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

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

GNOME creator Miguel de Icaza embraces open source but doesn't reject proprietary technology.

"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.

Miguel de Icaza

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."

De Icaza says he also parted ways with Stallman on the issue of what software distributions using the Linux kernel should be called. Stallman has long argued that distributions should be known as "GNU/Linux" to recognize the fact that the Linux kernel is pretty much useless without software such as GNU.

De Icaza says "it's fair to give credit to GNU," but that he didn't want to spend a lot of time on the naming efforts. "If we needed to give credit to everybody [who contributed to Linux], we would have a very long name," he says.

Regardless of what you call it, Linux-based operating systems have been a major force in computing -- not so much on the desktop side, really, but on the servers in data centers that power the Internet. Although de Icaza's immediate future may be uncertain because of Novell's pending acquisition by Attachmate, de Icaza is excited about the future of open source.

"I think it's fascinating. I can't be more excited for it," he says. "It's interesting that now pretty much everyone considers open source as the foundation for whatever they're building."

In terms of the Attachmate acquisition, de Icaza says, "I have no concerns myself."

De Icaza says he shouldn't comment on Microsoft's attempt to purchase 882 patents from Novell, at least until the Attachmate acquisition is completed. But he notes that Microsoft has slowly accepted the presence of open source software, after spending years trying to eradicate it. A decade ago, Microsoft "exaggerated the threat" from Linux, de Icaza says. "Certainly, the quotes of 'We're going to sue everybody using Linux' didn't go well with many people in the open source community."

De Icaza also gave his thoughts on some Microsoft technologies, including Windows Phone 7 and Silverlight.

When asked if HTML5 will make Silverlight unnecessary, de Icaza says, "I think that to a large extent it does. Silverlight on the Web has been declining."

But he notes there is still demand for Smooth Streaming, a Microsoft video technology that uses Silverlight. Silverlight is also the development platform for Windows Phone 7.

While de Icaza isn't going to get rid of his iPhone anytime soon, he says he is excited about Windows Phone 7 because it could boost usage of C#. "That was exciting for me, because it makes Mono relevant," de Icaza says.

Mono is picking up steam as a platform for mobile game development, and an Android version will soon be released to complement Mono for iPhone, which is a proprietary product from Novell, de Icaza says. Apple's Steve Jobs recently showcased an app built with Mono (Rome -- Virtual History) while demonstrating the new iPad, according to de Icaza.

"It's been a really good year for us," he says.

Gaming is another personal focus for de Icaza, who owns all five major systems, the PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS and PSP.

"To avoid any kind of bias I have a policy of one of each," he says. But de Icaza won't play any war games, or "anything that demonizes humans."

"I like to play Ratchet & Clank."

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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