Saturday, September 16, 2006

"Converging Paths in Tokyo"

I was in the middle of testing Ubuntu and Kubuntu on a test box when an e-mail landed on the TLUG mailing list from a member of an Ubuntu users' group. According to the e-mail, Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu Linux, would be visiting Tokyo and meeting with Linux users for a roundtable discussion about Ubuntu Linux and the current state of the free software movement in Japan.  "Well - that sounds interesting," I thought, and I fired off a message saying that I would like to attend. A few other TLUG members also expressed interest, and on Friday, February 3rd, we found ourselves standing in front of the Roppongi Hills tower in... er... Roppongi.  The four of us walked through the base of the tower complex and up to the Laurel Room.  We were a little early, but by and by The Man came - Mark Shuttleworth, a man with an interesting story. You've probably already heard it though, so I'll keep it brief:

The Ubuntu story is quite an interesting one - a classic case of what Linus would call "standing on the shoulders of giants".  In brief, you have Mark Shuttleworth, who founded Thawte Consulting in 1995 (while still in college), a company that produced a full-security e-commerce web server which enabled encrypted and authenticated translations via the Internet.  This was acquired in 1999 by VeriSign for hundreds of millions of dollars.  What next?  But of course!  The space station via a Russian rocket, and then back to earth with forward looking dreams and actions, including, but not limited to, Ubuntu Linux, HBD Venture Capital, The Shuttleworth Foundation, etc. (look on the Internet for further details).

Truth be told, I was busy before the meeting and didn't look things up about Ubuntu.  Actually, I spent the time that I might have done that using Ubuntu and Kubuntu - so I stupidly stumbled into the meeting expecting the founder to be a Silicon Valley California man.  Wrong.  He's from South Africa, although he's currently living in London, and he's far more polished than I was expecting, but then I'm a writer and photographer first and second, computer user third, and politician 57th, so when - early in the meeting - Shuttleworth turned to me and asked:

"Perhaps I could ask a question of you as somebody who watches the industry - how would you characterize free software in Japan today?"

I wasn't prepared for it.  I had been expecting to be just an observer for most of it and to work up to asking some questions of my own, so I weakly replied:

"Well, I'm not an expert actually - I mean, I use Linux on the desktop myself, and I'm very interested in promoting Linux and that sort of thing, but I'm actually not specifically focused on technology.  I've been doing a lot of more general kind of issues about Japan... and about travel to the Boso Peninsula and that sort of thing.  So I'm actually not an expert at all, but I'm a user of Linux and I want to do anything I can to promote it, , so I'm sort of a crusading anti-Microsoft person - I really hate Microsoft."

Oops... wrong thing to say!  After that was translated into Japanese for those in the room not up to speed in English, I continued:

"And... and also...."
But alas! Too late! Shuttleworth responded:

"There is a danger in the fact that many of the people who are passionate about Linux, are really passionate about their opposition to the status quo... because the question arises - when the status quo changes, what will bind us together. And, ah...  So I think my focus is very much on promotion of what is good about this software."

For the record, I don't care what the status quo is - or rather, I would be happiest if the status quo were something worthwhile - then I would be anti-nothing!  In any case, from there the conversation headed off into other directions, including discussions of how much awareness there is of free software in Japan, technical details about Ubuntu 5.10, etc.  I realized once past my fumbling of Shuttleworth's question (If I had known that I was going to be asked something like that, I could have put together something more intelligible to say...), that the wavelength of Shuttleworth and the man most into programming were remarkably similar....

In any case, let's have a look at some highlights from the meeting.

When asked about Ubuntu's stance regarding Debian, Shuttleworth responded:

"We are in perfect agreement with Debian in some areas, for example, we will not put any proprietary applications, or any non-free applications in the default set of applications that will be installed in any default Ubuntu system. Where we differ quite substantially from Debian is that we acknowledge the pragmatic need to work with vendors who are not yet ready to release the source code of their drivers.  And... so while we lobby and encourage those vendors to make their source code freely available, we do include in the default Ubuntu many proprietary drivers - for video cards, for storage, infrastructure, for wireless network cards, and so on. Our rational for that is that we believe it is more important to get free software up and running on as many different desktops as possible.And so we recognize Debian's position as being valuable and important, but also recognize that it's useful for us to be able to make that compromise, and insure that people's installation experience is a successful and happy one."

After this the issue of whether to focus on desktop users or the server came up, and a local network administrator commented on that issue, and brought up something possibly peculiar to the Japanese market:

LNA-A: "Most people in Japan using Linux, are using it on servers.  On the desktop side, my impression is that it really isn't happening in Japan - I think there is an image problem too, um... it looks like a cheap system to most people..."

