the relationship between usability theory and user's practice, and GNOME's and Unity's developers and their lack of communication with everyday users. All these issues extend the technical issues beyond the technical details and apply to FOSS in general.

However, reactions to Unity and GNOME do have at least two benefits. First, they encourage users to examine alternatives like Xfce for their desktops. Second, they have encouraged other developers to build extensions to both Unity and GNOME that make each of them look more like their common ancestor GNOME 2. In other words, many of the first extensions to these interfaces undo most of their changes.

From one perspective, these extensions are a waste of time. However, from another, they demonstrate the community's determination to get what its members want. If the core developers at a project won't listen, then others will.

No question -- the issues centering around Unity and GNOME 2 dominated Linux news in 2011. To suggest that things were otherwise would be false. Still, the complications did mean that other technical developments, such as KDE's Plasma Active interface for tablets, passed almost unnoticed, despite their ingenuity.

This and Better

Among such gloomy stories, members of the FOSS community can take pride one thing: despite all the discouragements, work still got done. Releases still came, and improvements were still made. Although FOSS may not be so large that it endure any number of setbacks, if nothing else 2011 proves how robust FOSS is.

All the same, reviewing the year, I am reminded of how George Macdonald Fraser, the creator of the Flashman series, claims that his terror of a grandmother summed up a mediocre first nine holes of golf. That is (with the Scottish dialect cleaned up): “This and better will do; this and worse will never do.”

Here's hoping for a more upbeat year for everyone in FOSS in 2012.

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