Rendezvous with the Desktop

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 11:23 PM

This past week a number of exciting developments toward the popularization of Open Source desktops occurred. Novell heralded the arrival of Mono 1.0. Mandrakesoft announced the acquisition of a French IT services firm, further indicating its return to financial health. Real Networks inked deals to bundle Helix and Real Players on major GNU/Linux desktops. Out of the noise and clammer, nevertheless, there are two announcements that I believe are the best tickets to moving the GNU/Linux desktop forward, and they both had a name other than Red Hat, Novell or Mandrakesoft attached to them. They both involved Apple.

Those who know me know I love the concept and the actual implementation of networking technology known as Zeroconf. Apple premiered the technology under the name “Rendezvous” in Mac OS X Jaguar 10.2 approximately two years ago, and released the basic libraries and tools needed to implement Rendezvous on POSIX compatible systems under the Apple Public Source License (APSL). Last year, things became even rosier after Apple worked with the Free Software Foundation to create the APSL 2.0 license which meets the requirements necessary to be considered a Free Software license. While the FSF still argues that there are problems with the license, this change opened up room for greater collaboration and usage of Rendezvous and other Apple technologies outside of Apple's domain.

This week, Apple brought Rendezvous back to the forefront with updated libraries for POSIX systems, as well as support for Java. Unfortunately, despite the fact that these libraries are out there for distributions and developers to use, few in the Free Software community have taken the time to adopt Zeroconf technology (Mandrakesoft's Mandrakelinux being the sole exception that I am aware of). It is time for this to change.

Rendezvous networking, at its heart, provides three things: automatic IP assignment without a DHCP server, name resolution without a DNS server and advertising available services without a directory server. For those not familiar with it, let me give you an example. I recently added a new Hewlett-Packard Rendezvous enabled wireless 802.11b printer to my office. After running the web based setup to configure the printer with the network's WPA preshared key, the printer's name automatically appeared on every Mac on our network. Furthermore, if I open up Safari's bookmarks, and look under the Rendezvous section, the printer's administration page is automatically listed.

Other examples are numerous: when opening Apple's terminal, I can connect to a Rendezvous enabled Mac's shell without remembering its name — it will automatically be displayed. Several Mac OS X FTP programs support similar functionality for FTP. And, it obviously works for file sharing between Rendezvous enabled systems. If you've seen iPhoto '04 or iTunes sharing functionality, you have also seen Rendezvous at work. While SMB networks are suppose to work somewhat like this, they often seem to work rather unreliably. Rendezvous not only goes a step further than past, similar ideas, it also does it far more reliably.

Much of the beauty of Rendezvous comes from the fact that it doesn't implement file sharing or printing or anything else. Rather, it provides a means for effortless usage of existing technologies. For example, when using a Mandrakelinux box with the CUPS printing system (also used by Mac OS X), Macs can dynamically translate the host name of the Mandrake box and get to the CUPS server. Conversely, doing the same with a Fedora box is somewhat more problematic if you set a host name without a DNS server, because the Mac will try to resolve the host name CUPS feeds it unsuccessfully (reconfiguring CUPS will help, but the point is that ZeroConf negates this need). This is, obviously, because Mandrakelinux, using Rendezvous/ZeroConf, is advertising its name and the services it can provide whereas Fedora is only providing part of the equation through CUPS.

As a sector, Free Software operating systems should take advantage of the fact that Apple is opening up this stuff free for the taking and use it. Networking is always a mess on Windows systems. While it is far more reliable on UNIX systems, it isn't always convenient to find file shares on other servers, for example. By implementing Apple's technology using the source code they are providing, we have the chance to create a truly cross-platform, reliable and easy-to-use networking setup: the only question is why distribution developers haven't been taking advantage of this already.

And speaking of cross-platform, that brings us to the other announcement, the new Netscape Plugin API. Here again, we have an exciting opportunity. Not only is involved, but so is Apple, which is doing a great job of popularize KDE's KHTML engine outside of the GNU/Linux desktop, not to mention Macromedia and Adobe. For the first time in years, the prospects of a better plugin system that can push back the onslaught of proprietary Microsoft ActiveX controls appears to be within reach. Thankfully, the Mozilla organization seems to have a brisk implementation schedule which is great. But, I think it is also exciting that Apple is involved. Here again, Apple is getting involved with open standards and Free Software.

We should embrace this and attempt to further extend ties with the folks in Cupertino. While Apple remains a proprietary software vendor, their increasing portfolio of Free Software (which also includes the easy-to-configure Darwin Streaming Server, the Free Software variant of QuickTime Streaming Server) shows that they have a serious commitment to Free Software, perhaps more so than many of the proprietary GNU/Linux distribution companies that have appeared in recent years.

It is time for GNU/Linux to rendezvous with the desktop. Ironically, it might just be the maker of the Mac that helps add some of the momentum we need to get there.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. You can reach him at tbutler@uninetsolutions. com.