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It's been almost a year since I last interviewed Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier, who is the community manager at openSUSE. I sent him several questions to answer by email. I was curious about the new version of openSUSE, 11.2, along with his increasing use of social media to promote it. I also wanted to know how people curious about open source operating systems could get started.

RM: What are some of the key features in the new version of openSUSE?

JZB: Free beer! No, wait... that didn't make it into this release, except at the openSUSE conference, where we did consume rather a lot of free beer.

  • First, we have a ton of updated software and new packages in 11.2. We have the latest KDE and GNOME desktop environments, which include updates and improvements almost too numerous to mention.
  • The openSUSE KDE team has done a lot of work improving networking for 11.2 and also integrating OpenOffice.org and Firefox into KDE, and we've made Firefox the default for the KDE desktop.
  • Some new software debuts in 11.2 for social media fans. We have included Choqok and Gwibber in KDE and GNOME, respectively. They're both microblogging applications that make it really easy to manage multiple social network accounts.
  • KDE and GNOME have gotten new and very attractive themes, too.
  • There's been a lot of work to enhance the openSUSE experience on netbooks and speed up boot time. There's also a new desktop kernel that provides a better experience for desktop users -- since kernel and desktop tuning are two different things.
  • We've also been working on a preview release of WebYaST that will run with 11.2. It's not included with the default repositories, but does run on 11.2. It's a remote, web-based management tool that people can use to manage their openSUSE systems without having to be logged into the console. There's some work to be done yet, but this is the debut release.
  • The live CDs are now "hybrid" images that can be copied to a USB key if you want to run openSUSE off a USB key or install openSUSE on a netbook with no optical drive.
  • There are a number of improvements in the way openSUSE handles software installation, and we also have support for "in-place" upgrades, which means that users can move from 11.1 to 11.2 without any media at all -- just by running a few commands and upgrading their system instead of installing a new release from scratch!
  • There really tons of enhancements in this release, as befits a release that was 11 months in the making.

RM: Did these enhancements come from community suggestions?

JZB: Absolutely. For instance, adding Gwibber was driven by a community member. Many of the features and enhancements have been driven by community members and were suggested through openFATE -- our feature tracking system -- which we used extensively through this release.

RM: How do you motivate the community to stay engaged? It must be a huge challenge.

JZB: It's really more of an issue of preventing the community from becoming de-motivated. You can't really motivate people to contribute to something they don't care about, but you can de-motivate people pretty easily by making it too hard to contribute. People who participate in an open source project really aren't looking to make a full-time job it (usually, anyway) they're looking to make an impact in the time that they have -- and since most of us are pretty busy most of the time, that means in as little time as possible.

So we are working hard to smooth out rough edges that make it harder to contribute.

In this release, we got rid of policies that meant it was only possible for Novell employees to commit to Factory, set up teams around logical groups of software (like KDE, GNOME, etc.) and have generally been trying to lower the barriers to contribution.

RM: How are you using social media to promote openSUSE?

JZB: With this release, very extensively. We now have Twitter, Identi.ca, and Facebook accounts, and a LinkedIn group. The openSUSE marketing team went all-out on Twitter and Identi.ca around the 11.2 release. Also working blogs and things like Digg.

It's something that any openSUSE user and enthusiast can help with. It doesn't take a lot of time or effort, but there is a cumulative impact that everyone helping can see.

RM: One thing I think a lot of people find confusing about Linux is the number of distros available. If I'm a new user, why should I use yours over another?

JZB: My first comment to that question is usually that, seeing as all the "community" distros are free to use, any user who is trying Linux the first time should really take some time and try each of the major distros -- openSUSE, Fedora, Ubuntu, etc. Each one has strengths and weaknesses, and our overall goal is the same -- to promote Linux and help people get their work (or play) done using free and open source software. Part of the rationale for that is that we believe that choice is important, so I'd be remiss in not mentioning that people should exercise that choice up-front.

openSUSE does have some unique features and benefits, though.

First, openSUSE comes with a very comprehensive management / system configuration tool (called YaST) that's user-friendly and a one-stop tool for users to configure their systems. Everything from configuring hardware to adding users.

My friend Jason Perlow likes to point to the "fine German engineering" with openSUSE. openSUSE offers well-polished versions of GNOME and KDE, so our users have the choice of two excellent desktops. We put a lot of work in to offering the best desktop experience there. We have a history of offering a consumer product, and we still want to deliver the most polished system that we can, whereas some distros are more focused on hitting newer technologies even if they're a bit rough around the edges. As an example, we opted to ship Pidgin by default as opposed to Empathy in this release -- even though Empathy is probably the "future" of IM on the GNOME desktop. Our developers didn't feel Empathy was ready yet, and we stuck with Pidgin for another release.

Many people feel openSUSE offers the best KDE implementation, and we do have a massive KDE community. As I mentioned before, we put a effort in this release into integrating Firefox and OpenOffice.org into KDE because those are applications that the community relies on, but they're not "native" KDE apps -- so we wanted to give the most integrated and polished experience possible.

Even though it's not technically part of the distribution itself, the openSUSE Build Service is another feature of the distribution for users because it makes it easier for people to offer the latest versions of their software for current and past releases of openSUSE so users don't have to upgrade right away just to get the latest code.

The best way to see is to get a hands-on look. I'd encourage people to download openSUSE and give it a shot. I think most people will find it suits their needs very well.

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