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Community Keynote Interview: Stuart Jarvis

What is the outcome of a creative idea that does not get shared? Silent innovations might be good on paper, but unless people know about them they might become nothing, projects remaining unrealized. All successful products need promotion; FOSS is no exception.

That's what Stuart Jarvis does for free software: he helps make it something. An editor for The Dot and a member of the KDE promotion team, Stuart devotes time to making sure developments in the KDE community are not just public, but news. Free software collaboration doesn't just need coders for technical nuts and bolts; it also needs people marketing and communicating effectively so that potential users can learn about it.

Stuart has been supplying editorial support and an active face for KDE through various outlets. However keeping up with the flow of information can be tough, especially when at the same time you're working on a PhD in geochemistry.

Stuart told William Carlson a little about how he does it, and gave his views from inside the FOSS world.

Stuart Jarvis

William: What work do you do for KDE?

Stuart: At the moment I mainly try to keep KDE's marketing in good shape. This means working with the promo team to keep up to date with happenings in our community, and spreading the word about events through articles on the official KDE news site, KDE.News. It also means getting involved in writing press releases about the latest software news and doing a bit of people management to get things done on time.

All of that is mostly inward facing though—preaching to the converted, if you like—so I also try and get news out to people beyond KDE by writing articles for the Linux media.

Recently, as a side project, I've been representing KDE in ALERT, an EU-funded project to improve bug tracking and resolution in free software communities. It's early days in that project, but some of the ideas are very interesting. My role, along with other representatives from KDE, is to make sure ALERT understands how a free software community works so that the software they develop meets our needs.

William: How did you end up here?

Stuart: I often wonder :-)

I first started experimenting with Linux in 2003. At the time I was doing my undergraduate degree in physics and running some software remotely on my department's Unix cluster, which was heavily overloaded and really slow. So I tried an old copy of Red Hat on my laptop and could run my software a lot faster. That got me a little interested to try things out, but it wasn't until I tried the (now discontinued) Munjoy Linux with KDE software that I really fell in love.

By the time Munjoy died, I knew I preferred Linux with KDE software to other operating systems, so I looked around for another good KDE distribution and settled on what was then SuSE. It was on full time at my home, but I still had to use Windows at work. When I switched to my current research position at the National Oceanography Centre in the UK, I was finally able to use Linux at work too.

After a while, having used this great software for five years, I thought I should do more than file bug reports and make occasional donations. I cannot program beyond a little bit of PHP, Javascript, IDL and LabVIEW, but I can write a bit, so I got started writing articles for KDE.News and gradually got sucked into becoming one of the KDE promo team core members. I mainly blame Jos Poortvliet, now openSUSE community manager, for that :-)

William: I think it's easy to get 'sucked in' to FOSS when community members share a certain vitality for the project. What do you think an event like the Summit/Akademy/GUADEC does for FOSS?

Stuart: I think the most important thing is giving people the opportunity to meet one another. Our normal means of communication, email and IRC, are quite limited. There's too much scope for misunderstanding and it takes too long to have a meaningful discussion. At the meetings, we can get together and, in a few minutes, resolve discussions that would take weeks on a mailing list. The social aspect in general is also really important. For most of us, perhaps particularly in KDE, we contribute because it is fun and because we feel a sense of pride in belonging to such an amazing community.

There's a real sense of energy and friendliness at Akademy that draws you in and makes you want to do more awesome stuff.

The other important thing is raising awareness, and attracting new contributors and collaborators. At Akademy last year, I met a lot of people interested in free software who were active in communities other than KDE. They got to learn about the things we do, make contacts within our community and discover ways in which their project could work with ours. Of course, it also worked the other way around.

That is one of my main hopes for the Desktop Summit this year—that FOSS desktop projects such as GNOME, KDE and Enlightenment will get to know each other better, find areas of common interest to do more work together, and make personal contacts that we can consider friends. A lot of the frictions that come up from time to time might be avoided if, rather than having a flame war in the blogosphere, contributors were able to directly contact someone in the community to discuss differences more constructively, in private.

More than anything else though, I think having a combined Desktop Summit creates an event that no one can ignore. Whether it is distributions or the press, there is no better place this year to meet the people who will be shaping the future of free software. That is why I am so excited to be there and to have a chance to present.

William: Is your work with KDE full-time? You mentioned working at the National Oceanography Centre.

Stuart: My work with KDE is far from full time - I do not get paid for the work I do for KDE. I do get paid to work part-time for ALERT, which is only of indirect benefit for KDE and other free software projects in the future.

Most of my time at the moment is taken up working on a PhD in paleo-environmental geochemistry in the UK. For the uninitiated, that means I spend my time working out the chemistry of mud samples from lakes and seas, and using that data to learn more about past climate variations. The idea is that better understanding the past helps us make better predictions for the future, by testing the assumptions that underpin today's climate models.

William: What are your ideas for marketing FOSS in future? Are we moving towards a public acceptance of FOSS, or is it still just a geek word?

Stuart: I think future marketing of FOSS will likely not make a reference to FOSS, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, at the moment the average person in the street could not care less what license their software is under. They understand the concept of "free as in beer" but do not attach importance to how the software is produced and distributed. If we look at Firefox, perhaps free software's biggest marketing success story, it did well not because it was free, but because it was seen as more secure, faster...just better. To win users, we need the best software and we need to market it as such. Even for me, in the early days I used Linux and KDE software because it was better than Windows. The understanding of what free software meant and the ideology came later.

What we can market is the ability to share the software with others (which is appealing) and the positive side effects of FOSS, such as the fact that free software that contains ads or privacy invasion is basically impossible. With FOSS, if someone creates such code, others will strip out the bad stuff and redistribute a better version.

The second reason is that, in the future, the term "free" in free software will be redundant. There will be only free software. Well, I can dream...

Stuart Jarvis will deliver his KDE community keynote on 6 August at 16:35.

The GNOME community keynote will be given by Nick Richards. You can read an interview with him next week.

Other Summit keynote speakers are Dirk Hohndel (Chief Linux and Open Source Technologist, Intel), Claire Rowland (UX Designer, Fjord) and Thomas Thwaite (Technologist).


Attendance at the Desktop Summit is free. You must first register.