Editorial: Thoughts on Mandriva’s Future – Archived

Mandriva 2007 may be the best distribution I have usedXGL/AIGLX worked for me right out of the box. My windows wobbled, things were transparent and I got to spin the cube. The updated look of Mandriva One is fresh. I was able to install anything I needed. Looking through Mandriva’s forum, you see employees of the company who care and are genuinely trying to help. Mandriva offers “free as in freedom” versions and versions with propriatery software–meaning Nvidia drivers are set up, MP3’s play and you can watch DVDs. You would expect a release like this to be trumpeted. Instead, the release was met with hostility. Forums on tech sites were filled with Linux users cheering for the end of Mandriva. What happened? How did a company that was loved at one time become so unpopular? Is the hostility justified?

I think a starting point for these bad feelings began with the advent of the Mandriva (formerly Mandrake) Club in late 2001. Mandriva needed a revenue source, so the club began and seemingly transformed Mandriva into a subscription based model service. Some of the benefits included proprietary software being available for download. Club members got an exclusive download mirror list and full access to commercial applications. They got the newest releases a few weeks before everyone else.

The biggest disaster here was the delay in getting the new release for non members. Most distro junkies are very enthusiastic about trying the latest and greatest. It is sad, but there are plenty of us that follow release schedules and excitedly jump on an announced new release. We aren’t overly committed to one distribution. It is interesting to see the improvements made, find the mistakes and compare it to similar distros. We may have loved Mandrake, but didn’t love it enough to commit to the club. Mandrake was having trouble at the time. I was a member, got early access, and couldn’t install Mandrake 10. The installer kept freezing due to problems with my motherboard. I left Mandrake and the club, never to look back. It may not make sense, but by the time a new release was available to the public, I didn’t care. I was irritated at being made to wait a month and it just didn’t seem new a month later. Other distributions didn’t make me do that. The delay made Mandriva less appealing.

I also had a sense that my non-club install would be crippled. If I wanted propriatery drivers or non-free codecs I had to join the club. I was wrong about this, but didn’t know it. The message a lot of us got was Mandriva only cared about you if you paid. We moved on. PCLinuxOS came along. Ubuntu showed up. Mandriva became irrelevant to a lot of its former users.

Then Gael Duval was laid off. This made the community crazy. Mr. Duval founded Mandrake in 1998. The CEO, François Bancilhon, painted it as a painful business decision. Gael claimed he was fired, and announced he was suing the company. Was it a good decision? There really is no way to answer that. From a PR perspective, it was terrible. It looked like big, greedy Mandriva got arrogantly corporate and decided to attack the hero of the people, Gael. In real life, things are rarely so cut and dried. I have read a few interviews with Mr. Bancilhon. He seems like a genuinely funny and good natured man. I have read postings by Mr. Duval and he comes off as likable. I, and I guess most of you, have no idea what the pressures are in running a publicly traded Linux company. I can only comment on how it played out on “the internets”.

If things weren’t bad enough, on the eve of Mandriva 2007’s release Distrowatch attacked! Distrowatch Weekly portrayed a personal blog entry by Vincent Danen as a public relations statement from Mandriva. They quoted Danen calling kernel developers “idiots”. The headline of the blog was “Why I would never use Linux for my main desktop.” Dannen’s response is here. As you can guess, the comment section was filled with glee at the coming death of Mandriva. Long live Ubuntu! Woohoo!

It is a shame that we are at this point. My experience with Mandriva 2007 has been very positive. I installed Mandriva One, a live cd with an installer that is similar to another famous distribution. Using PLF in addition to Mandriva’s repos, I was able to get all the packages I wanted. The 3D desktop works without problem. It is an outstanding distribution, easily Mandriva’s best in years. It is better than the lastest Ubuntu, which I have been running as well. 2007 doesn’t seem to be gaining much traction in the community. I see fifty reviews of Edgy, fifty of Fedora, barely any for Mandriva. It is too bad, because the company took a big step forward by releasing Mandriva One and Mandriva Free to everyone on the release date. It was a great and courageous decision on their part. It was a very nice first step to repairing some of the damage done.

