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Friday, 21 September 2012 22:15

Senior GNOME dev says users not being ignored


Despite public perception to the contrary, GNOME developers pay a great deal of attention to the opinions of users, senior GNOME developer Vincent Untz told iTWire today.

Untz is in Orlando, Florida, to attend the first SUSECON, the first annual conference of the Linux company; the quiet-spoken Frenchman, who was on the GNOME Foundation board from 2006 till 2010, has been working for SUSE since 2008.

He does not rush to any judgement; in everything he says, Untz is careful, reflective and straight-forward; he dissects questions carefully and does not rush to any conclusion. And he is careful to say that his views emanate from him as an individual, and are not on behalf of anyone else or any organisation.

In part this may be because he is dealing with someone who has dealt out a fair bit of criticism to GNOME. But it is also clear from the start that all the negativity directed towards the desktop project has deeply hurt Untz, who, it is evident, has a deep, emotional involvement with GNOME, and is clearly unhappy with the turn that events have taken.

"All free software projects have issues, bugs and all that," he says, referring to the criticism which has greeted the GNOME 3 release. "This is not specific to GNOME, people have different opinions, that is something we expect."

Untz says he reads a lot of comment about GNOME. "I am not the best person to explain it," he says, "but the design process does not work best by only listening to what people are telling us. We have a vision of what we want to achieve, but we do take feedback. We don't want to ignore people, but we cannot accommodate all views."

He says people tend to comment when they have something extreme to say. "It could be either good or bad, someone slamming the project or else a fanboy praising it to the skies. But with free software, there is generally more negative comment that makes itself heard."

Untz says that all the negative stories about GNOME have resulted in people stepping up to say that they actually like version 3.0.

He points out that there may be differing views on design within the project. "Some might believe in the focus being on the mobile market, others might feel we should stay with the desktop market. This is expected. For four years, our goal was to release GNOME 3.0. Now we need to decide where we are going, what is the next step. Inside the project people have different opinions, as is to be expected."

There has been a debate within GNOME as to the platform on which the project should focus. Untz says that during GUADEC, the annual developers' conference, this year, one trend was towards the laptop and detachable tablets. Another was favouring the mobile market.

"The consensus appears to be laptops and detachable tablets. We are not ready for tablets yet but we would like to use GNOME on the detachable tablets like those running Windows 8," Untz says.

"We have a design team which discusses, generates ideas and then comes up with a design. At that stage, people may realise that it's not working and make changes. People think the design team is stubborn; it's not.

"They look at the competition, what all other operating systems are doing, and only then is a design proposed. Our developers look at it, they discuss things and then a decision is reached. Once that is implemented, we start using it internally at first, and make changes, at times based on feedback."

Some people have tended to see similarities in the complaints against GNOME 3.0 with those directed against the other main Linux desktop, KDE, when the latter released version 4.0 some four years ago. But Untz sees a big difference.

"The first negative reactions were about quality in KDE," he says. "It was released for the purpose of porting applications and thus there was a mismatch between the expectations of users and developers. That's why people had negative comments. True, some were about Plasma - like, people complained that they could not have shortcuts on their desktop - but the majority of the comments were about stability.

"With GNOME 3.0, the negative comments were mostly about the different user experience. We wanted to do something more ambitious, something different, and we expected negative comments. We also knew that 3.0 was just the beginning for us and we have improved on that."

Untz has no problem with people not liking what the project is trying to do. "We can't please everyone. I don't know if the number of unhappy people is more but they certainly make much more noise than the satisfied users."

Another GNOME issue that has caused some comment in recent times is the term GNOME O-S. Untz says the term was never precisely defined and that this has caused problems.

"For me the ideal O-S would be to provide users with a great experience and we should be involved at all levels of the software stack to provide this experience," he says. "That may include changes in design, changes in applications, changes even in the kernel."

He says the name GNOME-OS was probably a poor choice (it was first used at GUADEC in 2010). "Some thought we are going to start our own (Linux) distribution, some thought it meant that we would support only one distribution.

"We should explain more clearly what we mean and some are trying to articulate it more clearly. There are at least two aspects; one is to make it easy to test the system - building an easy test system for developers and contributors. The second part is building applications or changing them to fulfill the concept of the user experience which we want. But only the design team can define that user experience - I cannot."

Asked about the recent desktop controversy which was kicked off by GNOME co-founder Miguel de Icaza blaming Linux creator Linus Torvalds for the lack of progress of the Linux desktop, Untz laughed a bit wearily.

"In the minds of people, Miguel may be seen as still being active in GNOME but the fact is that he has made no technical contribution for about a decade," he said. "He has not been involved for at least the last seven years. He is not speaking for GNOME and this is something he acknowledges himself."

No interview with a GNOME developer of Untz's seniority is complete without a question about Ubuntu; Untz says he is sad that Canonical decided to create Unity as its user interface but adds that this does not mean that it is not using GNOME at all.

"We care about freedom; we should be able to do what we want, I have no issue with that. It's sad, but then that's their right," he adds.

"There is lots of GNOME's DNA in Ubuntu. I would have preferred it if Canonical had gone with GNOME 3.0 instead of Unity. True, there is some duplication but part of Ubuntu is still GNOME.

"I do not know why they decided to take this route but perhaps they have a specific vision which they cannot achieve by using GNOME."

The writer is attending SUSECON as a guest of SUSE

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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