Mobile, desktop or cloud: Where does the future of open source lie?

Stormy Peters on her biggest cloud concerns and how mobile will shape open source.

Three different technologies are fighting for the public’s loyalty. First, you have the traditional desktop environment, which is still going strong. Then you have the new world of cloud applications, which offer access to your stuff anywhere you have a browser. And finally, mobile applications are becoming real alternatives to large-screen apps.

In the following Q&A, OSCON speaker and GNOME foundation executive director Stormy Peters discusses the risks of cloud computing, the continued importance of desktop computing, and the interesting relationship between new mobile form factors and free software adoption.

What worries you most about the cloud?

Stormy PetersStormy Peters: My biggest concern is that people aren’t worried about the cloud in the same way they worried about the free desktop. People really worried about personal freedom when it came to the desktop space. In response, they created a free software desktop and free software server. Then the cloud came along, and maybe because it was free of cost, maybe because you can get your data out easily — I don’t really know why — they aren’t thinking about it in the same way. We don’t have free cloud alternatives. And when I say “free,” I don’t mean free of cost. We don’t have free alternatives to a lot of the web services that most of us use everyday.

What’s the trade-off between freedom and things that just work?

SP: Even many of us who are supporters of free software just want something that works. But there’s always been a large group of people who are willing to sacrifice a little bit of usability to make something that gives us our freedom as well.

For example, five years ago, wireless on Linux laptops was terrible because it was all proprietary cards and drivers. But because of persistence and because people were willing to keep using Linux on their laptops, we now have Linux on systems that are sold by major companies like ASUS and Dell and HP. And it just works. I don’t see the same kind of push happening in the cloud space.

What is the risk to end users of cloud applications?

SP: Ideally, cloud applications should make it more obvious that you can and should back up your data somewhere else. If someone who isn’t tech savvy gets locked out of their Google account tomorrow, they wouldn’t have access to their email. That person isn’t backing up their data. Google makes it easy to download your data if you know what you’re doing, but there could be improvements there.

With products such as Android, is the open source battle moving to the mobile space?

Save 20%SP: Netbooks made a big difference because they showed the general public that Linux and open source software offer a viable alternative with some advantages.

So netbooks came first, and then I think the battle moved to the mobile space. Whether it’s netbooks or it’s phones or tablets or handhelds, I think the shift will be big for free software in general.

New form factors mean that people are also willing to try something a little different. It’s no longer a computer with a mouse and a keyboard. Suddenly, you’re using your fingers and multitouch. Things are going to look different no matter what, so it’s a chance for free software to come in and not have to look just like Windows.

Was Sun right? Is the network the computer?

SP: I usually end up arguing that people still do use the desktop a lot more than you think. You can run everything in your browser, and like most people, I do spend a lot of my life in my browser. But I also run Twitter and Facebook in an application on my desktop because it gives me more features and power and ways to interact. So while I think a lot of what we do will live in the cloud space, there will be a lot of desktop interaction with it.

This interview was condensed and edited.


Stormy Peters will be part of two sessions at the upcoming OSCON conference (July 19-23 in Portland, Ore.). Save 20% on registration with the discount code OS10RAD.

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