08.02.2018 11:28

Gašper and I attended FOSDEM last weekend. It is an event about open source and free software development that happens each year in Brussels. I've known about it for some time, mostly because it was quite a popular destination among a group of Kiberpipa alumni a few years ago. I've never managed to join them. This year though I was determined to go. Partly because I couldn't get a ticket for 34C3 and was starting to miss this kind of a crowd, and partly because several topics on the schedule were relevant to one of my current projects.

Marietje Schaake on Next Generation Internet at FOSDEM 2018

FOSDEM turned out to be quite unlike any other event I've attended. I was surprised to hear that there are no tickets or registration. When we arrived at the event it was immediately apparent why that is the case. Basically, for two days the Université libre de Bruxelles simply surrenders their lecture rooms and hallways to software developers. Each room is dedicated to talks on a particular topic, such as software defined radio or Internet of things. Hallways are filled with booths, from companies offering jobs to volunteer projects gathering donations and selling t-shirts. I counted more than 50 tracks, distributed over 5 campus buildings. More than once I found myself lost in the unfamiliar passageways.

Opinions whether the event is too crowded or not seem to differ. I often found the halls unbearably packed and had to step out to get a breath of air, but I do have a low threshold for these kind of things. Mostly cold, wet and windy weather didn't help with crowds indoors either. The lecture rooms themselves had volunteers taking care they were not filled over capacity. This meant that once you got in a room, following the talks was a pleasant experience. However, most rooms had long queues in front. The only way to get in was to show up early in the morning and stay there. I didn't manage to get back into any smaller room after leaving for lunch, so I usually ended up in the biggest auditorium with the keynote talks.

Queues at the food court at FOSDEM 2018.

Speaking about keynotes. I enjoyed Simon Phipps's and Italo Vignoli's talk about the past 20 years of open source. They gave a thorough overview of the topic with some predictions for the future. I found myself thinking whether open source movement really was such a phenomenal success. Indeed it is everywhere behind pervasive web services of today, however the freedom for users to run, study and improve software at their convenience is mostly missing these days where software is hidden behind an opaque web server on someone else's computer. Liam Proven in Alternate histories of computing explored how every generation reinvents solutions and mistakes of their predecessors, with a focus on Lisp machines. It seems that one defining property of computer industry is that implementing a thing from scratch is invariably favored over understanding and building upon existing work. I also recommend Steven Goodwin's talk about how hard it is to get behavior right in simplest things like smart light switches. He gave nice examples why a smart appliance that has not been well thought out will cause more grief than a dumb old one.

From the more technical talks I don't have many recommendations. I haven't managed to get into most of the rooms I had planned for. From hanging around the Internet of things discussions one general sentiment I captured was that MQTT has become a de facto standard for any Internet-connected sensor or actuator. ESP8266 remains as popular as ever for home-brew projects. Moritz Fischer gave a fascinating, but very dense intro into a multitasking scheduler for ARM Cortex microcontrollers that was apparently custom developed by Google for use on their Chromebook laptops. Even though I'm fairly familiar with ARM, he lost me after the first 10 minutes. However if I ever need to look into multitasking on ARM microcontrollers, his slides seem to be a very good reference.

One of the rare moments of dry weather at FOSDEM 2018

I don't regret going to FOSDEM. It has been an interesting experience and the trip has been worth it just for the several ideas Gašper and I got there. I can't complain about the quality of the talks I've seen and although the whole thing seemed chaotic at times it must have been a gargantuan effort on the part of the volunteer team to organize. I will most likely not be going again next year though. I feel like this is more of an event for getting together with a team you've been closely involved with in developing a large open source project. Apart from drive-by patches, I've not collaborated in such projects for years now, so I often felt as an outsider that was more adding to the crowds than contributing to the discussion.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Life


Thanks, Tomaž, for this report. I always wondered how FOSDEM looks like and if I should go. Like you I am not a person for crowds so online watching seems the best option for me.

As to the success of open source and free software I think it might help to segment people in different constituencies. For (software) developers it is clearly a success. It is so unbelievably easier to build almost anything today than 20 years ago by piecing together work done and shared by others.

For users of software it depends on a person, but it helps to be introverted. Where movement failed was in getting wide-adoption so most social software we use these days is closed even if open alternatives exist. Even there there are rare successes like WordPress and to lesser extent Mastodon, but we are clearly not living in the future we wanted.

Posted by Marko


Attending FOSDEM takes some planning if you want to get the most out of it. Next time be sure to come by the Haiku project booth and say hi! I'll most likely be there. Make a list of talks you are interested in. Don't hesitate to plan to attend multiple ones in parallel, so you have a backup plan in case one of the rooms is full. Or, just decide to be a devroom organizer so you can stay in a room for the whole time! (it was my first time doing it this year - and also completely unplanned and related to other people not being available or having unpractical train departure times).

Anyways, let's meet there next year :)

Posted by PulkoMandy

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