Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce How Mono apologists drive developers away

How Mono apologists drive developers away

When Hubert Figuiere, a developer who had lost his job with Novell in the first quarter of 2009, released the note-taking application Gnote on April 1 last year, one doubts that he had any idea about the kind of attacks which would be launched on him by Mono advocates and apologists.

A year on, Figuiere has retreated into silence, and has given up developing Gnote which has now passed to another developer, Debarshi Ray.

We don't know whether Figuiere has gained employment again as he does not answer queries any longer. One can't blame him, given that some of his answers were used to fuel conflict.

What is clear is that an active developer has now pulled out of a project which he started. And he was someone who was coding and maintaining an application that had been accepted into a number of well-known GNU/Linux distributions like Fedora and Debian.

Figuiere's sin? Gnote is a port of the note-taking application Tomboy, which is written in Mono and is an official part of the GNOME Desktop. Gnote is a port of the same code in C++/GTK.

Mono, for those who are unaware, is an attempt by Miguel de Icaza, co-founder of the GNOME desktop project and a vice-president at Novell, to create an open source implementation of Microsoft's .NET development environment. Mono has attracted a fair share of controversy as many in FOSS circles fear that it may pose patent problems.

iTWire was the first mainstream media publication to interview Figuiere after he made the announcement on April 1. He was quick to respond and put forward his reasons for the port: he was bored due to being unemployed and had decided to port Tomboy because he used it and could not accommodate Mono on his little netbook due to space problems.

"I have an Asus EEE PC Surf with 2GB of Flash (the lower end model, even lower than the basic EEE PC 701) and I have been trying to fit into it an openSUSE 11.1 with GNOME," Figuiere told iTWire at the time.

"To that end, I removed as much as I deemed unnecessary; this included Mono which is not a small chunk at all, and Python-GNOME. Also I have been wanting to know how easy it was to port Gtk# code to C++/Gtkmm for my personal curiosity. So I chose an application I was using and thought would make sense to have on the netbook. It was Tomboy."

But would the Mono crowd accept this explanation?

Hardly a fortnight had gone by when they were out with their pitchforks. Responding to a post on the Ubuntu forums, Jo Shields, who packages Mono for Debian, had this to say: "Ignoring the legal issues that surround it, GNote is nowhere near as functional as Tomboy yet - it doesn't support WikiWords, has no documentation, no syncing to anywhere, and no integration with any other apps. Its RAM consumption IS better (9.8M versus 23.4M out of the box), as long as you don't mind the lack of functionality."

Legal issues? Tomboy was released under the LGPL (version 2.1 only) and Figuiere released Gnote under the GPLv3 - which he is entitled to do. The text of the LGPL version 2.1 clearly says: "You may opt to apply the terms of the ordinary GNU General Public License instead of this License to a given copy of the Library. To do this, you must alter all the notices that refer to this License, so that they refer to the ordinary GNU General Public License, version 2, instead of to this License. (If a newer version than version 2 of the ordinary GNU General Public License has appeared, then you can specify that version instead if you wish.) Do not make any other change in these notices."

Shields, it must be noted, uses any and all tactics to drive his arguments, even to the extent of using racist terms to describe people and then feigning innocence.

Here he is again, on April 14, in a thread which began with a user posting Figuiere's announcement of the release of Gnote: "Still missing most of Tomboy's features, and involving wholesale license & copyright violation But remember, kids - stealing code is fine as long as it's "one in the eye" for Free Software developers like the Tomboy authors!"

Shields followed this up in the same thread with more carefully considered arguments: "Tomboy's authors are actually pretty keen to resolve the matter amicably - however, Gnote is about as aggressive a fork as an aggressive fork can be - and whilst the author might not properly understand what he's done wrong (pretty obvious from reading his contributions to mailing lists plus his Git commit logs), that doesn't mean there'll be legal action. Nobody wants legal action, and the Tomboy authors feel (as do many of us) that whilst it's seemingly redundant, it's impressive work. There's no reason for things to hit the proverbial fan just because the "ZOMG NO MONOZ!!" crowd overlap the "ONLY GPLv3 SI TEH FREE!!!" crowd.

"As I've said elsewhere: even if you DO have the freedom to do something, there's a difference between exercising Freedom and being a dick. Co-opting a large codebase and claiming it as your own would best-case be a dick move. Even if relicensing were permitted, changing license on someone else's code is considered (let's hear it now) a dick move.

"If Hub was after anything other than exposure and brownie points from the mental subnormals on FUD blogs like BN, then he wouldn't have done the things he did. If he wanted to work *positively* with others, then he could easily do so."

When his misinformation about the licence was pointed out, he did not even have the grace to apologise, merely asking: "And the claiming other peoples' copyright?", despite the fact that this could be easily fixed. As Jonathan Corbet pointed out, in one of the rare sensible posts about Gnote: "...about the only complaint one might make is that he (Figuiere) appears to not have carried the copyright attributions over into his translated code. That, probably, is an omission which needs to be fixed; it would be hard to argue that Gnote is not derived from Tomboy."

Sandy Armstrong, the main Tomboy developer, appears to have felt somewhat threatened and joined the task of throwing mud with a vengeance.

"Our stance on Gnote is that it is counterproductive to maintain identical software in two languages," Armstrong wrote on April 20. "It will be harmful to the community, especially as these two apps inevitably diverge. It will result in duplication of effort, duplication of bugs, and a lot of wasted time for those who are trying to add value to the user experience.

"Anyone thinking about distributing Gnote should consider the impact on users and their data. When we develop, we should always be asking ourselves, 'is this adding value for our users?'"

Joining in the fun was the self-described computer journalist, Bruce Byfield, who wrote a piece about Gnote which had more quotes from Armstrong than from Figuiere! Indeed, there was no need to bring Armstrong into the picture at all, since Figuiere had clearly outlined his motives for doing the port and they had nothing to do with Mono.

But fanning the flames in an insidious fashion is Byfield's trademark and he gave Armstrong plenty of airtime to blow the Mono trumpet.

"An apparent fork is always a matter for concern in free software," Byfield wrote. "As Armstrong points out, it risks "wasted developer effort" - a constant worry since most projects are understaffed to begin with."

Noble sentiments, no doubt. After Figuiere gave up developing Gnote, Armstrong has not expressed any concern that a competent developer, who contributed to the FOSS community, is now sitting and twiddling his thumbs. No, Armstrong is certainly not bothered about such things.

Figuiere tried once again, in July, to explain the motivation behind Gnote but by then it was clear that the Mono apologists' abuse was having its intended effort. In true crocodile style, Armstrong was among those who responded to the post: "Nice post, Hubert. I hope nothing I've said regarding Gnote has ever made you feel that I thought you were in it for the FUD. I respect the work you do and was impressed at how quickly you ported Tomboy, and how well you've kept up with changes. Code in Gnote should be helpful for folks who (for whatever reason) need to port code from C# to C++."

An honourable man, indeed.

A few months later, Figuiere gave up the project. I asked him twice why he had done so but understandably he doesn't want to get abused by others hence he has remained silent.

In response to a query as to how he came to take over the project, the new Gnote maintainer, Ray, said: "Hubert got busy with real life as he moved to a new city, so he was looking for a new maintainer. I stepped in to help."

There is a lot of sanctimonious talk indulged in by people in the FOSS community about the need for encouraging developers, both male and female, especially the latter, to stay in the community and increase their involvement. What happens in real life, as can be seen from the example above, is sometimes very different.

And when it does happen, those who indulge in sanctimonious talk studiously turn away and become very busy with other activities.

(Thanks to Jason Melton for the compilation of insults levelled at Figuiere.)


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.