I like to say that IT moves ten times faster than the rest of the economy — and that free and open source software (FOSS) moves ten times faster than the rest of IT.
Certainly that held true in 2012. At times, FOSS reflects what is happening in IT in general, but events usually unfold much more quickly. FOSS solutions often arise in a matter of weeks, rather than the months it would take in general IT. At other times, events and trends affect FOSS while having hardly any effect on the rest of IT at all.
So what were the big stories for 2012? LWN is publishing quarter by quarter summaries of the events in FOSS for the last twelve months. However, here are the nine trends and stories that shaped 2012 the most for the community and that are likely to continue to influence events in 2013:
1. The Rise of Crowdsourcing
Crowdsourcing, the sponsorship of software by its users, is not new. Nor are other ingenious ways of funding projects. For instance, the Calibre ebook manager derives income from Open Books, a portal site for DRM-free publishers. One or two distros have also cut affiliate deals for a default search engine.
However, in 2012, nearly every FOSS project seems to have discovered crowdsourcing all at once. The only trouble is, FOSS projects that have regular releases don’t fit well on existing crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, which caters to one-time projects.
The Yorba Foundation addressed the difficulties in a popular presentation at the 2012 GUADEC, raising the possibility of creating a software-specific site for crowdsourcing. More recently, the Free Software Foundation sponsored its first crowdsourcing campaign for MediaGoblin, a de-centralized media-sharing application. The efforts to make a living from FOSS are only likely to continue in 2013 and beyond.
All of which leaves you to wonder: Is there a limit to the number of projects that the community can support by crowdsourcing? What happens to unpopular but necessary projects that can’t raise the money they need?
2. Diversity on the Desktop
The days of GNOME and KDE dominating the desktop are gone. A side effect of the rise of Ubuntu’s Unity and user revolts is that users have more choice than ever regarding which interface to use.
Traditional desktops have proved popular, with many users opting for re-creations of GNOME 2, such as Linux Mint’s Cinnamon and Mate. Others have preferred Xfce, which has been the third major desktop for over a decade. LXDE and other minimalistic desktops have also become more widely used.
Others prefer more innovative desktops, such as Unity or GNOME 3, while KDE manages a balance of tradition and innovation.
The one shortcoming of this diversity is that many coding hours have been spent re-creating GNOME 2 that might have gone into creating something new. The question for next year is whether GNOME’s support of a core group of extensions for re-creating GNOME 2 will help GNOME regain something of its former domination.
3. Ubuntu: Corporation vs. Community
Ubuntu is the most popular Linux distribution. For that reason, its every move is watched closely, and it no doubt receives more than its share of criticism. All the same, in 2012, the corporate goals of Canonical, Ubuntu’s commercial arm, clashed increasingly with user’s expectations.
To start with, controversy continued in 2012 over Unity, the interface designed by Canonical. While a few former critics softened their response as Unity matured and they became used to its foibles, many continue to complain as loudly as ever.
Ubuntu’s founder Mark Shuttleworth kicked off 2012 by announcing “the future of the menu” — the Head Up Display or HUD, a typing completion transparency level that covers the desktop. Despite his own enthusiasm for this innovation, even the purchasers of Ubuntu User mostly disliked it.
In September, Shuttleworth informed the readers of his blog that the dash, used largely to locate local applications and files, would also display search results from Amazon as part of an affiliate program. Although instructions about how to uninstall this feature appeared almost immediately, users questioned not only its usefulness, but also Ubuntu’s dedication to users’ privacy.
More recently, this feature received renewed attention after being denounced by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation.
The question that remains is whether such issues enrage only those already inclined to be suspicious of Ubuntu and Canonical or whether it will disenchant others in the next few years.
4. Interfaces Adjusting to Multiple Form Factors
As FOSS distributions look at being ported to phones, tablets, and other mobile devices, the search is on for methods to minimize the effort involved to support these other form factors. The most obvious method is to use the same code on everything from workstations to phones — and, because mobile devices are the most limited form factor due to their size, developers design for them rather than for a workstation or laptop.
