Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce GNOME needs to get its act together

As the year ends, it is fair to say there have been many free and open source software organisations that have made rapid strides, not merely in 2009 but right through the noughties. But one organisation badly needs to get its act together.

That organisation is the GNOME desktop project and its foundation. At the end of 2009, it is still struggling and trying very hard to convince itself that its lack of a sense of identity derives from wrong perceptions rather than fundamental internal issues.

This has been illustrated most recently in the way the GNOME members reacted to the publication of news that one of its senior developers had called for a re-evaluation of its links to the GNU Project.

To understand the significance of these links, one must go back to 1997 when GNOME was set up by Miguel de Icaza and Federico Mena-Quintero. The only rationale that they had for setting up a project to create a second desktop environment for a small number of users — KDE was a thriving desktop by then but it used a non-free library for development — was that it would be totally free.

GNOME was set up under the aegis of the GNU Project. The name says it all: the GNU Network Object Model Environment.

For GNOME to raise the topic of cutting its ties from the organisation that gave it its raison d'etre is certainly worthy of note.

The debate wasn't just covered in these columns. There was plenty of coverage out there, so for GNOME members to cast it as information that was not newsworthy is behaviour that an ostrich would find hard to emulate.

It's a measure of the way the project chooses to hide its head in the sand that some members portrayed this incident as a matter of perspective - in other words, they felt it needed to be "spun" better by media management.

For as long as I can remember, GNOME has had a problem dealing with the media. Nearly eight years when I first wrote to the organisation, seeking an interview with de Icaza about Mono, the response I got was that the FAQ which he maintained would answer all my questions.

The gem that I remember was this: "Miguel de Icaza is pretty diligent about updating this site, as he feels horribly about the fact he sometimes does not have time to respond to incoming requests."

Of course, even at that time he could find time to speak to people who swallowed his spin and showed a willingness to print anything he spouted. Perhaps he made them sign a non-disclosure agreement – the same as he has done with Microsoft.


After the recent reports about the proposal to split off from the GNU Project, one GNOME member started suggesting that the mailing list on which they had discussions should be closed to the public. Interestingly, the suggestion came from Behdad Esfahbod, who is of Iranian origin.

The fact that the good folk at GNOME still fail to understand how to deal with the media is in part due to the fact that their first media spokesman, Jeff Waugh, was an unmitigated disaster.

There was one GNOME member, Murray Cumming, who was finally brave enough to say it in 2007: "Jeff Waugh's only aim is self-publicity and any responsibilities in GNOME are just a way to achieve that."

The project suffered a great deal because of the uneducated and confrontational way in which Waugh dealt with various media organs. The fallout continues. The man who has succeeded him, Dave Neary, has good intentions but is ignorant in the extreme.

There are suggestions emanating from some GNOME people that those who speak to the media should undergo some training. This would be a good first step, provided they go to the right sources.

But better than that, they could sit down with some other members of the FOSS community who have the uncanny knack of knowing exactly how to deal with the media.

Martin "Joey" Schulze of the Debian GNU/Linux project is one. Steve McIntyre, the current leader of Debian, is a close second. And then there are people closer to home – Donna Benjamin, the current president of the Linux Users of Victoria, and Andrew McMillan, a senior geek from New Zealand who is on the organising committee of the next Australian national Linux conference.

I'm not sure if any of these people have had media training (I would guess not as they would then have adopted the wrong methods) but they know how to deal with the media and they do it in the best possible way - not by trying to spin anything, not by trying to evade questions, not by trying to plant things, but by straight talk.

No matter whether the questions asked can generate positive or negative reports, they are always upfront and provide the information requested. If they are unable to do so, they say so, openly.

Each of these individuals can teach people how to deal with the media and if anyone can find better, I challenge them to name names. Their dealings are not predicated on the fact that someone has to be friendly towards a given project to ensure positive publicity; they know that openness counts more than anything else.

And they are unfailingly right.

There are plenty of talented developers in the GNOME project but the world knows little about them because they have never had their achievements highlighted in the media. There are lots of good things about the GNOME desktop which the world knows nothing about, simply because the project administrators have got their heads in the sand, fearful of God knows what.

Just one reason for this: the wrong person has been handling the responsibilities of media spokesman.

It is time for the GNOME project to realise its mistakes and take a big step forward from tomorrow.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the sitecame 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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