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Jul
27

GNOME Alone – The Free Software Column

by Richard Hillesley

The developers set about revising GNOME as an up-to-date desktop suitable for both mobile and static desktop devices – and were surprised by the sometimes hostile response their work received. Richard Hillesley reads the runes

Working on free software projects is not always fun and not all free software developers are made to feel like heroes. As was illustrated by the GNOME contributor, @xanlpz, who tweeted: “We should do a poll among GNOME hackers: ‘What motivates you to work on a project where you are insulted for doing FLOSS almost daily?’”

GNOME is nearly 15 years old. As any programmer knows, some aspects of coding are adventurous and challenging and fun. Some are not. Some programmers like to work on the big picture. Some like to get down to the nitty-gritty. Some developers are paid. Many are not, and not all the work on a project the size of GNOME is thrilling or sexy, or is seen by the end user.

GNOME 2 was characterised by an outward simplicity, stripped of unnecessary flimflam, which made it popular with users. It epitomised the accepted paradigms of the desktop, and its virtues were its apparent simplicity and familiarity, and the ability to pull in add-ons and themes and make it your own. But the software was creaking at the edges and was feeling its age. As Jakub Steiner noted: “I saw even GNOME hackers using add-on tools to help them do the basic tasks GNOME was supposed to do. To me, projects like GNOME Do or Docky did a far better job at launching and switching between apps and documents.”

“GNOME 2 got really fragmented,” he observed. “There was no unified feel to it.” For the developers “GNOME 2 had become a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster, assembled from bits and pieces that were not always designed to integrate perfectly. You could see the seams. And more importantly, you could feel them and they didn’t feel nice.” Which was making it increasingly complicated as a platform for third-party developers.

There comes a time with all projects when the work has reached its natural end. The interesting bits are done. The thrill is gone. The gaps are showing and the code is tired. GNOME was in danger of becoming irrelevant because, as a framework for building the desktop, it lacked coherence and was running out of steam. GNOME 2 had reached an impasse, and the desktop was moving on.

When it came to redesigning the project, it was vital that core functionality wasn’t lost in add-ons and extensions. The GNOME developers set about revising and reviving the project as an up-to-date and comprehensive desktop that is suitable for both mobile and static desktop devices – and were understandably surprised and miffed by the sometimes hostile response that their hard work received.

Change wasn’t initiated merely to satisfy a whim, or for aesthetic or disruptive reasons, nor simply to facilitate an approach to mobile or touch-screen devices, but to keep GNOME workable, coherent and relevant into the future. The vision of the GNOME developers is different to that preferred by some developers of themes and extensions, but is intended to keep the code tight and make it easier for device and applications developers to predict the behaviour of the desktop.

So Allan Day takes the view that “facilitating the unrestricted use of extensions and themes by end users seems contrary to the central tenets of the GNOME 3 design.” And William Jon McCann affirms, “The issue is not whether extensions may be useful. The issue is whether they will be harmful to our larger goals [of a unified desktop].”

There is no conspiracy among developers, but there is a drive to produce a coherent and comprehensive approach to every aspect of the desktop. And it makes sense to restrict options that deflect or detract from that core vision.

The Linux desktop isn’t where a lot of people hoped it would be – partly because of changing desktop paradigms, lack of exterior polish, and the latent stumbling block of user inertia; and partly because of lack of continuity and consistency between distributions, desktops, packaging systems, binaries and versions of the software.

Android on Linux is the most popular platform for mobile devices. But Android isn’t free software, and apps rarely come with the source code. GNOME hopes to be the free software alternative, equally at home on static and mobile devices. And in the end, anybody can get involved, influence outcomes and make a difference.

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    • Keith McNeill

      But can anyone genuinely influence outcomes? One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard about Gnome Shell is that the group of developers did not listen to anyone outside of that group to guage other views. Among other things, this lead to a large number of other desktop shells being produced by those who simply don’t share the Gnome Shell vision (Unity, Cinnamon, et al).

      External developers can create add-ons for Gnome Shell, but these are incompatible between even minor releases, requiring updates with every such release just to keep them usable.

