Helix Code: Beyond Project to Product - page 4
What the Guys Are Up To
It is confusing, now--is Gnome a Helix product, or is Helix Gnome plus services, or what? At the code level, Miguel says, Helix is Gnome but faster.
"Everything we do is basically Gnome. Every contribution we do is basically put into the Gnome CVS. The only difference between Helix Code and Gnome is at some point in the Gnome history there is a freeze and we say, 'Here is a package that is 1.2.0.' But as development there is a bug found and fixed and we say it is 1.2.1. Or 1.2.2. So the only thing we do at Helix is basically tracking those versions and publishing the latest version. Helix Code is nothing but a continuous version of Gnome. We never release anything out of CVS. Everything must be released first in tarball format by the Gnome maintainers. There's so much stuff that you get the illusion of being a continuous distribution. Everytime a maintainer decides to do an update, we do the same, but in binary format for all these platforms."
And there is, of course, the Helix installer, which makes upgrades easier.
"It's a nice piece of work, and the new version is awesome. We've learned from our mistakes in the previous version. It is actually a full rewrite of our previous installer, and the this time we actually had GUI designers helping us, so that also makes a difference."
The Gnome Foundation
Big noise has been made in recent weeks about the establishment of the Gnome Foundation, whereby big commercial vendors chose, if we're given to believe the press reports, to come back to the community by embracing Gnome. Miguel gives his take.
"Different people joined for different reasons. I think one of the biggest commitments is the one from Sun. One of the biggest things they're doing is regression tests on the whole system. They're starting to provide patches and fixes to the system, because they need to have a system that is reliable and that can be run in very controlled environments. Solaris is used in many places, and they need to guarantee that the software is going to work. From the quality assurance point of view, in terms of the solidity of Gnome, it's a very good thing to have someone like Sun contributing that effort. The same thing happens with different companies. All of those companies are working together towards the same goal, some with different priorities than others. In the case of Helix, we try to make installation easy; we try to make Gnome beautiful; in the case of Sun, they're trying to take what we have and make it robust and reliable. Different people contribute in their different areas of expertise. And the same is true with Compaq. Compaq is interested in the handheld market. H-P is also interested in replacing CDE, and so on.
"The foundation was something we needed. When companies became interested in the past, it was difficult to get the companies to grow with the community. They talked to one or two people, and we're individuals and sometimes we dropped the ball, and things were slower than they could have been if there had been a single entry point for these people to get in touch with the community. So the foundation addresses the need of organizing the collaboration of the different companies into Gnome."
Is Helix Gnome a Fork of Gnome?
It may be clear to some, but it's by no means obvious where Helix and Gnome differ. Is Helix a separate version of Gnome?
"No, not at all," says Nat. "There's no forking at all. Certainly not. What we do is the same thing Red Hat does. Red Hat takes Linux, and they take all these underlying tools, and they make a distribution of those. Sometimes that involves polishing them and adding patches, but no one would say that Red Hat forks Linux, right?"
So, what, then, is Helix Gnome?
"We see ourselves as a distribution. We apply those patches that are necessary to make things work. No one ever ships a Linus Torvalds kernel. No single distribution ever ships a Linus Torvalds kernel. There's always some change they make before it goes out the door. But I consider the things to be so small, and necessary and important. You can't ask maintainers to release new versions and to be the distributors. There's a step beyond project to product, and that's where we see ourselves. Every contribution we make, every bug we fix, gets contributed back into the main Gnome CVS. It's all gnome.org for us."
The FSF's Place in All this
The Free Software Foundation, parent of the GNU of which Gnome (pronounced "ga-nome," by the way) is a child, has not often been seen as the champion of business. Where does Helix stand in relation to the FSF, also located in the Boston area?
"Miguel is on the board of the FSF," says Nat. "We also know those guys pretty well. We hung out with them a lot. We believe very strongly in what they do. Gnome is part of GNU. I'm talking about Helix Code--when you're talking to me, you're talking to a representative of Helix Code."
There being no forking, will Helix Gnome become part of Linux distributions?
"Red Hat's not shipping Helix Gnome yet; they may," says Nat. "Turbo Linux is shipping Helix Gnome with their next revision; IBM's bundling it on their laptops, but we just popped onto the scene. You can get it from our website, right now. That's the basic story. That's going to change in the next couple of months. We're a productized, branded version of Gnome, basically. What we do is take Gnome and we spit-polish it and we make it usable."
The Big Money
In an article in the Boston Globe it was said that Helix Code will do $120 million business next year. A pretty tidy sum for an outfit based on free software. Nat is a little more circumspect.
"I didn't say that. It was not me who said that."