I am sat on a train heading home from CeBit in Germany. CeBit is huge. Freaking, insanely, grandiosely massive. The hall we were in was the size of an aircraft hanger and there are 22 such halls. It takes ages just to walk from the start of CeBit to the end and they expect around 400,000 visitors to pass through. Nuts is an understatement when describing it.
The Canonical booth, which I was wedded to for three days was not in the LinuxPark part of CeBit, as you may expect, but in one of the other halls. We exhibit all the time at Linux conferences, so it would be useful to be out of the way a little and see a different bunch of people and a different demographic of user. We had hundreds of people coming to the booth and gave out around 10,000 CDs to eager visitors.
What was particularly interesting (apart from the the fact that most of the people who didn’t use Ubuntu used Gentoo) was how Ubuntu, and as such Linux and free software, is becoming part and parcel of peoples lives. If anyone walked past the booth, we would grab them and pester them about Ubuntu, and a huge number of people who walked past seemingly paying no interest were already using Ubuntu. Most of these people were simply not all that excited about it – it is the OS they use, and that was the end of it. This shows that Ubuntu is becoming a real Operating System – people are using it and not automatically becoming all-singing-all-dancing community Linux fans. It is becoming a norm and part of the furniture and this is good news. Of course, it would be great if they all did become community members, but the reality is that a percentage of the user base will become contributors, and to see so many using it in regular end-user scenarios is extremely encouraging.
I also headed to the LinuxPark and checked out the GNOME, KDE, Red Hat, Xandros, LPI, Scribus, OpenOffice.org and other booths, and there was a great atmosphere there. As with most conferences I head to, I always leave with my own observations and thoughts on the wider jigsaw puzzle that is the Linux and free software community. Although I earn a crust working with the community every day, I never want to forget that the community is an organic entity, and will never be fully understood. Every day I learn something new about it, and I find it endlessly fascinating exploring it.
One such observation that I have become particularly aware of in the last year is just how diverse our community is becoming. In days of old, we used to talk about diversity, but that really translated into technical things that were less technical than hacking kernels or applications. Documentation was seen as diversity, yet it involved LaTeX, SGML, DocBook and an insane toolchain. Testing was diversity, but it required complex bug reporting which demanded stack-traces, core dumps, debugging logs and more. Back then, diversity was still rocket science.
Today things are different. We are really seeing true diversity. When I am on the road, I meet hundreds of different people who contribute to free software in so many different ways. I have met hardcore kernel hackers, application developers, documentation writers, artists, journalists, musicians, testers, advocates, event organisers, bug triagers, trainers, translators and more. Many of these people come from different walks of life, have different opinions, different experiences, different skills and get their switches flipped in different ways. There is one distinctive connection though – they believe in free software. Although the ferocity of this belief varies greatly between different groups of people, the key point to remember is that freedom and free software connects us all. We are all fighting for the same thing.
We have the opportunity to do such amazing things and to touch peoples lives in different ways, and this never ceases to inspire and hearten me about the incredible community we are all part of. In our community we conduct our work in the way people should conduct their work – we believe in equality and merit, we believe in giving people a chance to do great things, and we do it together, not as individuals, but as a combined entity. It really is a direct connection between ability and outcome – if you are good, no matter what your age, experience, gender, race, income, political orientation or otherwise, you can do incredible things from your computer and have thousands or even millions of people experience it. It is the greatest game in the world; nevermind Second Life, nevermind video games – our game has real implications and opportunities for real people.
And this is where diversity kicks in. Traditionally the game was only open to hardcore programmers; to have this incredible impact on the world you needed to get all hot and bothered about structs, pointers, memory allocation and other such geekery. These days, we can be creative in different ways and still have an opportunity to get that incredible feeling of contributing something that really matters to other people. When I visit conferences and shows, you really see this. I am fortunate, like many other contributors in the free software world, in that people come over and thank me for my work. This is a real pick-me-up in an already stressful world, and an already stressful industry, and free software contributors do like to be thanked. As such, I have made a policy over the last 8 or so years in that if I meet someone who has contributed to the free software I use on my computer, I try to thank them and buy them a beer if I meet them at a conference or show. It is a small gesture, but it can really make a difference. I am now expecting a flood of “you owe me beer, Bacon” emails.
What is important is that we harness our diversity to move together as one. There is nothing wrong with us having our own groups, such as different distros, desktops and projects, but we always need to remember that we are fundamentally on the same side. We will all differ in our views, the ferocity of them, and the commitment to freedom, and we should not and cannot expect everyone to agree on how we define freedom and work to spread it. The risk with all communities is that they can suffer from in-fighting and internal bickering, and this has happened in one way or another from the beginning, but I find it is always healthy to step back, and remember the core ingredients and the core goals we are fighting for. Purity is not the only metric in winning the game, and if we continue to work together, stay balanced, and optimise how we work together we have the potential to do even more incredible things.
Exciting times folks. Lets just see what we can do…