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On the brink

Conectiva, (acquired in 2005), had a long term employee, Eugeni Dodonov, who was Russian and had gone to school in Brazil, and Conectiva had built a successful business in Brazil based on selling Mandriva OEM services on laptops for schools. So when Dmitry Komissarov, who had founded PingWin Software in Russia, was appointed as an advisor and member of the board of Mandriva, he gravitated towards Conectiva, and there were inevitable differences between Komissarov and Laprévote over the control and direction of Conectiva and its staff.

The Russians were pouring engineers and commitment into the enterprise. In the summer of 2011 Kommissarov told CNews that Mandriva was "being developed by 20 people in Brazil, about 15 in France and more than 40 in Russia." But there was a lot of infighting and blame assignment within Mandriva, and the already fractured community was becoming increasingly disaffected by rumours of real and imaginary splits and discontents.

It became apparent to everyone that more money was needed if Mandriva were to survive, and the Russians weren't happy putting up the money unless they had a say in where the money was going. Laprévote was the Président Directeur Général and took the view that it was his body on the line and he who had to make the decisions – so there was a stand-off between the reality of a company under court supervision, and an investor who had a very different vision for the company – and there was only one way it could end if Mandriva was to have a future.

By the end of last year, an unnamed Swiss investor, reputed to be another subsidiary of NGI, was offering to buy the company, but Bryan Garnier, who wanted assurances on the return of its investment and the retention of its 42 per cent share of the company, was resisting the takeover.

In December a newly appointed directeur général, Dominic Loucougain, released a letter he had written to the shareholders. "I regret to inform you that none of the recapitalization schemes that were proposed at the meeting of shareholders on December 5 was accepted", he wrote. "Without a permanent funding solution for our company before January 16th at noon, I will declare bankruptcy."

Since then, things have moved quickly, and the company has returned from the brink. The French shareholders are still on board, and the company has been recapitalised. The Russians have replaced Dominic Loucougain with Jean-manuel Crozet, who came into the company through NGI's Swiss connections. Crozet brings a new energy and enthusiasm to the job, and has brought in people to try to mend fences with the Linux community and give focus to Mandriva's research projects. Mandriva has become a member of the OW2 consortium, which hosts a range of open source infrastructure research projects, and is consolidating its work on Compatible One.

For the first time in its history Mandriva has an investor with the cash reserves it needs to steady the ship and fund its growth, and the promise of a business model and a sense of direction that will allow it to take advantage of the prevailing winds.

For the community

One of Crozet's more significant moves from the point of view of community users and developers has been to rethink how Mandriva works with its community, and to bring in Charles H. Schulz to help set up an independent non-profit foundation to revive the desktop distribution and its loyal but long suffering community. Schulz is best known for his role with LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org, but first worked at Mandriva "as an intern sometime back around 2002 or 2003. Just as I finished my internship they were in the process of renaming the company to Mandriva", he says, but he has remained a long term fan of Mandriva and the "idea that care and attention is being paid to the end user... Things have changed and Mandriva has evolved with the changes, but the philosophy is the same."

He is well aware that Mandriva's problems have not been due to a lack of technical excellence, and knows that, through all its changes in management and talk of different business models, the company failed to understand the changing environment and that "the business model did not follow."

"The founders had a genius intuition that you can actually go somewhere if you are trying to do a wonderful Linux desktop", says Schulz. But this model wasn't going to last, and though "this was said for years there was a significant delay in understanding the industry and where we were going."

"It's sad that we're talking about this because the success has gone", he says. "But we hope to bring it back." The debts are paid. Mandriva has been stabilised. "And we know that we have to refocus ourselves on our enterprise offerings, which is very much where we're going." The plan is that "Mandriva will go one way, and will have a clear set of products based on Linux. The community, for which we still have to find a name, will go another way."

Mandriva is disengaging from the role of being the only contributor to the community: "simply because there are certain things we can no longer afford. Being the editor of an outstanding Linux distribution is no longer a viable business model." Part of the strategy is to heal the rifts with Mageia.

"Mageia will be the upstream for server-based products," says Schulz, "but we're not just paying lip service to Mageia. We're very happy to work with them. We have a new CEO. We have a new president, and a new chairman of the board. Everything has changed at the top. Because of that the subjects and issues that existed before have gone away."

Rebooting the company

Mandriva will focus on enterprise Linux software, and while it intends to remain a good citizen and upstream contributor to the community, it is not going to be "the only one in the game", he says. "So the Mandriva Linux distro, as it is now, will be the basis of the community distro, while Mandriva, the company, will be using two upstreams, one of which will be the new community distro, and one of which will be Mageia for its server offerings." There will be critical differences between the community distribution and the Mandriva server distribution. Both will be RPM-based, but the server distributions will use the standard RPM4, and the community distribution will use RPM5, which is more advanced, but a fork.

Mandriva is hoping that "contributors will come to the new distribution because it will be a fun place to be. The new distribution will bring very much the same care for the end user that the Mandriva line of distributions have always brought, and will hope to be as technically advanced as Fedora," says Schulz, "and this will be exciting and new." Mandriva the company will contribute but does not expect to be in charge. "We're not going to hog the governance. We won't be the ones that decide," says Schulz. There has already been a community proposal for hosting the servers, and Mandriva and Rosa Labs will also contribute some servers, "but we prefer to lead by example rather than domination."

Mandriva is looking to focus on three main areas of business. Corporate servers and solutions, which will encompass Mandriva's enterprise offerings, including Pulse; the education and desktop market, which is currently focused on South America and will be based on the community distribution; and, infrastructure research "because research is how we can broaden the scope of Mandriva and its customers."

Schulz adds that Mandriva is hoping to see a gradual re-investment and raising of Mandriva's profile in the English speaking market. "As of now," he says, "we are rebooting the company."

(Eugeni Dodonov, who is mentioned in the article, left Mandriva to work for Intel and became a contributor to Mageia. He tragically died in a traffic accident on 8 July 2012).


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

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