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GNOME creator respects proprietary software, can't wait for iPad 2

Despite pro-Microsoft stance, Miguel de Icaza is still 'an open source guy'

By , Network World
March 11, 2011 09:38 AM ET

Network World - "If you are not planning on getting an iPad 2 on Friday at 5 p.m., the terrorists win." So said open source icon Miguel de Icaza on his Twitter feed this week, and he wasn't joking.

"I'm going to be the first one in line Friday," de Icaza confirmed in an interview with Network World.

Somewhere, free-software purists shook their heads, as one of de Icaza's Twitter followers pointed out to him.

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But de Icaza, who has been prominent in the open source world since creating GNOME, seems to care at least as much about usability as he does the principles behind the free software movement. De Icaza gets his share of criticism because of his occasional support for Microsoft software and other proprietary projects, but he says that, in some cases, usability should trump openness.

De Icaza's mixed-source philosophy can be seen both in his work for Novell and in his personal buying habits. While he still prefers Linux to Windows on the desktop, de Icaza did not opt for the open source Android in his mobile life. He says he owns an iPhone and, yes, two iPads, and that's not including the third iPad he's about to buy.

Why two iPads? "One for the kitchen and one for the living room," he jokes, before explaining that one of them is for work and debug builds but that they are really "interchangeable."

You might think de Icaza would embrace Android, which is released under the Apache license and uses a kernel derived from Linux. But he looked at Android a couple of years ago and decided it would be a step back from Apple's iOS. Android, perhaps, suffers from some of the same usability problems that have held Linux back on the desktop, he says.

De Icaza uses OpenSUSE as his main desktop (with the GNOME interface, of course), says he likes Linux better than Windows, and says the Linux kernel is also "superior" to the MacOS kernel. "Having the source code for the system is fabulous. Being able to extend the system is fabulous," he says.

But he notes that proprietary systems have advantages -- such as video and audio systems that rarely break.

"I spent so many years battling with Linux and something new is broken every time," he says. "We as an open source community, we don't seem to get our act together when it comes to understanding the needs of end users on the desktop."

This coming from a man who has spent most of his career improving desktop and developer usability for users of open source software.

Now in Boston working for Novell, de Icaza was born in Mexico City. In 1997, he was interviewed by Microsoft for a position involving the porting of Internet Explorer to Sparc, but says he lost out on the job because he lacked an H-1B visa. Shortly after, he teamed up with computer programmer Federico Mena to create GNOME, the graphical user interface used in many Linux-based distributions today. "GNOME would not have happened" if de Icaza had gotten the job at Microsoft, he says.

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Later, de Icaza co-founded Ximian, which built various free software applications including Mono, the open source implementation of Microsoft's .Net Framework. Ximian was purchased in 2003 by Novell, where de Icaza still oversees the Mono project, as well as the newer Moonlight, an open source implementation of Silverlight built by Novell in collaboration with Microsoft.

In the free software world, Miguel de Icaza is a man some people just love to hate.

In 2009, Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman reportedly called de Icaza "basically a traitor to the free software community." More recently, de Icaza turned some heads by saying he was "psyched" about Windows Phone 7, anathema to Microsoft-hating free software proponents. De Icaza seems to be more positive about Microsoft technologies now than he was last year, when he said, "People are scared of installing software on Windows."

But when asked if he is "an open source guy or a Microsoft guy," de Icaza says there is no debate. "I'm an open source guy. My main mission is Linux machines, and I've been working in different parts of Linux or open source for 20 years," de Icaza says.

But he respects the fact that with proprietary operating systems, everything just seems to work with "no messing around."

"Once you have a Linux system set up, you don't want to touch it or you might spend some quality time on Google finding what you broke," he says.

While free software purists like Stallman reject the use of any software hobbled by proprietary licenses, others believe there's no harm in a few doses of proprietary software. Adobe Flash Player, for example, is embraced by many Linux enthusiasts and even comes preinstalled on the Ubuntu-based Linux Mint. The existence of proprietary drivers in the Linux kernel is another source of debate among free software advocates.

In terms of criticism from Stallman, creator of the GNU project, De Icaza notes that the two have "parted ways" in a couple of areas. Novell makes money off of a relicensed, commercial version of Mono, which Stallman objects to, De Icaza says. In public statements, Stallman has said "Microsoft has declared itself our enemy" and "it may be dangerous to use Mono."

"I think in Richard's opinion, the fact that we do build proprietary software is something he doesn't agree with," de Icaza says. "That would be the major source of conflict."

De Icaza was initially conflicted about selling software with proprietary licenses, but noted that his attempt to create a purely open source company, Ximian, was problematic because it is difficult to make money from support and consulting services alone.

"When we tried to build free software we came to the conclusion that we couldn't really finance it. There was no way of making money," he says.

When Ximian built Evolution, the e-mail client, the company decided to charge for a proprietary connector that lets the client connect to Microsoft Exchange. "We thought it was a fair balance," he says. "But that was a hard lesson."

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