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What’s going on with GNOME?

by Koen Vervloesem

GNOME release manager Frederic Peters shares insight into the excitement surrounding the GNOME project…

Frederic Peters, the current GNOME Release Manager, is 33 and lives in Brussels. He still remembers his very first contribution to GNOME: “That was the conversion of Havoc Pennington’s book (GNOME and GTK+ Advanced Development, GGAD for short) from whatever it was written in to DocBook in 1999. At that time, I was still at school and I had made a few contributions to Free Software, the most important one being a Debian Developer.” But Peters didn’t get proerly involved in GNOME until sometime later. It took several years and various adventures in his real life before he came back to the project – in 2006 – thanks to the GNOME Love initiative.

“Luis Villa had comments on the difficulty of setting up a build environment, and how useful it would be to track build failures so they wouldn’t have to wait for a beginner to stumble upon them, so I started such a system. Later on we met at GUADEC and founded the Build brigade, an effort to automate discovery and reporting of GNOME build errors, which would make testing of GNOME’s development version easy for everyone. Various people helped (my thanks to Iago Toral Quiroga and John Carr!) and we got up and running.”

What Peters did then was actually a precursor of his current position as GNOME Release Manager. As the developers had running, they needed to keep an eye on it and fix failures in various modules. “This gave me a good overview of the GNOME project, in terms of code as well as in terms of people. I believe this is still what I do as release manager nowadays: knowing things left and right, pointing whoever needs it to the right place or person, and so on. On top of this, there is some higher level management, definitely shared between the members of the release team. Examples of these tasks are defining the exact schedule, tracking blocker bugs, making sure the releases appear on time, and other such things.”

What’s going on with GNOME?
Frederic Peters

New design

While GNOME 3 has a radically different design than GNOME 2, we can’t say the same about the applications. However, in GNOME 3.4 the developers began to have applications adopt a design fit for GNOME 3. Of course this was the case for the new applications like Documents and Contacts, but it also happened to existing applications. For instance, the web browser Epiphany morphed into Web. “In 3.6 this trend will persist, with more applications being redesigned,” Peters maintains.

While KDE offers various workspaces, each for a specific form factor, such as Plasma Desktop for the classical desktop, Plasma Netbook for netbooks, and Plasma Active for mobile devices, GNOME 3 has a one-size-fits-all user interface. Its primary focus is still on the desktop, but according to Peters the GNOME developers do pay attention to also work well on netbooks, as it’s quite close to a desktop. “Moreover, problems like huge dialog windows, which typically manifest themselves on small netbook screens, are a general usability concern. Of course there are also GNOME developers paying attention to tablets and new kinds of devices, and their existence has an influence on the work of the GNOME designers, but at the moment our target is still somehow homogeneous enough to warrant a one-size-fits-all interface.”

GNOME 3.4 also introduced a new concept, the Application Menu, which offers a global menu for applications. Its use by applications was quite limited in GNOME 3.4, but according to Peters this has expanded in 3.6: “We use the Application Menu in many applications now, from Baobab to Nautilus, from Empathy to Gucharmap, and so on. We noticed several shortcomings in its first implementation in 3.4 and they’re being addressed. For example, there were some problems for sloppy-focus users and in multi-monitor configurations.”

What’s going on with GNOME?
More and more applications are being redesigned for GNOME 3

Under the hood

Most users see the improvements on the visual side, with GNOME Shell, but GNOME 3 is a lot more. Under the hood there are a lot of libraries, and there has been a tremendous amount of work going on in the graphical toolkit GTK+: “We have new widgets in GTK+, such as GtkLevelBar, a widget to use as a strength indicator, GtkSearchEntry, a subclass of GtkEntry that is set up to be used as a search entry, and GtkMenuButton, a button that pops up a menu. But we have also improved performance, notably in the CSS theming code.” GNOME will also get to use GStreamer 1.0, and many pieces have already been ported to benefit from WebKit 2, although the official switch is only planned for GNOME 3.8.

In GNOME 3.0, accessibility support was quite limited because of the move to the Clutter framework. This has been improved in each subsequent version, and it now even goes further than in the 2.x times, Peters emphasises: “We will ship GNOME 3.6 with accessibility turned on by default. The most important consequence is that users won’t need to log out and in again after enabling it to activate the screen reader Orca or other accessibility tools. Orca also has improved and we have new high contrast icons (many thanks to Meg Ford for those).”