      I appreciate the work of every FOSS developer but the work done on such a maor part of the FOSS eco-system surely cannot be imune to criticism.

    • Carlos

      Very interesting read. I clearly understand the need to evolve Gnome 2 both from the technical and the motivational perspective. But with all projects, commercial or not, some are successful, others aren’t. It may be the case that this project (gnome 3) isn’t a success. And that’s life. The vision developers have not always is in sync with what the users expect or want.

      The criticism developers received is nothing more than user feedback. It’s the way users express themselves, pretty much like babies only know how to cry to express the themselves. If this were a commercial product for a company, they would have questioned the direction they were following long ago, because they need to sell.

      But, this is a floss project and as such is not driven by user acceptance, it’s driven by a vision. If they are loosing users it means the vision is not what users need or like. And at some point, Gnome developers will have to acknowledge this. And at that time, decide if they can still pull it off. There are plenty of projects that are mantained year after year with a very small user base. But of course it would lose the relevance it once had.

      However, I’m not sure this can be done with gnome. It’s such a big project, that it needs lots of developers. And that means having momentum to attract those developers, and momentum is fueled by users…

      I would say that, reflecting on all the criticism received and planning a revised vision for Gnome 4 would warrant a brighter future for Gnome. It would be a new start which means more motivation and momentum. And before it’s too late.

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    • tsiguel

      I like gnome shell, have been using it since it came out and I really do like the overview and got so used to the gnome way, that it is really difficult for me to use any other DE, not to mention it’s pretty.

      What annoys people is taking functionality that was available away for no reason. When I realized that you cannot create an empty file with the new nautilus, I swear I thought about tracking the person who suggested that and violently murder him, I mean seriously? If i use the terminal I’d happily use the touch command but isn’t file manager there so we don’t always use the terminal???!!(Just thinking about it makes me angry) and there are countless examples of GNOME doing that to their users.

      I don’t know a single person that uses gnome shell without extensions and third party software to do their work (using the above example, I use nemo which is not part of GNOME and further fragments things). “I saw even GNOME hackers using add-on tools to help them do the basic tasks GNOME was supposed to do”. Yes, three thousand times yes, still relevant today. If that was the reason GNOME Shell is here in the first place, it is about time to listen to some of the criticisms (not the “overview sux bring back gnome 2″ kind) And stop playing Apple and getting rid of functionality because you think your users are stupid, it is most insulting. hmm,

      Sent from my Gnome 3.8

    • eco2geek

      I came to GNOME when KDE 4.0 came out, partially because I’d never seriously tried GNOME before, and partially because KDE 4.0 wasn’t quite ready for prime time. And now I’m back using KDE.

      Perhaps GNOME 2.x “was creaking at the edges and was feeling its age” at the end. But there wasn’t much of anything wrong with the UI. From this user’s perspective, with a little effort, GNOME 2 worked well and looked good – without the need for 3rd party add-ons like GNOME-Do and Docky.

      I’ll assume that the reader has used both GNOME 2 and GNOME 3. From my perspective, GNOME 3 is clunky and makes day-to-day work harder to do. It gets in my way. Its file manager has seen a lot of functionality taken out. In comparison to GNOME 2, GNOME 3′s user interface is simply not as good. My opinion has nothing to do with the availability of themes and extensions (although it doesn’t help the theme and extension developers when the APIs change with each new release, either).

      You write, “Change wasn’t initiated merely to satisfy a whim, or for aesthetic or disruptive reasons, nor simply to facilitate an approach to mobile or touch-screen devices, but to keep GNOME workable, coherent and relevant into the future.” Then what was the impetus for the radical UI change?

      It occurs to me that there may be fads in user interface design. Windows 3.x and Apple OS 7 used icon pickers in their user interfaces in the early 90′s. Perhaps today’s turn toward icon pickers, rather than hierarchical menus, is part of such a fad.

      Two things are for sure: First, GNOME’s user interface designers’ choices have directly led to the production of alternative desktops, including Unity, Cinnamon, MATE, and other, less well-known UI customizations (such as Linux Deepin’s). Secondly, even if it’s open source software, that doesn’t mean it gets a pass from criticism.

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