Ximian gets a lot of play at Ottawa Linux Symposium

by Andy Oram

Topics at the Ottawa Linux Symposium span the many layers of Linux--from hardware issues like cache mechanisms, Flash memory chips, and hot pluggable devices (known to the rest of the world as Plug-and-Play) at the bottom to futuristic GNOME applications at the GUI level.

A barrel of Ximians

Ximian programmers working on the GNOME architecture and applications are getting a pretty enthusiastic reception here (as well as the expectable grilling about standards support and reliability). They have triumphantly picked up Miguel de Icaza's crusade to transform the expectations of the Unix community, and implicitly (or sometimes gleefully) criticize the usability of old applications from the X Consortium or the GNU project.

Down with ASCII--long live rich, displayable, typed objects! Down with rc files--long live run-time discovery of interchangeable components!

In Evolution, which is both a platform and an application suite and attempts to provide all the applications that office staff need to use daily, the object model extends down to a single column in a table. Each column knows whether it's a number, a string, a date, or whatever, and can be displayed and sorted appropriately.

Speakers from Ximian insist that applications should be "consistent and pretty" (to quote GNOME hacker Federico Mena Quintero), that it's ridiculous in this day and age for anyone to use a mailer that doesn't display HTML or handle MIME types, and that basic activities like printing should be offered with a full-featured interface such as paper selection. Mena Quintero, to begin his presentation on GNOME, declared that, "People who come from a proprietary world come to expect certain features in their applications." To underscore his rejection of the old free software world, when discussing the development of the GNOME printing system he said pointedly, "The GhostScript code was completely unusable."

What's good about GNOME, however, despite their unabashed admiration for the look and feel of Microsoft Office and the success of its component architecture, is that they are doing things that should go far beyond what is imagined by Microsoft. The Bonobo CORBA interface, along with a sophisticated storage component called Wombat that is shared by many applications, should enable rich collaborative applications. There are some interesting side features, such as the index used by several applications to speed up searching and demonstrated by Ettore Perazzoli during his Evolution presentation. Thanks to pre-indexing, a word search on a huge mail folder or an address book finished so fast I didn't even have a chance to see the screen update itself.

The social implications

Every conference on free software this days is turning into a political event. It's happened at O'Reilly's Open Source and Peer-to-Peer conferences, and it happened at a reception last night where Hugh Daniel of the FreeS/WAN project spoke. He covered the travesties of the DeCSS case and the arrest of Dmitry Sklyarov, urging people to vote, to discuss issues with their friends, to follow new bills introduced in their governments, and to protest like hell against bad bills. (Significantly, I didn't hear Daniel say we should argue in favor of good bills.) Most of all, he ordered the audience, "Do not stop writing code that annoys my government" (U.S.).