Currently, GNOME Documents can handle Google Docs if you have set up a Google account in GNOME Online Accounts. In 3.6, users also get access to documents that are available in Windows Live SkyDrive if you have set up a Windows Live account in GNOME Online Accounts. Moreover, you can also set up an Exchange account in Online Accounts in GNOME 3.6, after which Evolution uses this information to access your email. Another interesting new feature is ‘infinite scrolling’ in Empathy, Peters remarks: “This is a favourite of mine: it offers seamless scrolling to previous discussions.” He can’t say much about the long-term direction of GNOME: “GNOME 3 is still very young, so we are more in a period of getting things settled, and there’s no plan to get things shaken up another time. Perhaps it’s boring not to have long-term plans, but I believe this is because the present is already exciting enough.”

What’s going on with GNOME?
Online accounts are not restricted anymore to Google...


A couple of months ago, Linus Torvalds complained in his well-known style about the lack of customisation of GNOME 3, as well as about broken GNOME extensions. Peters has an interesting response to the problems Torvalds faced with GNOME extensions: “His rant about GNOME extensions reminds me of Firefox add-ons a few years ago. You installed some add-ons, you upgraded Firefox, some add-ons broke, or they even broke Firefox, but still that ecosystem of add-ons was and is an important factor for the popularity of Firefox, and nowadays upgrade problems are solved. I wish the same happens with GNOME extensions.” Peters also mentions that Jasper St. Pierre worked quite a bit on extensions this release cycle. He is building a tool to translate the extensions from the online GNOME Shell extensions website into RPM packages for easier deployment for system administrators.

GNOME 3 also surprised many users because it doesn’t show the poweroff button by default in the user menu, but Suspend. However, GNOME 3.6 will reintroduce this button by default instead of only after pressing the Alt key. According to Peters, this change came for several reasons, including listening to user feedback. “GNOME developers are not interface nazis,” he jokingly says, “but seriously: this change is part of a larger set of modifications to the user menu. Apart from user feedback, another reason is that suspending usually involves another action, such as closing the lid of the laptop.”

Not everyone was happy when GNOME 3 was released, and although the developers have worked on some of the most important issues people faced, they couldn’t prevent some forks. Two important forks in this situation are Cinnamon and MATE. Cinnamon is a GNOME Shell fork with a more familiar GNOME 2 interface for users that don’t like the GNOME 3 interface, while MATE is a fork of GNOME 2, which really wants to keep developing the traditional GNOME 2 desktop environment. Peters is happy that these forks exist as they serve users, just like other desktop environments such as KDE and XFCE are doing, but he sees some maintainability problems: “Both projects inflicted some painful and difficult job upon themselves, as it looks like they started by importing tarballs into Git repositories, instead of starting from our existing repositories. This means it’s now a totally manual job for them to pick fixes that are happening in our modules. And of course the reverse is also true: if they fix something that could be interesting for GNOME 3, we also have to manually pick the fixes.”

What’s going on with GNOME?


The GNOME Foundation is the organization that deals with money in GNOME land, for instance for funding of development and things like developer travel for GUADEC: “Expenses are discussed in its board and the myriad of details are then handled by the travel committee.” Sponsorship comes from various sources. Some core sponsors part of the advisory board are companies like Canonical, Red Hat, SUSE and Google, but also organizations like the Free Software Foundation and the Software Freedom Law Center. “We also get more sponsors for specific events, such as hackfests and conferences.”

“While corporate sponsorship is our main source of money at the moment, it’s also possible to help as an individual,” Peters emphasises. “We have been running the ‘Friends of GNOME’ program for a few years now, and we are now concluding a special call we made to sponsor accessibility. Our goal is $20000, and we are now at $19010. If you want to donate $25 or more to help us reach our goals, take a look at”

Collaboration with distributions

The collaboration with distribution makers is going well according to Peters: “All major distributions will be shipping GNOME 3. Even Debian with its focus on “when it’s ready” has 3.4 in their repository and will ship it in the next release, Wheezy.” But Peters admits that some things could be better, such as the collaboration with Ubuntu: “It’s a bit of a difficult position, as we were really close a couple of years ago. Ubuntu adopted our release schedule and it was a really nice distribution to try the development versions. Nowadays, they are not in an easy spot. They still do rely on many GNOME components, but their primary environment is now Unity; at the same time they still have their schedule tightly coupled to GNOME. Perhaps this should change, so they have more time to absorb the changes that are made in GNOME.”