However, as the reception of Unity and GNOME 3 has shown, what is accepted or tolerable on a phone can become a nuisance on a laptop. Users dislike interfaces that require far more clicks than a traditional desktop as well as those that allow access to multiple applications only by alternately revealing and concealing each app. Yet, so far, most projects persist in a one-size-fits-all philosophy.
The main exception to this approach is KDE’s Plasma, or sub-system for interfaces. While interfaces cannot quite be swapped in and out as needed with Plasma, it still helps makes finding appropriate interfaces for each form factor relatively easy.
KDE has spent the last few years devising several different interfaces– all of them supported by the same standard KDE structure, give or take a few modifications. The latest is the Plasma Active interface for tablets. Released in late 2011, Plasma Active went through two versions in 2012, and has emerged as task-oriented interface that is far simpler to use than anything else that FOSS or proprietary companies have produced for tablets.
From a developer’s viewpoint, this approach is not quite as convenient as a single code base. But the compromise between low maintenance and the possibility of appropriate interfaces for each form factor seems more promising than anything else being developed.
Other desktop environments lack KDE’s modularity, so they cannot easily copy KDE’s way of handling multiple form factors. However, I suspect the impossibility of making one interface suitable for all form factors will force a search for other creative solutions in 2013.
5. The Lessening Influence of Free Software
The influence of free software ideals in the community peaked with the consultation for the writing of the third version of the GNU General Public License in 2005-2007. However, the consultation failed to win a consensus, and free software advocacy has declined in influence over the last five years.
In response, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has rallied its supporters over the last few years. It held an annual conference and organized GNU Generation, a group to encourage young adults to become involved with free software advocacy.
But while these efforts have produced a small circle of dedicated and enthusiastic advocates, the FOSS community as a whole is currently tilting towards the more pragmatic, more business-friendly open source perspective.
The main reason for this change may be that free software advocates are only now starting to become involved in social media, online services, and mobile devices — all of which play an increasing role in computing. Consequently, statements like those made by Richard Stallman, the FSF’s founder, about Ubuntu’s affiliate deal with Amazon are easily dismissed as being out of touch, especially when they are made two months after the story originally broke.
However, what was significant about the free software position in 2012 was that it produced no significant story. Not too many years ago, that would have been unimaginable.
6. Feminism Moves to the Mainstream
Feminist voices have been heard in FOSS for years. However, 2012 was the year in which it became influential for the first time.
True, misogyny is still expressed and defended on Reddit and Slashdot. But if the same sentiments are uttered by corporation or community leaders, they are being answered with anger — often, thanks to social media, within minutes of the remarks.
Just as importantly, women started to get organized to teach other women how to code and to survive in the community. By far the most successful of these efforts is GNOME’s Outreach Program for Women, whose mentoring-for-success techniques have become so effective that the program is now being extended to other FOSS projects.
Other feminist resources include the Geek Feminist Wiki, which has assembled a thorough collection of information about all aspects of its subject. A variety of blogs suggest how and why to find more female speakers at conferences. The Ada Initiative, a full-time feminist advocacy group, continues to promote anti-harassment policies at conferences, although it sometimes handicaps its own effectiveness through rash actions and statements.
(Disclaimer: I served briefly on the advisory board of The Ada Initiative. I resigned in November 2011.)
Probably no one organization or person is responsible for these signs of progress — but that is the nature of grassroot efforts. Slowly, with some parts kicking and screaming, the FOSS community is becoming more welcoming to women. The changes visible over the last year are likely to become stronger in the next few years.
7. The Raspberry Pi Explosion
Both FOSS and the ARM architecture have played a major role in embedded devices for years. However, in 2012, this interaction took an unexpected direction with the release of Raspberry Pi, an ARM-based, GNU/Linux-loaded computer the size of a credit card available for under $50.