Shuttleworth:"The costs are not that high by comparison with salaries... in Japan, compared to some of the other countries that we've been.  We've observed a very clear correlation between income levels and a willingness to consider alternatives to..."

LNA-A: "I think though, you've also got the big image sort of thing - it looks like a cheap alternative, so that people - you know - um... people will spend more, because they think they're getting more."

Shuttleworth: "Interesting... so what's needed is desktop labeling basically."

Following this was a discussion in Japanese of the different local versions of Linux available, including Turbo Linux, the Japanese version of Knoppix, Vine Linux, and the Japanese version of Ubuntu (  Invariably, this led to probably the biggest problem for users who need to input Japanese text - the many competing and inconsistent input methods available, and the biggest problem of all, the fact that Ubuntu (and some other distros) require a certain amount of tweaking before Japanese input is possible (although the downloadable version supplied by the local group works right off).  Reading Japanese usually isn't much of a problem, but writing it is.  Once an input system is in place, the next problem is its functionality.  This single issue has probably done more to chase away potential users in Japan than any other.

Shuttleworth: "I would very much like to insure that Ubuntu handles the input methods and fonts that are necessary..."

LNA-B: "It has to just work..."

Shuttleworth: "Are there any members of the community here who are experts in that and who will be able to help us identify the specific pieces that need to be put in place?"

At this point there was discussion of local user groups, mention of Jim Breen's membership in TLUG (Jim Breen has created one of the best, if not the very best Japanese-English dictionaries available - see, and mention of the Japanese version of Ubuntu available from a local Ubuntu user's group, as well as discussion regarding which input method works best.

Shuttleworth: "This is a thorny problem.  There are keyboard issues - in the console, in X, and the desktop environment.  There are input methods, there are fonts, there are... many tricky interrelated issues.  And my hope is that we can pull together some experts from around the world, and solve this once and for all."

Being one of only a few desktop users in the room, I pointed out that of the people I'd converted to Linux from brand-W, there had only been two issues for them.  One was getting used to Japanese character conversion (with Suse 9.3), which was a bit different from what they were used to (brand-W), and the other was an English language user who was completely happy with Linux in all respects but one (on two machines, one running Suse 9.0 & one 10.0) - his inability to play back DVD disks and some video formats from the Internet.

Shuttleworth: "We are effectively excluded from the... we exclude ourselves from the DVD playback environment by default, because we focus entirely on free software applications.  There are some people who effectively make commercial derivatives of Ubuntu that include that include commercial DVD playback, and of course they have the ability to license the patents involved and get the proprietary software involved into the [package].  It may be that, [in] certain regions, that's a reasonable thing to do.  We're working very hard to build up the body of knowledge around video CODEC's that are not patented and can be included in free software.  That process is coming along quite nicely, and..."

LNA-B: "The problem being content."

Shuttleworth: "Of course.  I wonder if we shouldn't adopt our strategy so that in countries where consumers - digital consumers - are extremely sophisticated, and very feature-sensitive, but not very price-sensitive, in other words, those countries like Singapore, Japan, and so on, where desktop Linux is going to take much longer to be accepted - perhaps, in those countries, we really should focus our attention and our efforts on servers, where..."

LNA-B: "Or on the corporate desktop, which doesn't need to play back DVD's.  Because, I mean... speaking as an employee of [a US corporation in Japan], there's no way we're ever going to use Ubuntu for servers, because we have our own..."

Shuttleworth: "Ecosystem?"

LNA-B: "Yeah, we have our own stuff - we're not going to change.  On the desktop, where we're using Windows, we would love to go to Linux.  I mean, right now, we're in the middle of trying to get rid of Office, and go to OpenOffice... just to save money, that's it.  But in Japan, you have a lot of companies that are very very rich.  They're willing to spend money, and what they really want is something that works.  And you've got foreign companies that [are geared] towards efficiency - everything we do is [towards] helping lower our costs, so... that's another market that I think you could target in Japan with maybe more success than just [average desktop users]."

The meeting lasted for a little over two hours, but what with nearly everything being said twice (English translated into Japanese and Japanese translated into English), it was effectively more like a one-hour meeting content-wise.

Not discussed at the meeting, but something that's been on my mind lately, are how semi-skilled users of Linux are at a sort of crossroads right now - caught between the expert Unix crowd on one hand, and the clueless desktop users of brand-W on the other.  The experts are at a skill level vastly higher than brand-W refugees and so these semi-skilled computer users try the patience of LUG groups with issues that are advanced for brand-W but overly elementary for old-hand Linux users.

Where to from here?

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon
February 19th, 2006

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