The GNOME developers primarily focus on running on GNU/Linux, but other open source operating systems are not left in the cold, Peters says: “We regularly get patches to improve the way GNOME works on *BSD, and they’re usually committed quite fast. For instance, the last one I noticed was about allocating pseudo-TTYs required for SSH authentication. A patch was committed that uses the openpty(3) function on OpenBSD.”

Although running GNOME on non-Linux operating systems is becoming more difficult because of the growing dependency on the Linux-only systemd component, Peters clarifies that systemd is not a hard dependency: “Mostly we have a dependency on a few D-Bus interfaces, for instance to change the date/time or the hostname, but these are easy to reimplement as standalone programs. Ubuntu did this already in the ubuntu-system-service package, so *BSD systems should also be able to do it. Then there’s session tracking, done by systemd-logind, but it’s still possible to use ConsoleKit for it, which is maintained now by Canonical’s Martin Pitt.”

Of course the GNOME developers are also collaborating with KDE on cross-desktop and topics, such as systemd and NetworkManager. “Another successful example is the Telepathy framework for instant messaging and voice/video calling: it was originally developed for GNOME (with Empathy as the canonical client), but it’s now adopted by KDE too. But the best example of cross-desktop collaboration at the moment may be the new Secret Service D-Bus API, which is implemented by both gnome-keyring and ksecretservice.”

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    • No mans land

      such as the collaboration with Ubuntu: “It’s a bit of a difficult position”!!! well that’s obvious, since you’ve implemented the changes so fast, you’ve left Ubuntu guys with no choice. Also, it you .0 .2 .4 .6 version to bring back the power-off button! “customer feedback”!!! my a**; if you implement a global menu a la Unity or a la OS X, I will ditch gnome for good. Also, one UI for all devices is not going to work.
      Despite the current gnome state, apart from the omission of extensions out of the box, gnome 3 is much better than any other DE I’ve used, it just need inclusion of extensions and use a less painful upgrade system.

    • syncdram

      Gnome has become a very acquired taste. Plain and simple. Todays gnome is just not for me any longer. I’ve since moved away from gnome. I have from time to time come back to see whats changed etc. There will always be a die hard gnome following but just not a strong as its glory days. I truly do hope you find your way again.

    • istok

      Reading the criticism of Gnome Shell (and I guess, of Gnome 3?) a person new to Linux would think that Gnome 2 was worth something. Sheesh. That dated, bloated monster. Good riddance.
      I actually have high hopes for GS, but right now it’s all over the place. In a couple of years, I guess it might be usable.

      As for this pearl:
      “All major distributions will be shipping GNOME 3. Even Debian with its focus on ‘when it’s ready’ has 3.4 in their repository and will ship it in the next release, Wheezy.”

      Seeing how the guy lives in Brussels, I guess he’s entitled to train himself in deceptive speech. However, the news here is that Debian dropped Gnome as their default DE in favor of XFCE. And sure, they’ll have it in the repos – “ship it”, I guess – just like they’ll “ship” Evil WM and Ratpoison.

    • jelabarre

      “…Customer Feedback…”

      You mean “feedback” like that loud, ear-piercing sound when you scfrew up the configuration on a PA/sound system? Yeah, they got plenty of that…

    • jperez45

      The cute shell is no problem if there is some way to do advanced customization (or at least please document the shell or write some articles about it’s greatness, reading internals is so boring and time consuming).

      I understand that GNOME is a huge project (so i know is an impossible task it’s migration to CMake like KDE did or any to use other builder or code organizer) GNOME could try to lure developers giving better tools (and there is no more precious tool than documentation, we need more than doxygen pages, articles and open forums for users and developers are nice).

      Please don’t let down developers, we’re users too and we help to adopt more users.