Here is where they should go now, in my humble opinion:

Simplify club membership. The levels are confusing. The breakdown of the club levels does not show much of an advantage to joining as a Silver or Gold member. There is a mention of a free, reduced benefit Aluminum membership, but I can’t find how to sign up for it. There is mention of VIP membership, but no details other than it is free for exceptional contributors. Why not make VIP memberships available to testers that file a certain number of bug reports, or people who contribute a certain amount of documentation? This would create much good will. Renaming the levels might be helpful… something like Basic, Home and Ultimate? ;)

Move away from using software as the selling point of the club. People aren’t going to pay for something they can get for free from other distros. They will just switch to those distros. I would offer free two month memberships with no strings attached, so people can see what the club is about, get used to it and then decide to keep it. Giving these away shows confidence in the club. Divorce using the club from using the distro. Make sure people understand that they aren’t at a disadvantage if they are not members. Fear will not bring in new members. Providing services like eTraining and the ability to have a fancier forum identity page will bring them in. If the club is so great, show me so I can decide that I need it. Don’t use it to deny my software like Nvidia or wireless drivers.

Take advantage of Vista. When Vista is released, there is going to be a huge opportunity to get people using Mandriva. Once the restrictions inherent in Vista, like the two install limit per license limit or the barring of running it in a virtual machine, become apparent, people will want to see the alternatives. Mandriva One is a great way to demonstrate how well Linux works. Get it in people’s faces.

Capitalize on Ubuntu’s stumble. There is a fair amount of unhappiness and disappointment with Ubuntu 6.10 (Edgy). Promote your ease of use. Promote a free two month club membership. Do something to get Mandriva’s name on the big tech sites pages. Promote Mandriva’s history. Let everyone know about your outstanding commitment to free software.

Simplify Mandriva.com. The website is a mess. There are seemingly fourteen million different links on the main page. If you go to the site looking for anything, it is too complicated to find. Break the page up a bit. Each section goes to five different products for each class of user (business, individuals, partners and community). Get an honest critique of the site and redo it.

Use Oracle’s attack on Red Hat to your advantage. Price your support lower than Oracle’s, if possible. Show why you are a leader and a wise choice. For god’s sake, fix the spelling errors on your business page. You cannot expect a business to invest in your product if you cannot use proper grammar and spelling when you promote it. It gives off the impression that you are more focused on French business and aren’t serious about the United States.

Get your people talking to the press. I have only very recently discovered the outstanding employees that Mandriva has. Adam Williamson can be seen on different forums (and a lot in Mandriva’s forums) representing the company in a very positive way. His communications are thoughtful and honest. His comments in the Distrowatch Weekly comment section went a long way toward cooling a bad situation down. Vincent Danen shows that he cares, even if his blog was controversial. Warly is very helpful in the Mandriva forums. I thought this interview did a great job of showing the talent Mandriva has. You need these people to be seen, to show the human face of your company. It also lets us know that you have not given up on North America and only care about the European and South American markets.

I planned this editorial a month ago and intended to voice my displeasure with Mandriva. It amazes me how quickly things can change. I was blown away by Mandriva One, impressed with the company’s decision to release 2007 to the full community. I have watched the staff handle a difficult situation with grace and honesty. I have come full circle and now am rooting for Mandriva.

My meme for the next year will be “Mandriva is the next Ubuntu”. I predict that by this time next year, Mandriva will be the trendy distribution. We Linux users are a fickle bunch, but only need to be shown that the companies we support care about this (and us) as much as we do. I believe Mandriva will be doing a lot repair work over the next year. Watch out Red Hat and Ubuntu. There is a company tanned, rested and ready. I wish them luck.

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