The FOSS community has ties to the Maker subculture, and many members still recall the attempts by One Laptop Per Child to develop an inexpensive computer a few years ago. However, nothing is comparable to the popularity of the Raspberry Pi. Almost overnight, sub-communities and websites sprung up, all full of suggestions and plans for how to use these machines.
Like Android before it, the Raspberry Pi may become an offshoot of Linux that becomes more popular and better known that its parent. Part of its popularity may be due to initial restrictions upon the number that could be purchased at one time, but with that restriction lifted, the interest shows few signs of slowing, and is likely to continue throughout 2013 and beyond.
8. Blurring the Line Between Community and Corporate
A few years from now, we may look back at 2012 as the year that major FOSS community projects started to become more like businesses — or, at least, tried to.
Early in 2012, the KDE desktop environment announced its intention to create a tablet that runs KDE and other free software. Originally called Spark and then renamed Vivaldi, this tablet was originally supposed to be released in May. But it has been delayed by manufacturing problems.
About the same time, Mozilla announced its intentions to develop a smartphone running its own operating system. But although planned for release in 2012, this project, too, has been delayed. Meanwhile, GNOME is also discussing plans for its own phone, although no development schedule has been announced.
Should these efforts succeed, then new community roles like product manager may develop. However, releasing such products requires a major effort. Breaking into manufacturing is always difficult, and any FOSS project that attempts to do so will face competition from companies with greater experience and market share. Nor is it certain that those outside of FOSS will understand the need or appeal of hardware run on free software.
Still, the effort to bring these products to market suggests that the community’s traditional distrust of business no longer applies.
9. Responses to Secure Boot
The Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) is a replacement for the traditional computer BIOS. It includes a feature called Secure Boot, which prevents any operating system without a security key from starting on a computer.
Secure Boot can be turned off, at least on some systems, but to do so means losing some of the benefits of UEFI. It also requires users to search through the list of system settings, not just once, but possibly multiple times should the computer ever be restored to factory defaults.
The fact that Microsoft is the only company that currently issues security keys for its operating system caused additional concerns in the FOSS community throughout 2012. Many worried that UEFI is a Microsoft plot against FOSS operating systems.
With the first computers with UEFI appearing in late 2012, much of the previous year has been spent searching for solutions. Ubuntu proposed obtaining the necessary security key for itself, while Linux Foundation has talked about obtaining a security key for a second bootloader that would allow the use of another operating system.
Probably the most practical solution — especially for small Linux distributions or those who object to asking Microsoft for a security key — is shim. Developed by Matthew Garrett, a former Red Hat employer, shim allows distributions to create their own certificates, following a set of easy instructions.
With the release of shim, the problem appears to have been solved. However, distributions have hardly have had time to add it to their installation disks, and widespread deployment may reveal the need for bug fixes. Just as importantly, modifications to Secure Boot may also require additional modifications to shim.
If such things happen, then the installation and updating of operating systems, which many members of the community take for granted, may not be as easy in the future as it was in the past. For now, the story seems to have a happy ending, but some uncertainty remains.
In a field as busy as FOSS, these were far from the only stories. Like IT in general, FOSS in 2012 continued to adapt to cloud-based computing. Eventually, too, it may either be influenced by the design of Windows 8 or, more likely, benefit from user dissatisfaction with it.
In addition, some memorable releases happened in 2012. Apache OpenOffice managed its first release and immediately fell into the expected rivalry with its cousin LibreOffice. Calligra Suite began regular releases, offering an alternative to both Apache OpenOffice and LibreOffice, and a different perspective on what a modern office suite should include. In addition, as I was writing, Samba 4 was released.
Then there are the stories that I unknowingly underestimated, or that are happening under the radar as I write. I have no doubt there are many of both.
But that’s what makes writing about FOSS so rewarding — there’s always something new happening. I look forward to more of the same in 2013.