This year's LinuxWorld Expo in San Jose carried GNU/Linux a little
further away from its free software origins and a little more into
the commercial mainstream. Excused from speaking duties were the
usual voices of the free software and open source movements. And
while Linus said
he was relieved not to be writing
another keynote the night before the show, RMS
may have felt differently. Why else would they
have kept sneaking into the Working Press room and talking a little
too loudly with anyone who'd listen? Even ubiquitous Linuxshow
emcee Jon "Maddog"
Hall was more seen than heard
at this LinuxWorld (though he scored a glass "Maltese Penguin"
prize at the Geek
Bowl trivia contest).
keynote came from the CEO of America's largest
PC vendor, Michael Dell, whose talk resembled a political speech
more than a Linux manifesto, with its careful diplomacy toward
regimes old and new. Another
keynote came from Ransome Love,
CEO of a medium-sized Linux company (Caldera) that just finished
acquiring System V UNIX (the original AT&T UNIX(tm)!) from SCO.
If that's not an indication of Linux arrival, I don't know what
On the sold-out floor (the show will move to the larger San Francisco
Moscone Center next year) vendors competed for attention in
ever more garish and tasteless ways. My favorite was the vendor
that hired someone to crumple and flick bills -- in denominations
up to a hundred -- at anyone who would stoop to pick them up.
"I'm worried," RMS said. "No one is talking about the ideas anymore."
Stallman started the free software movement sixteen years ago and
has remained near its center ever since. His role may now be
Six short months ago, at the press conference announcing GNOME 1.0,
Stallman performed co-host duties alongside GNOME Project Leader
Miguel de Icaza. This time, de Icaza shared the stage not
with RMS but with representatives of 13 major corporations when
he announced the GNOME Foundation. RMS did not attend.
"I'm not worried about companies being involved, that's good,"
remarked Stallman, "But I'm uncomfortable with the tone here
and I didn't want to be just a spectator. Americans think that
success is the only thing that matters. If it were only a game,
that would be true. We wrote GNU/Linux to solve the problem of
UNIX not being free, but I'm afraid that once we reach step one
[of everyone using Linux] there'll be no one left to do step two
[of telling people why free software is important]."
RMS may not be the only one thinking along these lines. Midway
through the GNOME Foundation announcement, Chris diBona of VA
Linux skewered de Icaza. "You didn't talk
enough about the GPL [in your opening remarks]," diBona
asserted, thrusting a pen rather pointedly toward the slender
resident of Mexico City.
The GPL, or GNU Public License, is a Stallman-authored software
license protecting the Linux kernel and most other pieces of
code considered to be "free software" or "open source."
de Icaza looked smitten briefly then recovered and began writing
concernedly in his notebook as diBona turned back toward the
audience to begin his remarks.
The GNOME Foundation was the talk of the show. Everyone remarked
about how quickly it is growing. Much of the growth has been
driven by a company called Helix Code that is not yet well-known
outside the GNU/Linux world. I had a chance to talk at length
with Helix Code CEO Nat Friedman about his company's origins and
its role in the growth of GNOME.
Helix Code grew from an IRC
relationship between Friedman and
Miguel de Icaza that began in 1995. Friedman knew TCP/IP and de
Icaza Linux, so mutualism flourished. The two finally met
at a conference in 1998 where, recalls Friedman, "We had such a
good time hacking together we decided to try to work for the
"It wasn't easy finding what we wanted, though," continues Friedman.
"Which was first, to be paid a lot of money and secondly, to be
allowed to do whatever we wanted. Finally I said, 'Let's just start
our own company,' and Miguel said, 'I'm in.' I left my last exam
at MIT half an hour early to fly to a press conference announcing
Helix Code started in October of 1999, got its first round of
financing in January 2000 and hired 45 of the best developers
it could find. "Through our work on GNOME," boasts Friedman, "We knew
exactly who the best people were and we hired them all. We could
have grown faster, but we slowed to avoid growing pains."
First order of business
Friedman described his company's early days. "The first thing we did was to
set aside our business plan. I was flying somewhere and I had caught up
with my email -- I think that was the last time I've been caught up with my
email -- and I had the GNOME list archives on my laptop. What I realized
was that the problems actual users were having were all with configuration,
installation, upgrades -- the last mile. We had everything -- libraries,
applications, all of it -- we just needed to get it onto people's machines
and keep it up-to-date."
Friedman's observation led HelixCode to create the Helix GNOME distribution,
which previewed in March 2000 and shipped a 1.0 version "essentially today,"
according to Friedman. Helix GNOME installs with a single root shell command -- lynx -source http://go-gnome.com/ | sh --
and includes utilities that make it easier to use than the standard GNOME
"We did three things with our GNOME distribution," says Friedman. "First, we made
it run on nine platforms, including every major distribution except Slackware
as well as Solaris and HP-UX [editors note: Solaris support is currently
limited to one specific video card]. Secondly, we made it
a comprehensive desktop environment for novices by including stuff that's not
ordinarily part of GNOME. For example, how do you set your system time?"
