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A tip of the hat

Fedora, the other community with which openSUSE might be compared, is to Red Hat Enterprise Linux what openSUSE is to SUSE Linux, only more so, and stands for pushing technology and the state of the art of free software.

"They use their user base for testing the latest things at the edges of technology, even if it doesn't bring the user benefits. It's very laudable, and I respect them for that, their willingness to push things," says Poortvliet. "For the open source community Fedora plays a very important role. They are at the frontier of technology. They're not afraid to ship things despite the fact that they know it might cause harm here and there. For some users it might be a problem, but the users know that."

In Thym's view: "When I look at Fedora I see 'Features First' and a really really great community, based on the principles of open source and the culture of Red Hat. When I look at Ubuntu I see ease of use and another kind of community. When Red Hat and SUSE tried to close their code there was a place for a community to celebrate their freedom," he says, "and Ubuntu filled that gap. When I look at openSUSE it stands for stability and technology, and people who have a very solid knowledge of the technology, but what is missing is the social part, the interaction of a community. The strategy should be that 'we want the best community', and if we have a good community with shared values and common ideas we can match any competition."

"Build a great community, and great code will follow."

A story to tell

One way of growing the community and attracting users is to rethink the distribution itself, but "that is something communities don't often do," says Poortvliet. "They don't step back, look at what we currently offer and assess whether its good enough or does exactly what the users need. Communities don't work that way."

"You can't steer the community. Change comes because somebody says 'I want to do this thing'", not because a new set of goals has been imposed on the community. "It's a much more organic process, and what usually happens is that somebody comes in and says 'I'd like to do this' and does it. If you want to steer a community, you can, but it also requires that you have the extra resources to commit to attaining those goals."

A strategy gives "something for the community to get enthusiastic about, an interesting cool vision that we share - to attract people who are interested in attaining those goals, to come in and work in that direction. It's important to have a story to tell, to give people enthusiasm, and get them to join in and work towards it."

"The way you steer a community is not by identifying gaps in what you offer and trying to fill them. That needs control. That's a top down process and we don't want that. You try to define a vision that people want to work towards, and then hopefully the gaps get filled."

"Strategy is the wrong word. It's about identity, who we are and what we do. Somebody told me that he was surprised that the openSUSE strategy doesn't even have a goal, which is the point. It probably should have a goal, but that isn't something we have done yet..."

Wake up little Susie

Everything has been up for grabs. There is a Community statement on the strategy, and a SWOT analysis of attitudes among the community, which comes to some uncomfortable conclusions about the community's perception of Novell.

There have been suggestions about simplifying the distribution by restoring SuSE's historic focus on KDE, as one developer put it: "As a project, we will not focus on trying to be the best in 'everything', but in tasks where we already rule" - openSUSE has already reverted to the choice of KDE as its default desktop environment - or gaining ground by tackling new user cases, identifying new target audiences for smartphones or cloud strategies.

But Poortvliet believes "these are limited directions, business strategies, that it quickly turns out you can't do with a community," which doesn't mean they can't be done as side effects of the community.

openSUSE's introspection and angst may be premature. Changes in the perception of openSUSE may be developer driven and come out of new projects like Frank Karlitschek's Bretzn project, announced at the openSUSE conference, which has the potential to transform mechanisms for updating and upgrading the software. It may even be that a sense of community will follow the code, because communities evolve and mature over time.

Much more intriguing is the prospective establishment of an openSUSE foundation during 2011, and the much rumoured sale of Novell, which may result in a new era of independence and freedom for SuSE, and new horizons for openSUSE and its developers.

See also our previous openSUSE feature:

Other features in our Health Check series

For other feature articles by Richard Hillesley, please see the archive.
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