EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

Keeping the Desktop Dream Alive: Q&A With Linux Foundation’s Jim Zemlin, Part 2

Keeping the Desktop Dream Alive: Q&A With Linux Foundation’s Jim Zemlin, Part 1

Where is Linux going? For Part 2 of this interview, LinuxInsider continued speaking with Linux Foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin to discuss Linux in a wider variety of technologies, new programs intended to make it easier for businesses to switch to open source computing, and open source’s ability to compete in the consumer mobile space.

LinuxInsider: During your speech at the Open Source Business Conference, you said that one of the reasons Linux is growing is that it saves money. But from your examples — companies that make and sell products such as Samsung, LG and Sony, and your mentioning the ability to monetize product in ever-decreasing time spans — you’re talking about manufacturers and high-tech businesses. What about non-high-tech businesses, like medical devices, for instance? Apple is pushing hard there with the iPad.

Jim Zemlin:

In general, Linux has the No. 1 market share in the embedded systems world, whether it’s MRI scanners or any other type of high-end medical device.

In terms of medical solutions that require tablet computing, the IT infrastructure in hospitals in most cases can’t be described as cutting-edge, and we’ll have to first see that type of technology really mature.

What I will say about the medical industry is, if you look at what has created large productivity gains in many segments of the economy, it’s things like knowledge sharing, the ability to access your data from anywhere and at any time. In that case, Linux has done pretty darn well because it powers the severs and allows software companies to own their own intellectual property.

Let’s take a non-high-tech marketplace like power production — let’s use power companies. They’re basically setting up smart grid technology to meter people’s [electricity] consumption on a 15-minute incremental basis so they can manage power patterns and make sure the grid is allocating energy effectively.

If you’re polling 12 million customers’ power usage every 15 minutes, you’re polling millions of transactions that have to be centralized, stored and analyzed, then have the data pushed out. You have power meters, servers that store and analyze the data, high-performance computers to crunch the data. In all those categories, Linux is either the No. 1 operating system or the fastest-growing operating system.

We’ve seen Linux do something unheard of in other operating systems in that it moves from one segment to another, and as it does, it dominates those segments. In high-performance computing, Linux went from zero percent market share to over 90 percent in less than 10 years.

LIN: Let’s look at what the problems are in the Linux space. One, the need for a universal application and media warehouse that companies can tap when they want to bundle their applications with media, video, carriers and billing. A white-label iTunes App Store, if you like. What would this require? Some kind of template that companies can purchase and adapt to their requirements with a few lines of code, similar to the way Internet entrepreneurs customize generic shopping carts for their websites?

Zemlin:

There’s a number of things. One is that different firms — carriers or manufacturers or PC makers — want to participate in the app store economy in some way. When you have a closed platform like Microsoft or Apple or any of the proprietary platforms where the app store is controlled by a single entity, the on-ramp and off-ramp for that store will be monetized by that single entity.

Right now, Apple is in a massive way that entity, so what firms are looking it is, how can I have my own app store? And they find that the components that make up an app store — testing apps for compatibility with the device the app will run on, or integrating with a carrier billing system, or setting up the credit card process — are complicated things to do.

A third-party provider could set that up as a service and allow a turnkey approach to creating white-label app stores for all kinds of different devices.

There’s an example of this from Intel — it’s called “AppUp,” and that’s a decent example of where you have somewhat of a turnkey app store solution where developers can upload their apps to the AppUp infrastructure that can push out the apps to the white label stores it supports.

That may be better characterized as the app warehouse approach. There’s a lot of opportunity there, and I think it’s something people should be exploring.

LIN: A second problem is license compliance. The problem isn’t a legal one, it’s a process issue, you said at OSBC. The Linux Foundation is providing a host of tools and processes to help people comply with licensing requirements. What tools and processes? Are you talking about the Linux Foundation and FossBazaar‘s Software Package Data Exchange?

Zemlin:

Yeah. When you have open source components within a product — let me back up — today if you have a dedicated supply chain, you use a product data management product or some sort of supply chain management product to have data about your bill of materials across your supply chain. You get different components from different suppliers, they’re getting integrated into a factory somewhere, and so on and so forth.

Currently there are no tools or standards for passing a bill of materials about software data packages. Software products now are made up of thousands of different components from various projects, and they all come together in an innovative solution.