    • Stuff GNOME and Unity. Xfce is the future – Love it :-)

      *Should have done this years ago!*

      sudo apt-get install xubuntu-desktop

      “Installing Xubuntu Desktop is like having installed Xubuntu originally.

      It will install the desktop and all the applications that make up Xubuntu.

      It does not remove any applications that are part of Ubuntu.”

      This is great – The ease of use – The clean feel – The speed!

      Panels that work.

      Application menus.

      Notifications that can be closed.

      Panel launchers.

      Decent virtual desktop switcher (in a panel) with thumbnails.

      Widows Buttons (to show what’s open but minimised).

      Easy theme config via a text file eg (to change the tooltip colours).

      Nice application finder (can drag and drop to create launchers).

      Nice sane file manager.

      *Should have done this years ago!*

    • Ian H

      The Gnome people should pay more attention to what it was that people liked so much about Gnome 2.

      Gnome 2 provided the tools which allowed me to design my own desktop and then got out of my face. Gnome 2 was all about providing and enhancing capabilities and enabling people to do things in interesting ways. Each update was like unwrapping Christmas presents – discovering cool new things under the tree.

      Gnome 3 is all about rationalising – simplifying – removing options – restricting capabilities and choices – making everyone use a desktop the way the experts think is best. Each update these days is like finding your house has been burgled – you look around to find out what has been taken away.

    • AgBack

      Gnome 3 is “simply beautiful” in the same way that the Citreon 2CV was an elegant automobile. Bereft of niceties such as window minimize and maximize gadgets, or a nice simple desktop switcher, it has instead only a close gadget and a half-hidden “something” on the right of the screen, the function of which is initially unclear.

      For those about to say that these omitted features can be enabled or changed I agree, they CAN be changed, in the same way that mankind CAN go to the moon, it ain’t easy. The point is that the implementors don’t want you to change their creation. They hide (or at least don’t advertise) how such changes can be wrought, leaving the user the satisfaction of discovering the means to do so, and perhaps also plotting to make implementor-like voodoo dolls to share their appreciation of such thoughtful design.

      “Everything at your fingertips” means that when “Applications” is selected Gnome vomits the icons of all installed applications onto the screen. After doing this the user can select a filter to narrow their choices. Gnome 2 had the much cleaner approach (ironic) of presenting broad categories (Accessories, Games, Internet, Office, etc.) first and THEN selecting the relevant application from the less cluttered (filtered) view.

      In short, The average person who works with Windows (95-7.0) will find Gnome 3 as comfortable as an ill-fitting pair of shoes. It gets in the way by being too minimalist, forcing the user to goose-step (as painful as that is… yes) to their drummer, all the while proclaiming that it is “simply beautiful”. I don’t know what they put in their kool-aid but if you drank any of it you might also be interested in this nice bridge I don’t want anymore.

    • DRM

      Gnome seems to have lost touch with reality. The fact that 58% of their users have left for other environments escapes them. A prime example is this quote from one of the developers blogs:

      “We want every corner of GNOME to be delightful and well cared for. The little things. Like how the calm stability of the sidebar reassures and anchors me. Or how the way automatically updating the name of my computer in the sidebar, when it changes, delights me. Or the way the application allows me to focus on my goal shows me respect.”


      People want a DE they can customize to accommodate their work flow then get out of the way. Having software “reassure”, “anchor”, and “respect” them really isn’t on the list.

    • I’ve read a few just right stuff here. Certainly worth bookmarking for revisiting. I wonder how a lot attempt you place to make this type of great informative web site.

    • pressanykey

      I like! I like that nothing is on the desktop and in my way. I like a button or a swipe of the mouse to get to the dash, typing a phrase, and selecting an application (Better yet, if I type “synaptic”, just launch it for me!) No more drilling through menus.

      I like the beautiful black menus from the panel and not having to configure the panel. I REALLY don’t care that shutdown is not presented in the session menu – Geez!

      I like Xfce. I like Fluxbox. So, I use all three; just because I can.

      I can’t in Windows. I can’t on a MAC. One desktop fits all? Not me.

      Remember SCO, AIX, DEC? The CDE, Crux? All advanced *nix. Gnome 3 is beautiful. Even on a slower, older, standard graphics box.

      Kudos to Gnome! Kudos to Xfce! And, especially to fresh, new ideas!