The Linux distribution that's always in the black
October 4, 2002
Many of today's new Linux users wouldn't have a clue as to who Patrick Volkerding is. For the brigade whose main arguments are over the merits of this GUI and that, the word Slackware wouldn't ring a bell either.
But for many others who jumped on the Linux bandwagon when it was exclusively for geeks, Volkerding is a hero.
In early 1993, he started the distribution called Slackware which was basically an attempt to address many of the problems people faced with SoftLanding System Linux, the first and only commercial Linux at the time.
While most other commercial Linux distributions have problems balancing the books, Volkerding hasn't had to worry since he decided in 1994 that the only way to keep the project going was to find some way to fund it.
But let him tell it in his own words:
Let's start with the statement you made about two years back that Slackware has always been commercially successful. Is this true?
For the most part, yes. Slackware started in early 1993, but it wasn't until the middle of 1994 that I was contacted by Michael Johnston of Morse Telecommunications and asked if I was interested in having them publish Slackware commercially. Before then, Slackware was a non-commercial endeavour, but I'd seen commercial distributions like Caldera emerge in that first year, and it was pretty clear that if the project was going to continue that I'd need to have some way to fund it, so I agreed. Since then, Slackware has always made enough money through publishing arrangements to be my full time job. I didn't stay with Morse long because they were only giving me $US1 per copy sold. When the initial six-month agreement expired, I moved on to Walnut Creek CDROM since they were better established and were willing to give Slackware a fair share of the profits. Their founder, Robert Bruce, is my current partner in Slackware Linux, Inc.
I'd say the sales peak for Slackware was in early 1996. After that, a lot more companies began producing Linux distributions and the competition began to heat up. This was also when venture capitalists began to sniff around, wondering if Slackware would be a good dot-com investment. I never did accept any of the investment offers, mostly because I was concerned about pressures to change Slackware to appeal to a larger market at the expense of our loyal users. There were certainly times I looked around at the trade shows at new distributions with larger booths and more employees and wondered if I'd made the right move, but in retrospect I'm glad I kept things small. Most of those companies aren't around anymore. When the investments dried up they couldn't afford to continue operating at a loss.
Of course, we went through our own troubles as the dot-com bubble burst. Walnut Creek also published FreeBSD, and in 2000 ended up merging with BSDi. This combined company had its sights set on gathering investments and going public, but by then the market conditions had changed and IPOs were not doing well. Eventually BSDi ended up sold to Wind River, who were interested in the BSD assets, not the Linux ones, so briefly Slackware was without a publisher (and right before a scheduled release, too). This was when I teamed up with Bob to start a Slackware company to get the discs manufactured and the 8.0 release sent out. We've worked together since then.
What kind of business model do you follow?
Most of the funding for the Slackware project comes from people who have subscribed to the CD releases, or bought CDs (or something else) from our Web site. This is what pays the bills and enables us to give away free software to everybody else.
How many people are working on Slackware now? I heard sometime back that David Cantrell (Slackware developer) had quit.
As far as the development of Slackware (goes), I've always done most of the work on Slackware, and that's certainly still true today, but plenty of people pitch in to help. There's no official core team, but I'd say there are a couple of dozen developers who regularly send in fixes for various bugs, pointers to new software, or suggestions. Now that David and the other formerly full-time developers have gone back to school the ports to other architectures that they were working on have been suspended, but they still find time to contribute here and there. David just sent in some fixes last week.
What roles do the people perform?
I handle the technical and support issues, and Bob Bruce coordinates the business end of things.
How do you do your marketing?
Most of our marketing is word of mouth. This is definitely an area where the more commercialised distributions have got an edge - we've never had a lot of extra money to sink into that. Plus, Slackware's niche is fairly unique. The kind of user we appeal to tends to know about us already, or will find out from their friends.
A bit of history - I know that Slackware made its appearance in the early 1990s - but what led to your starting it? Was it disappointment with SLS Linux?
No, I actually liked SLS a great deal. Initially Slackware was just my own version of SLS where I'd fixed as many bugs as I could in the packages, and especially in the installer. I saw some people on the Linux newsgroups running into these same problems, and decided to email them privately and offer to share my fixed version with them. After they had better luck with it that they'd had with SLS, I was encouraged to put it up for FTP, and from there it just took off.
What were you doing at the time you started Slackware?
I was finishing up my bachelor's degree in Computer Science at Minnesota State University, Moorhead. I'd been playing with Linux for a few months, and was using it for my LISP assignments in an Artificial Intelligence course.
By your own guesstimates, how many people use Slackware?
To assist my guesswork, I'll refer to the data that's been gathered by the Linux Counter project which has been collecting user registrations for years. According to their estimates, the number of Linux users is around 18 million, and about 12 percent of the registrations they've recieved are from people running Slackware. Based on those numbers, there are around two million Slackware users.
What future do you see for the distribution?
The plan is to keep as much of the traditional structure and simplicity of Slackware as possible while following the ongoing evolution of Linux and keeping everything up to date. It would be easy to let things bloat out of control and become unmaintainable, so keeping things as small as possible is a major focus. There's a lot of good free software out there, but it can't all be added to Slackware, and in my opinion Slackware wouldn't be better if it was. For example, it's convenient to have the entire installation fit on a single disc, and it would be nice to keep it that way for a while.
What's your opinion of the commercialisation of Linux - especially things like Lindows and UnitedLinux?
I don't have a problem with commercial versions of Linux (Slackware is one, after all). My main concern is that everyone plays by the rules, and I've heard about things (like binary only releases and beta testers forced to sign non-disclosure agreements) that just don't seem compatible with the GNU General Public License. Hopefully the Free Software Foundation is keeping a close eye on the situation.