Gentoo: Teaching Microsoft How to Play Well With Others

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Probably because I run it as my principal OS, several people have checked in in the past few days to get my reaction on the news that Daniel Robbins, founder of Gentoo Linux, is headed to Microsoft. The expectation from a few people was that I would lament not only the departure of Robbins, but his destination. Not so. As it happens, I think it’s good for Microsoft and for Robbins, and will have little impact if any on my personal OS of choice, Gentoo.

First, people should understand that Robbins actually left his active development role with Gentoo a while back (email here). So this news – while interesting – is not likely to alter in any form the continuation of Robbins’ former project. It hasn’t slowed down a bit since he left (which should not, please note, be taken to mean he wasn’t valuable – simply that any good project should be bigger than one person, however brilliant).

But even were he still in a Chief Architect role, I’d argue a defection to Microsoft for him or any of the other senior maintainers would be easily survivable. Why? Because of the community around Gentoo. In a Channel 9 video here, Robbins’ new boss Bill Hilf discusses his belief that the innovation in open source is not the licensing, but the community.

As much as Hilf believes that, however, Robbins has actually done it. Here’s what he wrote about how Gentoo came about (on developerWorks, interestingly enough):

Linux is about people
The next thing I learned was that Linux is about people. Isn’t that refreshing? Linux isn’t just a bunch of source code. It’s a community. We rely on this community to get our questions answered, and we become part of the community when we start helping others by contributing our time and expertise.

IRC (Internet relay chat) is a great place to meet people and waste a tremendous amount of time. The #stampede channel on irc.openprojects.net became my official hangout. That’s where I’d ask my Linux questions. It’s also where I first began to help other people out. #stampede desperately needed experienced Linux users to help out newbies who had just gotten the distribution installed. As is common on IRC, many of the experienced Stampede people had lost their zeal for answering (yet another) newbie question. But I was so excited that I actually knew the answer to newbies’ questions, that I couldn’t resist helping out! And that’s how my involvement with Stampede began. I was just another guy who liked to answer questions. Of course, it wasn’t entirely altruistic, because I also helped myself to expert Linux knowledge that the more experienced people on the channel (not to mention the Stampede developers themselves!) had to offer.

How successful was he? Well, in my experience (which is far less extensive than your typical open source hacker’s, bear in mind) Gentoo’s the best community I’ve seen. I’ve written before of how helpful the Gentoo community has been, and after a few years of interactions, I can honestly say it’s the best one I’ve seen. Need examples? See here, here, here or here. Further proof? I found the Channel 9 video above here. Based on what he and the rest of the devs and community participants have built, I’d say if there’s one thing that Robbins does know it’s community.

So given that a.) Microsoft believes that the community is what’s really important about open source, and b.) that the project that Robbins’ founded is backed by one of the better (if not the best) communities around, this tie-up is somewhat obvious in retrospect.

But at the same time I think people are ignoring one of the most interesting aspects of the deal, which is the potential for bringing some of Gentoo’s metadistribution aspects to Windows. As you may have seen mentioned in this space before, Gentoo is not just a Linux distribution, as it supports (or plans to) versions for OS X and Solaris as well. This is made possible in part by its package management system Portage, which makes the “dependency hell” for which early Linux distros were famous irrelevant. If I want to install MySQL, I don’t need to do anything but type “emerge mysql.” Apache? “emerge apache.” All the way down to the little Mono application Tomboy – “emerge tomboy.” And so on.

Windows obviously has nothing comparable to this, as I’ve discussed before. Steve from Developing on the Edge summed it up more succinctly than I could:

3. The better windows update is, the more complacent you get. There are many more attack points than just the OS/IE/Office. you need to keep mozilla, java, winamp, everything up to date. In linux land, your distro does this, but in windows every vendor has to put their own little applet in the startup group (sigh) and check for updates themselves.

I hope longhorn -if it ever arrives- has a decent update app, not an obsolete ActiveX thingy, and provides a way for ISVs to register their upgrade servers, instead of having to run their own checker apps…

In short, Windows could use a Portage of its own. How do you get there? By having a community that supports it. Hence Robbins. Hence community. Etc.

The technology aside, however, there were some that felt I might object on moral grounds, out of some animosity towards Microsoft. Besides the fact that they’re a client and I bear the folks from Redmond no ill will (although I’ve been accused of it given that I’ve been pretty critical of them in this space), I would never under any circumstances judge the career decisions that an individual makes, particularly if that individual put himself $20K in the hole so that I could have a fantastic operating system.

So no, I certainly am not one who’d condemn Robbins for his move – quite the contrary, I wish him the best of luck and thank him for all of his contributions. For the most part, so does the Gentoo community (see here or here).

For all that the move makes sense, however, I’ll be fascinated to see how Robbins adapts to the Redmond development environment. While community is something that I believe Microsoft understands – even if they’re not great at it yet – and open source is making inroads in certain areas, the transition is likely to be bumpy at times. Best of luck to you Daniel, but if it’s all the same to you I’m going to stick with your original creation 😉


  1. Stephen,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, which provide well-needed balance to the knee-jerk reactions from some who have wrongly condemned this move as a sellout.

    I met Daniel a few years ago at the Gentoo booth at a LinuxWorld expo in New York. I had admired some of the articles he wrote for IBM's developerworks site, and found him equally impressive in person. Turns out we're both from Albuquerque, and we shared a few thoughts on that.

    I tried Gentoo a couple of weeks ago. The quality of the documentation is *very* impressive, and the install went quite cleanly. Though I have since decided to use Suse 9.3 as my everyday Linux distro, Gentoo is novel and very innovative, portage in particular.

    I join you in wishing him well in his new job.

    dave shields
    (speaking as "Dave the Jikes guy", not "Dave from IBM".)

  2. glad you found the comments of interest, dave. Gentoo is indeed a rather sophisticated distro, and i've gotten great results out of it for a few years now. it's not one for the layman, simply b/c of the compile time, but if you can deal with that it's outstanding.

    anyhow, good to see a technologist like yourself having such a rational perspective on the move; great to see.

    thanks for checking in.

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