"Uh, rdate clock.sgi.com?" I offered.
"Right. Well, you have to read man rdate at some point, and my mother is not
happy with that. She is un-psyched.
"The third thing we did," Friedman continues, "Is integration testing. That
turned out to be the hard part. The hard part is making sure you're delivering
updates that don't break people's system. When we started, we thought the hard
part would be something else, but it turned out to be that."
Automating system administration
A cornerstone of Helix Code's GNOME desktop is the Helix Updater, which
attempts to automate and standardize basic system administration functions.
This is meant to ensure that system performance does not degenerate,
as it tends to in the Windows and Mac worlds, after repeated installation and
Initially, Updater managed only the components in Helix's
GNOME distribution; however, it has grown to address pan-system conflict and
dependency resolution by using information available in the *.rpm package
format. Debian users familiar with apt-get will appreciate the utility of
such an update tool. In fact, Helix Code defers to Debian's apt-get and other
administration utilities -- the Debian version uses apt-get rather than
installing Helix Updater.
"That will change in a big way very soon," according to Friedman.
Clearly, he plans to offer system management services that go beyond simple
package conflict and dependency resolution. And indeed, he may need to in order
to win customers over to opt-in for-pay versions of services available
elsewhere for free.
Another distribution that Helix Updater does not support at this point
is Slackware. Slackware was the first Linux distribution. It was once the
easiest route to Linux because you didn't have to compile everything
yourself. Tools such as install_package, remove_package and update_package
offer a kind of "package" system by dynamically querying binaries about
the libraries they depend on. However, the absence of persistent
meta-data in Slackware's simple *.tgz package format would make Slackware
too labor-intensive to support, according to HelixCode officials. Slackware
founder Patrick Volkerding does not agree, "They are not done yet," he
said. "They should support Slackware."
Helix Code's business plans in the area of system administration suggest competition with the other major commercial
entity to emerge from the GNOME Project -- Eazel. Eazel plans to offer
system update and administration services through its Nautilus file manager.
Some Helix Code employees seem to view the developing competition
with Eazel as a friendly rivalry. "But we're here today," boasted one.
Helix Update has been used millions of times and presently delivers
about a thousand daily system updates, according to Friedman.
Eazel's Nautilus recently began shipping a 0.4 version.
Friedman downplays the competitive aspects with Eazel. "There's
some overlap. But there already was overlap. Red Hat offers an update
method, Mandrake has an updater... Netscape has its "Smart Update"
service... There was always going to be overlap."
Eazel was the second company to come out of the GNOME project.
It began officially a few weeks after Helix Code, in October of 1999.
Eazel executives, including a handful of Apple big-wigs emeritus,
come mostly from a commercial software background. They got a
helping hand from Friedman and de Icaza early on in navigating
the potentially emotional waters of the free software and open
source cultures. "We held their hand in the beginning," says
Friedman. "And to their credit, they did everything exactly
as we said to."
One important change was an early switch from C++ to the
traditional C more popular with UNIX programmers.
Adds Friedman, "They wanted us as Eazel co-founders, but we wanted
to do our own thing."
During its first ten months, Eazel has focused on the development
of its file manager, the Nautilus "graphical shell" (get it?).
Meant to provide the power of a Unix shell through a graphical
human interface, Nautilus takes obvious design features from
the Windows Explorer and Macintosh Finder and attempts to build on
When you install Nautilus, it asks you to choose from a list of
user levels corresponding to alpine ski slope rating signs. Are
you ready for Black Diamond file management? Eazel VP of Engineering
Bud Tribble is the skier in the group. Tribble is a former Apple and
Sun Microsystems executive described by one veteran ZDNet reporter as,
"The smartest person I've ever interviewed."
Another Tribble contribution is "Music View" mode, a synaesthesically
named feature in which an embedded multimedia player begins playing
sound files on mouse-over. "Name that Tune" will never be the same.
Nautilus offers a List View and an Icon View in which a zoom button
lets you see more and more file meta-data up to the point at which
the first few lines of files begin to appear within the icons.
Selecting a file causes launch buttons to appear in the left frame
that will open the document using the installed applications that
know about that file type. Double-clicking an icon causes the file
to be previewed within the Nautilus frame.
Nautilus is really just a framework for a number of viewer applications
that work inside it through the Bonobo object framework. Bonobo
was developed at Helix Code and is similar to Microsoft's COM.
Interestingly, Bonobo is named for an endangered and highly
promiscuous ape said to be humanity's nearest genetic cousin.
The currently shipping 0.4 version of Nautilus lacks many of
the most intriguing features. However, by the time GNOME 1.4
ships in November, 2000, Nautilus is expected to be the default
file manager, replacing Midnight Commander, a knock-off of the
Norton System Commander that was once ubiquitous on Windows in
the days of 3.1.
According to Tribble, Eazel plans to begin offering opt-in
system backup and administration services as early as late 2000.
Will anyone buy backups from Eazel when they could find the same
services for free from companies such as iDrive and xDrive?
