Michael Meeks is a long-time OpenOffice, now Libre Office, contributor and employee of Novell, now Attachmate.
We caught up with him to get the inside perspective on the massive changes they, and desktop Linux as a whole, have gone through in the past few years.
Linux Format: Given everything that has happened with Attachmate buying Novell, who do you now work for?
Michael Meeks: Gosh, that's a really good question. The public-facing brand would be Suse. That's where I report in to. The company is managed as four different units.
LXF: Because they split out Suse and Novell?
MM: Absolutely. Novell and Suse are now separate. So, in terms of the legal ramifications of how the merger was completed, I don't think that really matters. What matters is the entity that we are, and that is Suse.
LXF: Right. We find the idea that they've separated Suse exciting. They're clearly putting a lot of emphasis on that brand again.
MM: Yes, there are a lot of differences there. You'll find that, traditionally, employees were trying to be a Novell employee, but now there's a much greater emphasis on trying to identify with Suse.
So, in terms of attitude, I think there's a feeling of liberation and freedom. We can do cool things, and we're not constrained by some central, interlocking product management matrix.
LXF: The other big story is the Libre Office/OpenOffice split. How are things going with Libre Office?
MM: Like a rocket. It's extremely encouraging to get patches on the list, day after day after day - new people we haven't seen before.
LXF: We're well aware of all the speed-ups and so on, but have you got anything planned in terms of new, user-facing features? The interface is quite old-fashioned, for instance.
MM: Sure, sure. There are many things we can do to improve our usability, I'm sure of that. But there are dangers to big directions that you sit down and put a big team on. We're doing a lot of small shifts, which add up to big things.
As journalists, you probably have to write per word. One feature we're introducing is interactive word count; so you can open up word count, stick it on the side, and it will update as you type.
LXF: That's great!
MM: Other things: getting your projectors right, making it easier to deal with styles, with headings and footers. Polishing what we have - and making it smaller, faster and easier to use - is working.
LXF: All of these features are there, they've just been difficult to access and use…
MM: Yes, I think there's quite a long legacy of box-ticking product management there: we need this feature, so we'll minimally implement it and move on to the next thing, rather than making it easy to use and attractive.
LXF: Let's talk about the desktop more generally. What's the future of desktop Linux, Libre Office, and other desktop applications, in a world where people are moving to the web, to tablets and so on?
MM: That's interesting, because the world's always been swinging between these two poles. When I first started programming, I was using a green screen, serial terminal, which was very much cloud. The computer was out there somewhere, and it came slowly to you. And then, of course, PCs became so cheap and so ubiquitous and everyone switched to PCs. Then the server just became something for communication and collaboration.
Now, people are trying to drag us back to 'the web is everything, and everything should be hosted in the server room' again, 'it's safer and cheaper' and so on. So, there's a pendulum there, and depending on the economics of it, it swings from time to time.
LXF: The cost of a broadband connection?
MM: Yeah, of course. My take is that I don't see this trend. It doesn't really make much sense to put desktop applications on the cloud.
If you see where people are going with their online offerings, they're all trying to make them offline as well. That solves the deployment and management problem, but that's not such a huge problem on Linux, because there has always been nice packagement.
LXF: One of the other big advantages, however, is data security. We're technical guys, but we think that our data is almost certainly safer with Google than on our hard drives…
MM: I think there's a valid point there, but it's difficult to know. We've seen outages and data losses in the cloud, too. There's a great hope that it will be better, but I see no reason why you can't just sync your data remotely. That is, if we can make the desktop applications good enough.
LXF: One thing that we talk about in the office a lot is the idea of collaboration vs competition. In light of the need to create great applications, does this repeated effort not make you cry?
MM: Yes, to a certain degree that does make me cry. However, when you look at collaboration vs. competition, and the matrix of options that go in to making a successful community, my personal take would be that copyleft is a key part of that.
The worst behaviour is to develop a feature internally and release it with a product. I've been in companies that've done virtually everything wrong, including this, because it gives you the value add.
That's been the reality of the OpenOffice project for some time. We think a big element of fixing that is getting copyleft licensing, and that's what we're sticking out for in Libre Office. And, so far, it's working. Linux as a whole has switched to Libre Office.
Since a huge part of our development momentum comes from the Linux world anyway, this is great. If you want to attract developers to create free software on Windows, Linux is the place to start. It fills an important role of seeding and teaching people about freedom.
LXF: While we're on the topic of freedom, what's your take on the ethics of free software? Why should people use free software?
MM: The feeling of sharing, and working in community with other people; and the depth of interaction, friendship, and the fun that you have, is unparalleled - so I think there's something intrinsically good happening there.
LXF: In that regard, free software's certainly advantageous compared to proprietary software. So perhaps proprietary software's not evil, but free software is better?
MM: I'm not completely unconvinced that proprietary software is evil: it's exploiting network effects, people's lack of understanding in what they're doing. You buy an iPhone, and what you're doing is not just getting a device - it's not a morality-free zone. There's a whole spectrum of things, like what happens in Foxconn, and the ecosystem, too: are you encouraging developers to write for this platform, and does Apple treat its developers reasonably?
LXF: Reversing that, it provides an interesting argument for using free software. It creates an audience for free software developers to write for, it supports an ecosystem.
MM: I think that's important, yes. One of the major contributions that companies in our industry make is writing code and contributing it to the community. So, when you choose which Linux distribution you use, I think you need to choose one that contributes effectively and in a positive way to the whole ecosystem. If the choice is between two free distributions, you should ask which one is going to help increase contribution upstream.