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10 February 2009, 11:43


Surviving the crisis with open source

By Detlef Borchers

The volunteer organisers of the "Free and Open Source Developers' European Meeting" (FOSDEM 2009) demonstrated the fine art of scalability with a very well organised event. 250 talks for 5000 developers arriving from all over Europe, were held with very few problems. If such an event can have a general technical hot topic, then it was the omnipresent netbook and any number of Android mobiles: open source can slim down, be purged of non-essentials, start faster and look forward to a buoyant open future, running as a stable OS on many new small devices.

To kick off the conference of European developers of free and open source software, Simon Phipps, open source evangelist at Sun Microsystems, displayed a nice little image of Mozilla, Tux, the BSD imp and the Java dwarf sitting round a table drinking coffee. On the wall behind them, the mounted head of a GNU and a picture of founding father Richard Stallman. A peaceful interaction, such as FOSDEM has for many years been renowned, even if the university setting was less than idyllic. Various branches of the open source world met in twenty rooms to hold their sub-conferences. In the central corridor there was a book stand, run by the publisher O'Reilly, which sold out on the the complete print-run of a book on Drupal within an hour. The tone for the conference was set by various keynote speeches. Phipps opened the proceedings by giving short shrift to the accusation, which cropped up on a Debian mailing list in 2002, that Sun's RPC was proprietary and compromised the source code.

This was followed by a short pep talk from Mark Surman of the Mozilla Foundation under the slogan "Free, Open, Future?" He called on his audience to think not about tomorrow, but about the year 2060, "How far can the idea of open and free production go in society? Are our conceptual maps of study-copy-modify-share suitable for shaping a free, hackable future?" In his talk, Surman left no doubt that the open source ecosystem is ideally suited for surviving the economic crisis. The sale of 4.5 million Linux netbooks in one year proves it. Nonetheless, as Gervase Markham explained to the overflowing Mozilla Foundation lecture hall, that the foundation has stopped many projects for financial reasons, to ensure that the shrinking endowment is not endangered by the crisis.

Following on from Surman, Bdale Garbee, open source evangelist at Hewlett Packard, set about explaining the principles of the Debian community. Whilst last year there was a lot of talk about Debian maintainers, this year the values of the Debian manifesto and the Debian constitution were highlighted. "Never underestimate the project's ethical standards. These standards come first, followed by the visions, then the strategy, with the project right at the end. The standards are our anchor when things get stormy." Garbee also appeared convinced that a stronger Debian would emerge from the economic crisis, because the community is stable and constantly growing.

Many of the 250 talks will appear on the web either as videos or as slide shows, so that everyone will be able to catch up with the packed-out events. Worthy of mention is perhaps Novell evangelist Joe Brockmeier's talk, at which first the microphone, then the laptop, followed by the projector and finally mains power, failed. Brockmeier kept his nerve and explained that OpenSuse plans to strengthen its profile in the education sector, at schools and universities. A decision which makes a lot of sense, with many teaching projects such as Marionnet, a project for training network administrators developed in France, and Musecore, for teaching music, being open source. Although the hype around the, previously much admired, OLPC (which was visible only on the Fedora stand) has dissipated, schoolchildren are increasingly being kitted out with netbooks, for which Linux remains the OS of choice. In general, the impression gained from FOSDEM was that the trend is towards slimmed down, mini-distributions, such as Embedded Debian for specific devices, or Exherbo for tackling specific problems. This applies equally to individual packets, such as slim-line X-manager LXDE, which allows Open Office to be launched in three minutes.

Although the previous years FOSDEM 2008 was subject to criticism for certain organisational deficits, the volunteers responsible for this year's event showed that with sufficient fore-thought and an expanded support team, a free get-together can be scaled up and run successfully. Apart from the illogical partitioning of some rooms, only praise can be heaped on the 'Open Source University'. There was a baggage room for the many backpackers, a shuttle bus to the station and even a sightseeing tour for those of the developers' partners who had accompanied them to the event. Conference goers set a new record on the eve of FOSDEM with a beer bill of 10,000 euros.

One thing that hadn't changed was the major university look-and-feel, with uncomfortable wooden benches and dispiriting lecture rooms. The melancholy was lifted a little by posters of a lady hacker typing away in a flower bed. This was an advert for the open air Hacking at Random get-together, which will be held on the 40th anniversary of Woodstock at a former socialist youth-camp in the Hoge Veluwe national park in the Netherlands. Villages will undoubtedly already be in the planning stages for a number of the developer spaces represented in Brussels.

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