Radical Innovation is needed for GNU/Linux distributions

There’s a certain movement these days in the world of GNU/Linux distributions.  I think we are experiencing one of these moments that starts with a question that has been asked and heard many times -should distros differentiate themselves in order to survive? & aren’t there too many distros out there?- and ends with a much more serious question: Innovating in the world of GNU/Linux. Rest assured this is not going to be that sort of rant where we conclude that “Linux is the copycat of other OSes” just like we will not, in fact answer the question of the pretendly too many distributions or their differentiation. That is, I will not really answer these questions; and the reason I won’t is that I think these are all bad questions that either miss the point or show a certain lack of understanding of  FOSS and GNU/Linux in general.
I guess by now all of you have heard of Mageia, the Mandriva fork. But these news overshadowed something else that is a developing situation
elsewhere and matters perhaps even more: OpenSuse.

In a nutshell, OpenSuse has been breaking away very slowly from its main sponsor, Novell, for about 2 and a half years. The first visible sign of this -which really was a weak signal nonetheless- was the decision taken by the community to switch back to KDE as their preferred desktop instead of Gnome. Of course, just like Mandriva/Mandrakesoft, Suse had always been more KDE oriented than  Gnome. Yet Gnome is where the business, the stability, and theenterprise applications are supposed to be found, and on Gnome lied Ximian, the Groupwise integration etc. Then the OpenSuse folks started to open a brainstorming plan in order to define a new strategy for OpenSuse, apparently independent of what Novell was planning to do or sell with respect to that. This strategy brainstorming session ultimately reached its conclusion a few days ago:


As you will see, what OpenSuse intends to be is a general-purpose, desktop oriented distribution; which means at the same time that nothing will change in its actual orientations and that it even departs from its usual enterprise polish it always had had. But what this also means is that we will not see OpenSuse or Suse on handhelds or tablets or any other new markets. This is a significant information, especially if you see that whoever will buy the Suse part of Novell in early 2011 might not be able to have its own way if  it does not take the time to engage with the community: The OpenSuse project seems to be very autonomous and not at all ready to fall into whatever new goals any future sponsor might want to achieve. And if it takes a fork to dot it, there’s the Mandriva case.  But always remember that OpenSuse has a very strong userbase and market share, although it’s been declining ever since 2009. What will be interesting nonetheless will be what the future owner of the Suse brand will want to do and how it plans to innovate. OpenSuse can be a general-purpose distribution; the user base is there, but the value might be hard to create if there’s no real business story to tell behind it.

Back to Mandriva / Mageia now. It’s perhaps to early to say anything about Mageia, except they seem to be made of some pretty skilled  people; and that’s usually not the kind of engineers you find easily on the market. They claim to continue what Mandriva as a distro was good at, only in a better way, and without the perceived historical failures of the past management teams.

Interestingly enough, I think Mageia is bad news for Mandriva, and it means that Mandriva should find an innovative business model and acquire/change to a new focus. Let me explain. Reading the Mageia website and going around the Internet, here’s what I understand:
– Mageia realizes the need to be a linux distro for other kinds of
terminals (tablets, handhelds, etc.)
– Mageia has crafted two strong bulletpoints in its storytelling that DOES hurt Mandriva starting today: Mageia “is” Mandriva, since it is
made of the engineers who have coded Mandriva ever since a few years; second, Mageia is “better” since they understood what “is wrong”: the management of Mandriva. (Nobody ever found anything to complain about Mandriva as a distro, it’s still one of the best on the market).
– Mageia is soon to “take over” the market: everyone on the forums  seem to dig Mageia; and in a sense, it’s what the Mandriva community and the French FOSS community was expecting.

If the last claim sounds bold, think again: what is the value of having a Mandriva desktop outside of a corporate support contract (same goes for a server) now that there’s Mageia? The way to create value for Mandriva is to depart from the traditional all-purposes distribution model (which still does not mean they would have to “cut” the actual distribution) and innovate first at the distribution level, and then, if possible, go up the ladder by growing a very skilled technical team able to innovate as an operating system, either by contributing upstream again, which it hardly does anymore these days, or innovating on the user experience just like Ubuntu does and is now clearly intensifying as a strategy.

In the case of Mandriva and Mageia, what might become interesting to watch is the potential race between the two twin-distributions; one is now almost an empty shell, deprived of its developers, and the other one has developers but no resources. In any case, it’s time these two get a real shot at innovating, for the sake of the entire Free and Open Source Software ecosystem.

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