I'm a big openSUSE user. No ifs, ands or buts about it. I love it so much that I even sit on the openSUSE board.
But that doesn't mean that I can't appreciate the other, truly remarkable, Linux distributions. And one of my absolute favorites is elementary OS. What this group of people has accomplished over the last few years is nothing short of phenomenal.
So I reached out to the Big Kahuna of elementary, Daniel Fore, to have chat about the project. Where it's going, how it got to where it's at and what motivates the project founder. It turned out to be a rather enlightening chat and I am including it below. Unedited.
Bryan: How would you explain the elementary OS project and your role within it? Bear in mind that I have the attention span of a gnat.
Daniel: elementary OS is a consumer-focused, open source, Linux-based operating system with a heavy emphasis on UX design. I am the founder of elementary (the company behind elementary OS). A great deal of my time is spent organizing our team, which is mostly made up of volunteers, but I also spend time coding for both web and desktop, triaging bug reports, providing visual and UX design, and of course interacting with our users.
You say elementary is "mostly made up of volunteers"... how many people working on elementary would you classify as 'not-volunteer'?
At the moment we have two full-time employees and one part-time employee. We also offer bug bounties through Bountysource. I'm scaling that up as quickly as our funding allows. I'd love to be able to pay more people to hack on open source software.
That's pretty impressive. I can think of many Open Source projects that would love to be in a place to be able to pay people to work on it full time. How did you get to that point with elementary?
Very slowly! We were, what I would consider, bootstrapping for nearly six years. We made our first two OS releases as a 100% volunteer organization. With our third release, codenamed Freya, we decided to embrace a pay-what-you-want model like Humble Indie Bundle and tie our monetization strategy directly to our downloads. We had explored other kinds of monetization like selling CDs and merchandise, but it wasn't until we went pay-what-you-want that we could afford to start hiring.
What drove you to keep working on elementary? A lot of work, unpaid, for years. Most people would have given up and switched their focus to something that brought in money during those early years. What kept you going with the project?
Well for me, money isn't the motivation. It's often the thing that stops me from doing the things I want to do. Working on elementary OS is my passion. I value my freedom to pursue my passion much higher than making a big paycheck. There were actually times where I turned down jobs because they would have restricted me from working on elementary OS haha. That's probably a little crazy, but I think it paid off because now I make my living by doing what I love. I don't want to be stuck in a miserable job working on something I don't truly care about.
What is it about elementary OS, specifically, that makes it your passion? That makes this project so important to you that you have been willing to pass up those bigger paychecks?
Elementary OS started off as a way to scratch an itch. I spend quite a lot of time on my computer and I wanted my operating system to be faster, smarter, easier to use, safer, more beautiful. I haven't run out of things that I think can be made better yet, so as long as there are ways we can do better I don't think I will lose my interest. For users, I want to make sure that people have access to a world-class operating system without having to pay expensive licensing fees, buy into expensive hardware, or be the target of advertising.
But also, I see a bit of a higher purpose for the company itself. Not that long ago, I compared elementary to a life raft: I want to pull people out of the trap of working at jobs they don't like where their talents are under-utilized and give them the opportunity to work at a company with a culture that is built around personal freedom and doing things that are meaningful. So my personal vision of elementary, both the company and the OS, is as a way to make the world just a little bit nicer to live in for as many people as we can.
That's a big vision. In achieving those goals, who do you see as elementary's biggest competitors? Is there anyone (any project, company, etc.) that is standing in the way of elementary?
In consumers minds switching to elementary OS means leaving Windows or OS X. The only thing I can really say has been a hindrance to adoption is Microsoft Secureboot. It makes it confusing for people to install, especially when they get conflicting information on the Internet about whether or not they should disable it and how safe that is. We have made big strides recently in supporting more and different types of (U)EFI configurations, with and without Secureboot. Generally, I feel pretty good about what we're doing in terms of competitors because at the moment over 70% of people who download elementary OS are doing it from Windows or OS X.
Over 70% of elementary OS downloads are from Windows/Mac? That's phenomenal. Any idea how that happened? Have you been actively promoting to non-Linux users?
I think it has a lot to do with the way we present ourselves. On our website we actually started to use the tagline, "A fast and open replacement for Windows and OS X". We have pictures of our apps and show off features of the OS. All of our copy is very consumer oriented. We put a lot of effort into keeping our social media accounts active and responsive and engaging users directly. I think it makes our brand much more personable and takes away some of the "scary" that novice computer users sometimes associate with Linux. We don't run any sort of ads, so we rely on making good impressions on our users and also tech journalists ;)
Well that approach seems to be working! Any indication of how many active users elementary OS has at this point?
We don't do any sort of user tracking, so we don't currently have a way to measure the number of active users.
Fair. Tracking user numbers is notoriously difficult for so many Linux distributions. Changing focus... let's talk about the future. Where do you see elementary (both the company and the OS) going over the next few years?
In the near term, we're going to be putting a lot of focus on our developer story. We've had a lot of interest from developers in creating apps specifically for elementary OS, but the story for how they should distribute those apps isn't entirely clear. Right now we rely on the upstream repositories for Ubuntu, which means that users have trouble getting the latest version of apps in a timely manner. So this is a problem from both ends.
We also want to extend the pay-what-you-want model to apps and give our developer community an easy way to raise funds for their development. I think focusing on providing a great developer experience and helping developers monetize will not only push elementary OS to the next level, but provide another solid revenue stream that we can use to grow the company. It's a big step because it positions us as a company that is not only providing a finished product, but as a company providing services which is an important experience as we look to compete in the cloud space.
More and more, users expect apps to leverage the Internet not just for syncing data in folders a la Dropbox, but for transparent backups of both data and settings, streaming content, and interacting with other users. So there's a lot to do in terms of evolving both the OS as a platform and the company as a provider.
Do I hear 'app store'? :)
You sure do haha. We've been testing the client in our development builds of elementary OS and while the server isn't quite production ready yet, we've been making a lot of progress there as well.
Very cool. Do you have a time frame that you're looking at for releasing the next version of elementary OS? Or are you going with the "we release when it's ready" approach?
Haha, always 'when it's ready' but definitely this year :)
I accept that answer. Anything else you'd like to add before we wrap up this bad mama jama?
As always, everything is open source and we'd love if people wanted to get involved with making elementary OS. The best place to go for more info is https://elementary.io/get-involved. Even if you don't know how to code, we could always use folks to translate, write documentation, report any issues they find, and of course we highly appreciate any help with funding.