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2003/01/29 - Havoc Pennington

Free Standards

An interview conducted by Alain Buret
Alain Buret - Please present yourself to our readers. What is your current job at Redhat?

Havoc Pennington - I'm a technical lead for desktop/UI development. I spend a lot of time with bugzilla, and hacking on new desktop features.

Alain Buret - You are working on many projects at the same time: The Gnome Foundation, Metacity, GConf, FreeDesktop, ... What is the project you prefer working on? How are you doing to work on so many projects at the same time?

Havoc Pennington - My favorite project is probably metacity; it's relaxing, at least when there isn't a flamewar about it. ;-)

I definitely have too many projects right now, I'm trying to cut back.

Alain Buret - There are several Desktop Environments available for GNU/Linux: KDE, Gnome, GNUStep, ... Interoperability is important (your talk will focus on it at FOSDEM), and that is why you are working hard on it. Why do you think it is so important? Are all desktop environments reacting well, and collaborating well to the elaboration of such standards?

Havoc Pennington - The base reason why interoperability is important is that we need to have a single desktop platform. What I mean by that is not that all applications need to use the same libraries and development tools; but rather that an application must not be tied to only GNOME or only KDE. Applications have to work (and work well, and properly, and be integrated) regardless of the desktop UI a user is running.

If we have multiple desktop platforms, then the existence of multiple desktop projects is a problem, and will make things difficult for free software.

If we have multiple desktop UIs, that's really not an issue; it just adds to the choices users have available.

Users should not have to choose between two big bundles of applications; they should be able to choose the best apps out there. Similarly, app authors should not have to choose between two big bundles of users.

So the basic goal is to break any mandatory links between applications and the desktop runtime environment, by ensuring those links are implemented via well-documented, widely-adopted specifications.

Part of the reason for this is that Mozilla's XUL framework, OpenOffice's VCL framework, and WINE need to work well with the desktop as well. We aren't dealing only with GTK+ and Qt.

Another part of the reason is that documented, stable specifications are easier to support and rely upon over the long term.

Alain Buret - How many people are working on those desktop standards? How is it related to the Free Standards?

Havoc Pennington - It's hard to say how many people are working on them; a good number of people participate on xdg-list and wm-spec-list. is really much more informal than the LSB and the Free Standards Group; it's more of a discussion forum. But once we have a de facto specification worked out with the major desktops, the LSB may document it as a standard.

Alain Buret - If interoperability is achieved between the different Desktop Environments at the basic level, what do you think should still be done ? Do you think that interoperability on the design and of the look of the GUIs is important?

Havoc Pennington - We do have basic interoperability, but there's a lot more we could do. The MIME system, the help system, these kinds of things.

I do think having a similar design and look is important. In part this is fairly easy, as the major GUI frameworks are already cross-platform and support themes.

Alain Buret - What are typically the standards that are currently defined to facilitate the interoperability on the desktop ?

Havoc Pennington - We have lots of things finished or in progress. People can find a list at, including the interaction between the window manager and the desktop, drag-and-drop, cut-and-paste, widget embedding, icon themes, file thumbnails, and more.

Alain Buret - When do you estimate that interoperability could be achieved ? Is the way to full interoperability still long ?

Havoc Pennington - I think it's an ongoing process; we already have basic interoperability, but it can always be better, and as new features appear and become mature, we have to look at writing down the specification for them.

Alain Buret - What are you expecting from your talk at FOSDEM and from the interactions with other developers present at the event ?

Havoc Pennington - I'm hoping to have some good technical conversations that result in improving free desktops for the benefit of end users. That brings us closer to world domination.


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