The Ups and Downs of GNOME 3

One of the most interesting parts of being Executive Director of GNOME has been riding the wave of feedback on GNOME 3. I took the position after GNOME 3 was already released, and it was that beautiful vision of the GNU/Linux desktop that inspired me to leave a job I loved. Since then, the highs have been really high and the lows have been tough. One of the very visible disappointments we had was aggressive criticism from Linus Torvalds, which started a cascade of detraction by others and a perception of a real decline in the GNOME community. It’s been difficult to reconcile all of the ups and downs. At GUADEC, we had such a rich experience with great participation by a broad community (and with a very high percentage of active attendance by newcomers) while at the very same time the blogoverse was exploding with news that our contributor diversity had completely dwindled away.

An article today in the Register got me thinking about all of this in a fresh way. The article talks about Linus Torvalds, and primarily about his style of interacting with others. The article ends with this:

Torvalds has switched back to GNOME 3 as he reckons the desktop GUI’s problems are being fixed: “It has been getting less painful. They have extensions that are still too hard to find. You can make your desktop look almost as good as it did two years ago.”

I was a little stunned as I read that – it was an afterthought to the article, and it really brought home how things often work in the free software press. The criticism we received was featured by many – if Linus Torvalds slammed GNOME, then how could it have any future? And yet, not so long after, he’s switched back. The point is that it really takes time to get things right. In free software, we develop in the open. We release often, and sometimes it takes more time to make something that is truly ready for prime time. But by going ahead early, we have the chance to really build a community around our software, be inclusive and have a chance to make mistakes and then learn from them with input from others.

At GUADEC and in connection with our 15th anniversary, we talked a lot about how negatively GNOME 2 was perceived upon release and how it took a long time for it to become the desktop that everyone loved. I think this is how that happens in a true free software community run project – through slow incremental improvements that may only be acknowledged as afterthoughts in an article.

Linus may not stay with GNOME 3 but I’m glad he’s giving it another go and having a more positive experience. I hope that others do the same. I remain as inspired as ever by GNOME. GNOME 3 is a beautiful desktop experience that I continue to enjoy using and love showing off to others. Our community is vibrant. I’m proud to be a part of it and look forward to seeing it grow and improve, incrementally and over time!

Back from LCA!

After a long series of flights this weekend, I’m finally home from my trip to linux.conf.au.

My time in Australia kicked off with AdaCamp in Melbourne over the weekend, which was fantastic and which I’ll give its own post in the coming days. I find conferences to be very intense and can never seem to find the time to blog while I’m there. I’m impressed with those who manage to pull it off.

LCA was a fantastic conference. I greatly enjoyed meeting people and catching up with old friends. It was great to be able to talk about GNOME with everyone. Many people didn’t know about extensions.gnome.org and others hadn’t actually seen GNOME3 and were impressed when I showed them my laptop. (And happily quite a number went away excited to try it.)

I gave two talks at the conference. The first was at the Business of Open Source Miniconf on Monday which was organized by Martin Michlmayr, where I talked about the nuts and bolts of nonprofit law. Since the talk was outside the United States, I kept the discussion mostly on a conceptual level, focusing on issues like governance and common pitfalls for nonprofit management. Usually I worry that these kinds of talks are very boring but perhaps this approach was better, as this time the audience seemed really engaged. I was the last talk of the day, and the Q&A session lasted well past the scheduled end time. Unfortunately, the talk wasn’t recorded but I’d be happy to send the slides on to anyone who is interested.

The keynote I gave on Thursday was my medical devices talk but longer and with more of a focus on GNOME – the thrust of the talk being that software has become critical to our lives and to our society and that since free and open source software is safer over time, we must make it usable so that we can build a bridge to ordinary users. I loved being able to talk about GNOME’s accessibility campaign in this context too. I hope that folks who listened to the talk will give to the campaign so we can make real headway on accessibility.

I was totally overwhelmed with the responses to my keynote. The twitter stream was amazing, but I especially loved the fact that folks were saying that they now want to hack on GNOME after my talk. GNOME developers should be proud about what they’re doing. They’re really making the world a better place. I’m so glad to be able to represent and support the community.

This point was underscored by Jacob Applebaum in his keynote (which was amazing but I think hasn’t been posted yet). He of course talked about security, our governments and ways that we can protect ourself against surveillance. He made great points and I learned quite a lot from his talk. In his conclusion, Jake made several calls for action, including hacking on GNOME (I was particularly proud that he quoted me as saying “the Guh in GNOME is for freedom”). He suggested we build Tor as a default into our desktop to promote more secure web use, and I think that’s a really fabulous idea. One of the problems that we have with improving security generally is getting ordinary people to understand why it’s important and how to implement it. GNOME could be the perfect place for this, as our community understands these issues and is skilled at making beautiful software that is accessible and easy to use.

It may be silly, but thanks to Jake and also Paul Fenwick who got all the crickets out of my room the night before my talk so I could prep and sleep!

I also met with a few reporters and will link to other articles if they wind up getting published.

Kudos to the LCA2012 team, especially Josh Stewart and Kathy Reid. The conference was well organized, interesting and fun. Thanks for bringing me to Australia!