The ability to track that I wouldn’t characterize as a problem, but a learning curve that the industry is going through right now. So the best way to think about it is, there’s overwhelming advantage for cost and time to market in using open source, but that comes with the small price that the licensing process is complex across the software supply chain, and the Linux Foundation and FOSS are working to deal with that.

LIN: How about the Open Compliance Program? What’s the lowdown on that? SPDX is one of the six elements of the OPC; how far along is the OPC towards completion? After all, if SPDX won’t be released until August, it’s not likely that OPC is anywhere near completion.

Zemlin:

We run the OPC — the standard, SPDX, training that shows people how to comply with OS licenses, tools which allow people to manage their software bill of materials, a set of best practices we have on our websites, and knowledge sharing, which is the FossBazaar facility, and a sixth component …

LIN: Who will enforce OPC? Or is it essentially self-policing because companies don’t want to be caught in breach of license?

Zemlin:

The enforcement is making sure that people comply with their licenses; this is simply a set of processes, training and tools to deal with the tremendous shift from the old way of proprietary licensing to a new way of using software which is predominantly based on open source.

LIN: At the OSBC you said the Linux Foundation’s perspective, and you believe it’s also Microsoft’s perspective, is we would like to see changes. Where and how does Microsoft come into this picture vis-a-vis the Linux Foundation, given that it’s never looked very kindly upon Linux? Or are you referring to the patents Microsoft claims it holds on different processes in Linux?

Zemlin:

I think we were speaking around patent reform. I think everyone in the tech industry related specifically to software would like to see a higher bar in terms of quality for patents issued around software because the lack of quality leads to a lot of needless litigation.

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REVIEW

Titan Linux Beta Brings Simplicity, Finesse to KDE Remake

Credit: Titan Linux

Titan Linux is not an operating system that casual Linux users — especially new adopters — should install on their primary or only computer. But seasoned Linux distribution hoppers looking for a pleasant new Linux experience should not pass up the new offering.

Titan is a new distro built on the Debian Stable branch. Developers first announced its arrival on April 24. It is a very early beta release, so it is mostly bare bones. Still, it is surprisingly very stable given this phase of its development.

I looked at version 1.2 and found very few things on which to harp about its performance. The new distro’s two-person developer team has a growing community of testers for such a new project; about 60 at last count.

Typically, such small start-up teams cannot sustain forward progress and often fall by the Linux distro wayside. But I am impressed so far with this team’s accomplishments.

Project leader Matthew Moore readily admits that the new distro’s success or failure will depend on user acceptance and a supportive community. One of the bigger adoption challenges Titan Linux faces is that with no advertising or reviews yet (until now), attracting exposure of potential users is hard to achieve.

Progress and updates come almost daily. So I expect to see Titan mature more rapidly than typically happens with fledgling releases.

This distro is a fully functional yet minimal KDE Plasma desktop experience with an emphasis on usability and performance. It already has a wide range of hardware support out of the box.

Titan Linux takes a unique approach to the Debian experience. It eliminates dependency on certain meta-packages to make it a more stable system overall.

Something Old Turning Into Something New

KDE is an extensive desktop environment that offers users a plethora of customization options. It is also a Linux staple that is popular and reliable. However, KDE can turn off new users because of its complexity and its quirks.

I used KDE Plasma with numerous distros over the years. I first tried it when the old KDE desktop became a revitalized KDE Plasma upgrade. Some of its user interface (UI) issues got in my way as a daily driver.

If the direction I see Titan taking continues as it grows out of beta releases, Titan Linux with KDE could well make me a happy user again. It all comes down to usability.

Work in Progress

So far, the developers trimmed the fat out of KDE Plasma to make it less complex without the seemingly endless customization options. That is the point of this distro.

Remaining lightweight means, beside long-term simplicity, Titan can draw a larger user following with aging and less powerful computers. Keeping KDE as streamlined as possible out of the box while offering full hardware support out of the Debian catalog are welcome performance goals.

Titan Linux offers something a little more slimmed down than standard Debian. But it is more usable than a standard Debian net installation, according to Moore.

Customization is not a bad thing. Linux thrives on having the freedom to customize, tweak, and create a desktop environment suited to individual user preferences.

Part of the simplification is an innovative Titan Toolbox — a work in progress but very promising — by head developer Cobalt Rogue. This set of system management tools will let users maintain the OS with a single click. The toolbox will include a series of software apps hardwired for Titan’s specific design rather than a one-size-fits-all Debian Linux component.

Sharing Insider Views

If you like knowing how the sausage is made, check out the developer’s website for links to both Moore’s and Cobalt Rogue’s YouTube videos on the making of Titan Linux. They both provide live stream discussions of their development efforts.

