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Open Source: Interview

Nokia’s Qt and the Open Road to Code

Exclusive Q&A with Benoit Schillings, Chief Technologist for Nokia’s Qt Software

With the pending acquisition of Sun by Oracle and speculation over whether a new stream of monetization is about to tarnish and dishonor the good name of open source, industry eyes are watching the open code zone more keenly than ever to try and gauge whether a new playing field is about to surface.

Given the burgeoning acceptance of open technologies at the enterprise level, many segments of the IT sector are re-evaluating the way they view open source. The global economic slowdown and the proliferation of user-facing applications such as Firefox have also helped shape the new attitudes coming to the fore.

Open Source Magazine talks exclusively to Benoit Schillings, Chief Technologist for Nokia’s Qt Software (originally Trolltech) to get an insight into the strategic development of the company’s open approach to its cross platform application framework.

Open Source Magazine: Over the last 18 months, Qt has evolved from being a brand inside of Trolltech before Nokia acquired the company, to becoming an entity in its own right under a new parent organization. What has the transition process been like and hasn’t your technology proposition been diluted somewhat along the way as a result of these corporate shifts?

Benoit Schillings: I can understand why people might wonder how the process has been carried out and how well it has been managed, so I can tell you that great care has been taken to retain the spirit & structure of Trolltech as the cornerstone for our existence as a business and to maintain the innovation that the original company has always been recognised for.

We have of course also learned from Nokia and already benefitted from the weight of its research and development function. But far from being tied to Nokia’s overall roadmap, we have in fact gained an extra degree of freedom in our work thanks to our broadened adherence to the Lesser General Public License (LGPL) and the ability to include external contributions to our product that comes with this. We’re also now more focused on framework structures rather than worrying as much about the underlying aspects of the operating system.

Open Source Magazine: Qt Software recently completed its plans to open the Qt source code repositories and to allow contributions from the developer community. What has reaction to this been like to date and what do you think the first tangible impact of this move will be?

Schillings: Just a couple of months into this process, the impact is already visible. We are now seeing improvements come to light that in the past had been carried out by our customers but were never been fully integrated. There is tangible localization of our product & tools to a variety of languages and some very interesting performance improvements, which are certainly down to open exposure to the wider development community.

Just looking at the contributions in the last couple of days I can see 17 ‘check-ins’ related to multi-touch support for instance. I can not tell you how exciting it is to see technology that you yourself have helped shape, get to a certain point and then be open sourced for extended development and refinement. You can check out the latest contributions here to see the process in action: http://qt.gitorious.org/

Open Source Magazine: You have also recently launched a web-based source code management system based on the principles of the Git and Gitorious open source version control and collaboration structure. How will this enable the community to submit patches more easily?

Schillings: The main advantage of Git is the non-centralized process that it operates with, which means that the creation of branches and experiments is easy to do with a good mechanism to merge back. This avoids some of the issues with ‘locked check-outs’, which can become a problem with large collective projects.

For those with an interest, Linus Torvalds has joked that he is a miserable sort of guy and therefore chose the somewhat inglorious name Git (which means an unpleasant person in some cultures) for his freely distributed revision control system as he always names products after himself: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Git_(software)

Open Source Magazine: Your company has openly stated that your goal is to build the best cross-platform application and UI framework possible and that you will leverage feedback from the open source community to make sure you do this responsibly. In practice, what kind of augmentations are you expecting to arise as a direct result of software engineers using your product in real world use case scenarios?

Schillings: The short answer is many - I expect augmentations to be numerous and multifarious. Specifically I think we’ll see up front improvements in performance and the rapid creation of new and more appealing interface concepts. I also think we’ll see the use of Qt as a foundation for new devices and new software products. Getting slightly conceptual for a second, Qt in the open source arena now has the potential to fast track towards emerging technologies and experiment in new areas such as 3D GUIs and hybrid browser projects.

Logically, Qt will also now extend to parallel processing scenarios where use of multi-core processors will lead to threading of application streams that run concurrently for more power and speed. So like any technology in this position making its first big steps in open source, I think we’ll see optimisation for specific hardware platforms and chipsets. In short, it will be a wider world technologically speaking.

Open Source Magazine: Tell us about the rollout plans you will be coordinating for the next Qt 4.6 release. Reports suggest that you want to be very much focused on more dynamic user experiences and giving developers the power to build compelling and immersive experiences using multi-touch screen technology without necessarily being a command line guru.

Schillings: Our next releases will all bring with them a new weight in terms of their impact upon the total Qt code base. But you know what? It’s a funny thing - tool chains in software development have a strange way of becoming more complicated to use while staying strangely primitive. For instance, there is still no easy way to include graphics in your source file, or to integrate communication between engineers in the development tools themselves.

The message is that by providing an IDE that is shaped every day by real world programmers, we can add the really useful things we need. For example, the Vi key emulation we have in there now (and I admit this is an extremely geeky part of what we do, but for the record - Vi emulation mimics the modal behavior of the Vi editor) can significantly impact overall productivity. We will continue with a pragmatic view of how to improve software productivity not just with a good framework, but also by improving the tools and the communication channels within a team.

Open Source Magazine: What do you feel will be the single biggest factor that shakes up software application development in the open source and cross platform space over the next five years?

Schillings: I have to tell you that I get slightly annoyed by people who constantly ask me what the next killer application will be and whether it will be created through open source development. I mean come on; if I knew where the next Twitter is coming from I would not tell you!

The next killer application that will result from the combined strength of the open source community as it finally comes of age and gains far closer proximity to the commercial front end of corporate software development will be choice. It’s as simple as that. With choice we have the power to pick best of breed at every level for every device, for every user in every use case scenario across every platform. This is the central reason why Qt open sourced our source code repositories and it will remain the key to the next stage of wider growth and success with our developers and the users that their applications ultimately touch.

More Stories By Adrian Bridgwater

Adrian Bridgwater is a freelance journalist and corporate content creation specialist focusing on cross platform software application development as well as all related aspects software engineering, project management and technology as a whole.

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