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Slings and arrows

The community that forms around the code has a different set of imperatives, and is looking for attachment and fidelity to the community and the code. openSUSE may be seen by Novell as a continuation of SuSE Linux yet is seen by the community to lack a distinctive identity. In some respects openSUSE was an attempt to raise a community out of a void. Red Hat pulled off a similar trick with Fedora - but always had a stronger philosophical association with the developer communities.

To further complicate matters, openSUSE's image and fate among the wider community, if not among its friends in other developer communities, has been coloured by Novell's policy mishaps. SuSE is the only well-established Linux company to have been owned by a proprietary software company, (if we exclude the short history of Corel Linux), and the awkwardness has shown.

But SuSE Linux existed long before Novell came on the scene, and will exist in one form or another long after Novell has gone - and it is to Novell's credit that it has understood the need to foster the independence and spirit of the community, and has made attempts to loosen the policy ties between itself and the community.

So, for instance, in the last year or two, openSUSE has instituted annual community elections to the board, of which the chair and two members must be Novell SUSE employees, and two are community members, of and selected by the community.

And openSUSE has adopted a more open licence agreement than SuSE ever had. No longer a EULA which requires acceptance, the license can now be seen as an open source license agreement, of which the previous openSUSE community manager, Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier, said at the time of the change: "We now have a licence that presents no obstacle to redistribution, and no obstacle for modification."

It could be argued that this should always have been the case. The openSUSE Community Statement calls for much more, specifically the founding of an openSUSE foundation, as described in Michael Loffler's blog last year: "Reasoning behind this is that openSUSE still is perceived as pretty much controlled by Novell which is actually not the case any more... So this foundation... offers the possibility for other companies to step up for major sponsoring and it would come with the benefit that we'd have a simple way to collect and spread donations for the project."

open Soyuz

In some senses the openSUSE community's introspection is an attempt to rethink its destiny and purpose, but is also an assertion of its independence from Novell. There is a community, and it produces a fine and distinctive distribution, but the community wants to feel more comfortable in its own clothes.

As a Linux distribution openSUSE stands somewhere between Ubuntu and Fedora, between ease of use and the bleeding edge. openSUSE's vision and strategy proposal focuses on reliability and community responsibility. openSUSE cares about "contributing our improvements to upstream projects" and not oversimplifying the system "to the point where configuring it becomes harder."

Inevitably the openSUSE community defines itself with reference to other communities. Where Ubuntu is unequivocally top down, the openSUSE community wants to be open and democratic.

The name and slogan of Ubuntu are a marketing dream, and even the brown screen has given it a distinctive identity. But the primary attraction for new users is that it is easy to use, easy to update, and easy to see what other software is available. Ubuntu can afford to be single-minded in its purpose because the final decisions about how Ubuntu looks and behaves are made by one individual, and this is somewhere the openSUSE developers don't want to be.

A clear direction has its advantages, but new ideas spring from maverick choices, and a single path for development impedes those choices. Where Ubuntu is a distribution that is attractive to new users because it specialises in reducing complexity, openSUSE hopes to appeal to other kinds of users, specifically to the more advanced users and developers who make a community tick.

openSUSE does not have the marketing appeal of Ubuntu, and no-one from openSUSE has been to outer space, but that probably isn't the point. Ubuntu is a refinement and a synthesis of what is already out there, and is the perfect Linux desktop for certain kinds of user. openSUSE, like Debian and Fedora, is more about appealing to the instincts of the developers who make the changes that make it to the more streetwise distributions - some of which, like Compiz and Network Manager, have had their origins among SUSE developers, and have been vital to the user appeal of other distributions. openSUSE is an important element in the wider Linux community.

Jos Poortvliet
Where Ubuntu is sleek and trim, and has a knack for refining applications, openSUSE, like SuSE before it, comes with the kitchen sink and the plumbing on view, and invites the adventurous user to tinker and explore and "have lots of fun". Poortvliet points out "the gap in usability between openSUSE (or even Fedora), and Ubuntu isn't that big. If you put in one man year you get there. But is that part of the vision?"

openSUSE has a different set of objectives, and if it loses out in some ways it gains from others. The issue for the community is that "we have to be accessible to wider communities, and that's how we grow our own community."

Next: A tip of the hat

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