Monday, August 3, 2009

DebConf thoughts

Recently, zenvoid and I recently participated in DebConf9 and presented an one hour BoF session on Mer - made possible by sponsorship by Nokia for our travel and accommodation.

Arriving in Caceres, Spain - after an exhausting and 20 hour journey from Denmark (train, flight, metro, and then train again) and meeting up with my local travel companion zenvoid - we found our hotel, which had free WiFi - with working power saving management, a must for tablet users. :)

At our first day there was a talk on 'HP and Debian' where some abstractions were presented that apply very well to the Mer project. Quote from presentation:

A key attribute of Linux and many Free Software applications is that they are developed and supported “by the community”
What does that mean?
  • No one company in charge
  • A range of contributors with varied interests, abilities, and motivations
Innovation often comes from surprising places, thanks to “the long tail of contribution”
The Mer project likewise consists of a lot of different contributors from different device communities. Some are testers, some are developers, some are artists and some are users. Mer is effectively the result of a long tail of contributions from these people. Our innovation is the mix of this long tail of contribution - and the responsibility of the project is to direct future contributions in the right direction that will encourage new contributors to join in, maintain current contributors, mentor new developers and to encourage users to actually use our software.

Another part of this presentation is the angle of HP - what it wants and a comparison to what Debian developers want. Many comparisons between and Nokia/Maemo Devices can be drawn in this part. HP needs revenue, growth, differentiation and corporate reputation. Differentiation is a word often heard in a negative context when speaking of closed source parts of Maemo. The reason why differentation is needed - is the fact that those 20% closed source parts together with the hardware is what generates the revenue, growth that makes it possible to have the 80% open source (and free) software such as Hildon and other Maemo APIs exist. And have active developers developing on them.

This is the reason why we, in Mer, realize that differentiation is needed to compete in the mobile device market. However, like Android, we provide a full base system - and understand that device developers needs to differentiate on top with extra bits. What we're trying to do in our vendor social contract is to have both a open system and yet allow the users of their devices to remix and alter their devices, even though closed source bits (codecs, firmware, special applications for vendor, added value) exist and are needed for full functionality. It would make the user able to use their devices even to the fullest even after the vendor has long given up on the device in question.

In the second day, we had our presentation - in the BoF room, no projector and a deadly hot room with noisy aircondition- but 20 people approx showed up to hear the talk. The TuxBrain/Freerunner buzzfix people were friendly and recorded the session on video (TBA). What we did was to put Mer on Freerunner, N810, N800, 770, SmartQ5 and simply line them up - and after the talk invite people to come and play with the devices and Mer.

I'm often very critical of my own talks - but all in all it went well, even though I did forget the one key element to any presentation: telling people where they can find out more about your project :). People seemed to poke curiously at our touchscreen devices and ask questions about them. One thing to notice about DebConf was the large amount of Nokia tablets and Neo Freerunner's represented.

After our session the OpenMoko buzzfix party went on, where we showed Mer on Freerunner to different people - and saw how people used their Freerunners. Something that really caught my eye was Qalee , which is a Qt-based environment for the Freerunner. Seems like the guy making it sure has a talent for both code and UI design. See screenshots here

In between the talks, we spent most of our time in the hacklabs, - where we met people like suihkulokki (Riku Voipio) and p2 (Peter de Schrijver) from Maemo Devices - and we even saw a N810 debug board with JTAG and serial ports.

In order to get to talk to people, we put out all our gadgets running Mer on the table, and began hacking - hoping it'd attract. And it did. - we met and talked to a lot of people and we hope that they think of Mer next time they'd like to have an environment for their tablet-like devices - or if they talk to someone who would.

Debhelper in Maemo is fairly old - we saw a talk 'not your grandpa's debhelper' - where it's shown how simple a debian/rules file can look these days with a modern debhelper. What really impressed me was this example:

#!/usr/bin/make -f
dh $@

Which would autodetect if the package used autotools, setuputils, etc, and then build the package according to this. It obviously supported overriding things as well, and in a fairly simple manner.

This is the first out of a small bunch of posts about experiences from DebConf (this is the first), and thoughts on communities creating technology.

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