Jul 30, 2004

Stirring the GNOME Fires

By Ed Hurst | Posted at 4:42 PM
Over the past two years or so, Tim Butler and I have discussed GNOME quite a bit. He likes the current trend, and I don't. Tim's article, "Why GNOME's Got It Right" was partly stirred by the Slashdot article but also by our discussion.

I'm just an aspiring writer. Most of my stuff will never see the light of day, outside a small circle of friends. When I write for that tiny, narrow audience, I often take a good bit of license and engage in hyperbole, dramatic overstatement, and loads of sarcasm. I keep asking when the folks at W3C are going to include an attribute for sarcasm, because most people won't detect it unless they know the writer. My blog entry about the birth of GoneME was full of noise, and bit of substance thrown in for good measure.

By no means am I any kind of coder. I am just barely able to write a brain-dead simple webpage manually. I learned that much because it's the easiest format for storing my archive. I don't use a word processor much at all because I know how to print with HTML and a printer style sheet. Beyond that, I have no real interest in code. I write about computer technology as a side-line, simply because I write everything on my computer. When I discovered Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), I found the best writing tools ever. I'm also by nature a teacher, and I try to teach what I learn about Linux and Unix. Most of what I know about Open Source is what I experience directly or skim from a few technology news websites.

What I have to say about GNOME comes from having used it. Starting with "October GNOME" up through 2.6.1, I've at least tried it out on both Linux and FreeBSD. The new GNOME is not aimed at folks like me. I have little use for it. That's no different than saying pure CLI is not for me. I can get by in both, and have quite a bit at times, but neither of them is home. If you see in that something that marks me as inferior, I'd say that was your personal problem. FOSS is largely about freedom to choose, finding or making what meets your needs. If you can't code it yourself, you are left using what comes closest to what you would if you could. Most humans will make such choices in part from pure logic, but seldom by that alone.

It doesn't matter what I prefer instead, since every other desktop and window manager is competition, in a sense. The point of all this noise is GNOME, and it's virtues and failures as measured by its usefulness to each user. The last time I really liked GNOME was 1.4. Since that time, the project has taken a different path. Never mind whether that path was right; there's little chance it will change. The new GNOME is what it the project leaders make it, for whatever reason. How sad for me. At first I tried to make a bit of noise about it, but that got nowhere. People working on the project itself who dissented were told in various ways to forget it. I have no way of knowing how many went along and how many have bailed. That's the way it works when "free" as in liberty is a primary objective. That same freedom allows the project leaders to ignore my wishes.

Who can say where the watershed was, but somewhere along the way the complaints built up to the point someone decided to do something about it. He started with a patch to allow him some options he felt were missing from the project. His patch was rejected from the mainstream of the project, so he decided he would take his own path. Since he knew there were plenty of coders and users who felt as he did, he published his idea and got noticed. In a week's time, he was swamped with email. Enough of it was positive that he went ahead and established a new project. Enough coders joined right away that it was agreed to make a complete fork from GNOME.

Nobody on the Goneme Project is interfering with GNOME. The project page lists planned modifications to the GNOME base. That so many seem to take this list as a personal assault is beyond silly. How fragile is GNOME's place in the Linux/Unix world? Does it need rabid defense to prevent its evaporation? Personal attacks may be entertaining in a low sort of way, but won't change anybody's mind. If anything, it only aids in hardening current positions, while distracting from the task on both sides. If Goneme is such a bad idea, it will fade away on its own. Meanwhile, the snotty comments against these modifications only serve to tarnish the image of GNOME as a serious FOSS project.

As an added bonus for bad karma, there are plenty of users with bad experiences trying to get help with GNOME. I've used Bugzilla on several projects, and GNOME is the most memorable for one thing: I've been told to get lost. Three times. Not in those words, mind you, but in the sense that I was told I would get no help on those bugs. Maybe I'm just really awful at writing bug reports. There must be a large number of people equally bad or worse, because I can't count how often I've read reports from other users with similar stories. I once jokingly commented that the developer documents for GNOME libraries must include a requirement that one be an arrogant twit. It got a few laughs, but at least one coder on the GNOME Project gravely told me it was too close to the truth. That is, he felt the same arrogance from his fellow project members, and especially from the project leaders. It matches a similar story from at least one other who had left the project. I expect to hear a great deal more from those who left. The point here is not to spread ugly rumors, but to note that the GNOME Project has a fairly serious public relations problem with established Linux users.

To the degree the GNOME leadership prefer to reach the new users, especially in business, that may not matter. There are always those who would die before switching away from GNOME, just as there are those who would die before using it. With many I share the optimistic view that the business world will increasingly turn to FOSS, and it may well be GNOME that helps pave the way for some businesses. That's good. But no one desktop interface can serve every human need. If it could happen, no one would have bothered to code something newer, nor have kept older projects alive. In good Open Source fashion, many are based on something that came before. As near as I can tell, few on those original projects feel insulted by that. Many would say, "Don't like it? Here's the code; fix it yourself." The Goneme Project is taking that challenge, and building GNOME differently. The project is aimed at a totally different user base: the long-time GNOME user who needs more options. Any claim by either GNOME or Goneme to be "better" really depends on what one likes.

It's about freedom.

Disclaimer: I am a member of the Goneme Project as a simple documentation writer. I can scarcely follow some of the discussion on the mailing list. It is wholly unlikely I'll use Goneme much for quite some time, but I use plenty of GTK/GNOME applications in my preferred IceWM.

Ed Hurst is Associate Editor of Open for Business. Ed is also the Music Director for Grace Baptist Church of Kickapoo Creek, Texas. He loves computers, runs FreeBSD and GNU/Linux and reads all sorts of things. You can reach Ed at ehurst@ofb.biz.


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