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24 November 2011, 14:45

The rules of the game

A conversation with Dave Neary

by Richard Hillesley

Richard Hillesley talked with Dave Neary about his experience working with open source communities and companies, and discovered that the important thing is not so much what the rules are, but that everyone knows what they are.

Dave Neary was at college in his native Ireland in the mid 1990s when he discovered free software. He had "managed to get through a maths degree doing very little programming", and went on to do a research degree in image analysis where the ability to program became an essential part of his work. He remembers "turning to a friend and saying: 'I understand that these things are variables but what's the star thing in front of the variable name?' When he stopped laughing he told me, and that's how I discovered pointers."

"The piece of software I was working on would only compile on UNIX so I ran an X-Server on my Windows desktop until somebody said 'You're not using Windows. Why don't you just install Linux and be done with it?', and I had to say 'Linux, what's that?'"

This was in 1996. By 1999 he had taken a job as a developer with Informix which left him in something of a rut "where I was wanting to learn more than I was learning through my job. So I began to work on The Gimp. I hadn't worked on user interface software before," he says, "and started looking at bugs that were annoying me, scratching my itch, and got heavily involved in Gimp development."

"The great thing about the free software world in general and also my upbringing is that I haven't been afraid to take things apart just to see how they work. I'm not afraid to get inside the hood and see what's going on even if I don't know what I am doing."

He went on to become release manager for The Gimp and a member of the board of the GNOME Foundation, and later advised Nokia and Intel on community aspects of the Maemo and Meego projects.

Eleventh of eleven

As his life moved onwards and kids came along, he had less and less time to spend on coding. "You need a block of three or four hours that you can set aside or you get very little done. So I was spending more time reading emails and bug reports than I was writing code..." Neary discovered a talent for organisation and became the Gimp release manager "as a way of still being useful to the project".

GNOME was based on the GTK toolkit developed by Peter Mathis and Spencer Kimball for The Gimp. "In 2004 we were looking for a place to host the Gimp Developers Conference, and I proposed that we co-host our conference with GNOME at GUADEC so we wouldn't have to organise a separate location, and both the GNOME and the Gimp developers went for that. And I joined the organising committee for GUADEC, which was in Kristiansand in Norway that year."

At the conference, Jeff Waugh, who was on the board of the GNOME Foundation, took Neary aside and said "You've done a pretty good job on this Conference. Have you thought of running for the board?" – "I hadn't and laughed it off. But as I was getting more and more involved in GNOME on the organisational side of things, when the time came to nominate oneself for the board, I did."

"I got elected, eleventh seat of eleven. Seven votes ahead of the person who was twelfth. Although it didn't apply that year, there was a situation in the GNOME Foundation when the board was 11 members where you could only have a maximum of 4 people from any one company, so there were a number of years where Michael Meeks was the fifth person from Ximian, and was left out. This was referred to as the Michael Meeks' rule for many years."

The free desktop

GNOME was founded in 1997 by Miguel de Icaza and Federico Mena as a response to KDE, which had been announced by Matthias Ettrich on de.comp.os.linux.misc as early as October 1996.

KDE was the first attempt to create a truly integrated desktop environment for Unix-like operating systems, but came with a problem. It used the Qt widget toolkit, which came under a licence that wasn't approved by or compatible with the GPL. Since nearly all KDE applications were released under the GPL, this meant that the applications were in violation of their own licences.

The licensing of Qt later went through some changes, and the problem disappeared, but not before the founding of GNOME in August 1997. In the 90s, free software was as much about a community of individuals coming together for a common purpose as it was about the software itself. Now most of the bigger projects, including GNOME, are sponsored by a variety of commercial interests, and GNOME has become the default desktop for a number of Linux and UNIX distributions. The GNOME Foundation was created in August 2000, to act as a coordination point for the project. One of Neary's roles has been to work with companies getting involved with GNOME or working on their own free and open source software projects.

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