Will anyone buy system administration and update services
from Eazel considering Debian's and Helix Code's early lead
in this arena?
Eazel's Tribble appears unconcerned when asked these questions.
"The file manager," he explains, "Is where the user interacts
with the system, and where they expect to find system services."
He has a point, and for some reason the famous Mack Rhinelander
.sig file pops into my head: ""Old age and guile will always
triumph over youth and enthusiasm." Maybe it's a good thing
for Helix Code that Updater isn't really what the business plan
is all about.
Aside from the Helix GNOME distribution, Helix Code's main
project is the Evolution groupware client. Notes Friedman with
amazement and elation, "Thousands of people are beta testing
Evolution right now. Thousands! That's so WEIRD!"
Evolution relies heavily on the Bonobo component model, with
email, calendar and contact manager applications running within
its framework. Friedman describes Evolution, currently at
a 0.4 version, as "an Outlook killer for heavy users. With
Outlook, everything is in separate folders. We have virtual
folders so everything is indexed together."
"The first time you run it," Friedman continues, "If you have
a gig or two of old mail, it might take a little while to open.
But after that, it's really fast."
Evolution's index enables nearly instant full-text searching
of all old messages. The index is updated on the fly when
mail arrives or is deleted. Advanced filtering features are
offered. The user can choose which account to send mail from
by choosing from a drop-down list of accounts underneath the
"From:" line. The same addressbook works with all your GNOME
applications and syncs with your Palm Pilot.
At the GNOME Foundation press conference, up24by7 Editor Matti Siltanen
asked Friedman what security precautions Evolution developers
have taken, and specifically, whether a formal security audit
process has been put in place. Friedman admitted that nothing
formal had been established, but said that he believes "developer
attitude" makes the most difference. "Our developers have a world
view of the Internet as a hostile place," he said.
When Siltanen persisted in his line of questioning, de Icaza
interjected, "You can start doing that. That's what free software
is all about. If you feel strongly there is a need for something,
you can get involved." It was one of the high-points of the press
conference, right up there with Jim Nay of the Free Software
Foundation beginning his short talk with, "I'm basically here to
Show me the money
Helix Code hopes to offer a number of services through its Evolution
mail client. These include off-line mail storage that would enable
subscribers to access all old email from any GNOME desktop.
"I'd pay for that sh*t!" enthuses Friedman. He continues, "Name
a band you like."
"Uh, Neutral Milk Hotel?"
"Okay, we'll email you the day that any Neutral Milk Hotel shows within
two hundred miles of you are announced, and you can buy a ticket by
just clicking." Friedman radiates enthusiasm for the idea.
He has a point. As computers improve and play an increasing role in
making our lives convenient, software vendors will be well placed to
broker economic exchanges of many kinds.
It also seems like nowadays, the business model comes second. The
important thing is to establish a relationship with a large group
of customers, and then figure out how to use that relationship.
An example would be Amazon, which doesn't make much money selling
books, but which lands some pretty
partnerships, perhaps because it has something like ten million
customers that it knows intimately.
Helix Code won a contract to provide TurboLinux with a desktop, and
IBM is paying to bundle Helix GNOME on ThinkPad notebooks. "And
there are a couple of others that are even bigger that I can't talk
about..." according to Friedman.
Another revenue stream for Helix Code at this point is selling CDs. "For now," says Friedman.
In the last six months, GNOME has grown from 250 to 400 developers.
It has gained the official backing of 13 major computer companies
which, thanks to the GPL, came to terms without signing a single legal
document. Two solidly backed commercial ventures -- Helix Code and
Eazel -- have taken root in soil tilled by the GNOME Project. The
GNOME desktop has become install-able by mere mortals. It has shipped GNU-Cash, a "quick 'n' intuit-ive" personal finance manager, along with many other new applications. GNOME people
have much to be proud of, perhaps none more so than Bart Decrem.
Decrem created the consensus that enabled the Foundation to be born.
One of three Eazel co-founders -- the young one who didn't used to
work at Apple -- Decrem looked slightly haggard if elated after the
Foundation press conference. He walked over to chat with Helix Code's
Nat Friedman as we sat outside in the San Jose sunshine.
"Well, my work is done for this show," Decrem said, "And I'm glad.
There are a lot of prima donnas in the Foundation." Ah, the
candor of youth. When asked, he gamely added, "Yes, you can quote
me on that."
Where will GNOME, this somewhat unlikely, somewhat inevitable
collection of underdogs and juggernauts head to next? Who will
share GNOME centerstage with Miguel six months from now? And
will they talk enough about ideas, or just focus on commercial
No answers here, but I'm looking forward to finding out. The energy
and enthusiasm of young Linux captains of industry always gives
you a lift. Likewise the wisdom and idealism of the industry and
movement veterans. So I'll see you in New York in about six months. At this rate, the whole world is
going to be there.
Have you tried Helix GNOME, Eazel Nautilus or Helix Evolution?
Let us know in the TalkBack below