It is insightful to observe the conversations that focus on team goals. A major one is not wanting Titan Linux to be just another remix. Moore has plans to grow his new distribution into a unique offering with meaningful features.

In a recent video Moore explained why he decided to build Titan Linux on Debian instead of Arch, which they previously used. That’s because Debian’s longevity between stable releases is more conducive to rapid beta releases.

Debian has long release cycles — in the neighborhood of two years — so Titan development does not break because base components change frequently. Arch distros are too erratic with rolling releases that break systems often.

Leaner KDE Planned

KDE is the moniker for the K Desktop Environment introduced in 1996. It is also a reference to the organization sponsoring development of the K desktop and the family of software that runs on its K desktop, as well as other desktops.

When the KDE community released a major upgrade from KDE 4, developers dubbed the new desktop upgrade to KDE 5 with the name “Plasma.” That name depicted the radical redesign and functionality changes as sort of a KDE rebranding.

Various Linux distros are built around the KDE project. For instance, Kubuntu Linux is a version of the Ubuntu family of OSes that uses the KDE desktop. Other popular distros running the KDE desktop environment include KaOS, Manjaro KDE, Fedora KDE Spin, MX Linux KDE, and Garuda Linux.

What makes this brand-new Titan beta OS so noteworthy to me is the potential for what it offers. It can make the K desktop more productive with streamlined features and improved usability.

Offering a stripped-down version of the KDE desktop, however, is not by itself a unique idea. Many other Linux developers have tried to rework KDE into a better-working desktop. Some even gave it a new name.

Building a Better K Desktop, Again

Few improvement attempts are distinguishable from the hundreds of Linux distributions I have reviewed over the years. Given the literally hundreds of look-alike Linux distros, reinventing KDE is rarely productive.

Few desktop environments — and Linux is both blessed and cursed with a plethora of them — can be inviting enough to fit the computing needs of all user scenarios. KDE tries to do just that.

Consider these examples:

  • Feren OS toward the end of 2019 switched from the Cinnamon desktop and a Linux Mint base to KDE Plasma and the Ubuntu base.
  • The KDE Neon distro — not called Plasma — is somewhat unique. It has KDE components not yet absorbed by other KDE-based distros. It is based on Ubuntu (which itself is based on Debian Linux).
  • The KaOS Linux distro provides a UI-refreshed KDE-based computing platform. It offers better KDE experiences without bloated software and cumbersome usability.
  • The Vector Linux family is a small, fast, and light Slackware-based distribution that ships a customized version of KDE tweaked to be more user-friendly than other Slackware-style distros.

A Glimpse of Titan’s Potential

The early beta releases of the new Titan distro are much like a partially filled outline. Sectional headings and their supporting elements are in place enough to get a solid read of the big picture.

The core parts are in place and work. But numerous blank spaces have yet to be filled in. The OS works well with what is in place. It will work even better when more innovative parts are written in.

This view of the Titan Linux desktop shows two main KDE elements — access to virtual desktops via the bottom panel and the unique activities layout accessed via a pop-out vertical left column that provides a second type of virtual computing space.


The widgets popup panel display of screen and panel apps adds a variety of services and features to the desktop layout.


Pictured above on the left side is the terminal window’s information display along with the command line interface (CLI). On the right is the software store window which even in this early beta view provides the ability to add/remove the complete inventory of Debian Linux software.


Shown here is the simplified system settings panel in Titan Linux.


Bottom Line

Titan Linux beta versions are releasing at a feverish pace. This development schedule heats up anticipation for the first stable release.

The KDE Plasma desktop design found in current Linux distros are not lightweight. Beta version 1.2 consumes 450 MB of RAM, making this anticipated new distro very lightweight. That means two things: more aging computers can find revival running the Titan OS; and new computers can outperform more standard KDE integrations.

The live session ISOs are upgraded several times per week as the developers push the envelope to release the first stable version and beyond. The live session environment lets you try out Titan Linux beta releases without making any changes to your current OS or the hard drive.

The beta version I tested performs surprisingly well already. More features and UI tweaks show up with each new ISO download.

Check it out for yourself on the Titan Linux website.


Suggest a Review

Is there a Linux software application or distro you’d like to suggest for review? Something you love or would like to get to know?

Email your ideas to me and I’ll consider them for a future column.

And use the Reader Comments feature below to provide your input!

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.

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