When Miguel de Icaza spoke at the 2000 Ottawa Linux Symposium, he opened his talk with a blunt message: "Let's make Unix not suck."
Coming from anyone else's mouth, such a glib suggestion might have been met by a chorus of cat calls. But for de Icaza, who can perhaps be credited with doing more than any other individual to bring mainstream workstation usability to Linux and Unix systems, those words weren't meant to pick a fight. They were a mission statement.
Miguel first became interested in open source as far back as 1991, but his biggest impact came in 1997, when he founded the Gnome project with his friend Frederico Mena. Now in its second iteration, Gnome has become one of the most popular GUI desktop environments for Linux systems. And Ximian, the company de Icaza founded with Nat Friedman and sold to Novell last year, continues to develop sophisticated desktop applications to run on it, such as the groupware client, Evolution.
But by 2001, Miguel and his team had run into a problem. The development tools available for Linux -- which, in true Unix tradition, were based mainly on the low-level C programming language -- made it difficult to build the kind of large, multiprocess, multicomponent applications they had envisioned.
"We really wanted to have something better, just for selfish reasons," de Icaza says. "Instead of spending two and a half years developing Evolution, we would have loved to crack that application in a year."
And so, de Icaza embarked on perhaps his most ambitious project yet: Mono, an effort to implement Microsoft's .Net development environment for Linux. Mono 1.0 will form the foundation of Ximian's application development efforts when it ships next month and may become a force in the Linux programming community.
When asked if it's wise to devote so much energy seemingly just to mimic Microsoft's successes, de Icaza is philosophical. "You could argue, also, that we should begin from scratch," he says. "Why do we need to copy the concept of a file? Or why do we need to copy the concept of a window, or the File menu, or cut and paste? And although I think there's a lot of value in doing that, and that definitely has to be researched, there's also value in reusing what you're familiar with."
Just so long as it doesn't suck.