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!