Post Collapse Computing Part 3: Building Resilience

Part 1 of this series looks at the state of the climate crisis, and how we can still get our governments to do something about it. Part 2 considers the collapse scenarios we’re likely to face if we fail in those efforts. In this part we’re looking at concrete things we could work towards to make our software more resilient in those scenarios.

The takeaway from part 2 was that if we fail to mitigate the climate crisis, we’re headed for a world where it’s expensive or impossible to get new hardware, where electrical power is scarce, internet access is not the norm, and cloud services don’t exist anymore or are largely inaccessible due to lack of internet.

What could we do to prepare our software for these risks? In this part of the series I’ll look at some ideas and relevant art for resilient technlogy, and how we could apply this to GNOME.

Local-First

Producing power locally is comparatively doable given the right equipment, but internet access is contingent on lots of infrastructure both locally and across the globe. This is why reducing dependence on connectivity is probably the most important challenge for resilience.

Unfortunately we’ve spent the past few decades making software ever more reliant on having fast internet access, all the time. Many of the apps people spend all day in are unusable without an internet connection. So what would be the opposite of that? Is anyone working in the direction of minimizing reliance on the network?

As it turns out, yes! It’s called “local-first”. The idea is that instead of the primary copy of your data being on a server and local apps acting as clients to it, the client is the primary source of truth. The network is only used optionally for syncing and collaboration, with potential conflicts automatically resolved using CRDTs. This allows for superior UX because you’re not waiting on the network, better privacy because you can end-to-end encrypt everything, and better handling of low-connectivity cases. All of this is of course technically very challenging, and there aren’t many implementations of it in production today, but the field is growing and maturing quickly.

Among the most prominent proponents of the local-first idea are the community around the Ink & Switch research lab and Muse, a sketching/knowledge work app for Apple platforms. However, there’s also prior work in this direction from the GNOME community: There’s Christian Hergert’s Bonsai, the Endless content apps, and it’s actually one of the GNOME Foundation’s newly announced goals to enable more people to build local-first apps.

For more on local-first software, I recommend watching Rob’s GUADEC talk (Recording on Youtube), reading the original paper on local-first software (2019), or listening to this episode of the Metamuse podcast (2021) on the subject.

Other relevant art for local-first technology:

  • automerge, a library for building local-first software
  • Fullscreen, a web-based whiteboard app which allows saving to a custom file format that includes history and editing permissions
  • Magic Wormhole, a system to send files directly between computers without any servers
  • Earthstar, a local-first sync system with USB support

USB Fallback

Local-first often assumes it’s possible to sometimes use the network for syncing or transferring data between devices, but what if you never have an internet connection?

It’s possible to use the local network in some instances, but they’re not very reliable in practice. Local networks are often weirdly configured, and things can fail in many ways that are hard to debug (Source: Endless tried it and decided it was not worth the hassle). In contrast USB storage is reliable, flexible, and well-understood by most people, making it a much better fallback.

As a practical example, a photo management app built in this paradigm would

  • Store all photos locally so there’s never any spinners after first setup
  • Allow optionally syncing with other devices and collaborative album management with other people via local network or the internet
  • Automatically reconcile conflicts if something changed on other devices while they were disconnected
  • Allow falling back to USB, i.e. copying some of the albums to a USB drive and then importing them on another device (including all metadata, collaboration permissons, etc.)
Mockup for USB drive support in GNOME Software (2020)

Some concrete things we could work on in the local-first area:

  • Investigate existing local-first libraries, if/how they could be integrated into our stack, or if we’d need to roll our own
  • Prototype local-first sync in some real-world apps
  • Implement USB app installation and updates in GNOME Software (mockups)

Resource Efficiency

While power can be produced locally, it’s likely that in the future it will be far less abundant than today. For example, you may only have power a few hours a day (already a reality in parts of the global south), or only when there’s enough sun or wind at the moment. This makes power efficiency in software incredibly important.

Power Measurement is Hard

Improving power efficiency is not straightforward, since it’s not possible to measure it directly. Measuring the computer’s power consumption as a whole is trivial, but knowing which program caused how much of it is very difficult to pin down (for more on this check out Aditya Manglik’s GUADEC talk (Recording on Youtube) about power profiling tooling). Making progress in this area is important to allow developers to make their software more power-efficient.

However, while better measurements would be great to have, in practice there’s a lot developers can do even without it. Power is in large part a function of CPU, GPU, and memory use, so reducing each of these definitely helps, and we do have mature profiling tools for these.

Choose a Low-Power Stack

Different tech stacks and dependencies are not created equal when it comes to power consumption, so this is a factor to take into account when starting new projects. One area where there are actual comparative studies on this is programming languages: For example, according to this paper Python uses way more power than other languages commonly used for GNOME app development.

Relative energy use of different programming languages (Source: Pereira et al.)

Another important choice is user interface toolkit. Nowadays many applications just ship their own copy of Chrome (in the form of Electron) to render a web app, resulting in huge downloads, slow startup times, large CPU and memory footprints, and laggy interfaces. Using native toolkits instead of web technologies is a key aspect of making resilient software, and GTK4/Adwaita is actually in a really good position here given its performance, wide language support, modern feature set and widgets, and community-driven development model.

Schedule Power Use

It’s also important to actively consider the temporal aspect of power use. For example, if your power supply is a solar panel, the best time to charge batteries or do computing-intensive tasks is during the day, when there’s the most sunlight.

If we had a way for the system to tell apps that right now is a good/bad time to use a lot of power, they could adjust their behavior accordingly. We already do something similar for metered connections, e.g. Software doesn’t auto-download updates if your connection is metered. I could also imagine new user-facing features in this direction, e.g. a way to manually schedule certain tasks for when there will be more power so you can tell Builder to start compiling the long list of dependencies for a newly cloned Rust project tomorrow morning when the sun is back out.

Some concrete things we could work on in the area of resource efficiency:

  • Improve power efficiency across the stack
  • Explore a system API to tell apps whether now is a good time to use lots of power or not
  • Improve the developer story for GTK on Windows and macOS, to allow more people to choose it over Electron

Data Resilience

In hedging against loss of connectivity, it’s not enough to have software that works offline. In many cases what’s more important is the data we read/write using that software, and what we can do with it in resource-constrained scenarios.

The File System is Good, Actually

The 2010s saw lots of experimentation with moving away from the file system as the primary way to think about data storage, both within GNOME and across the wider industry. It makes a lot of sense in theory: Organizing everything manually in folders is shit work people don’t want to do, so they end up with messy folder hierarchies and it’s hard to find things. Bespoke content apps for specific kinds of data, with rich search and layouts custom-tailored to the data are definitely a nicer, more human-friendly way to deal with content–in theory.

In practice we’ve seen a number of problems with the content app approach though, including

  • Flexibility: Files can be copied/pasted/deleted, stored on a secondary internal drive, sent as email attachments, shared via a USB key, opened/changed using other apps, and more. With content apps you usually don’t have all of these options.
  • Interoperability: The file system is a lowest common denominator across all OSes and apps.
  • Development Effort: Building custom viewers/editors for every type of content is a ton of work, in part because you have to reimplement all the common operations you get for free in a file manager.
  • Familiarity: While it’s messy and not that easy to learn, most people have a vague understanding of the file system by now, and the universality of this paradigm means it only has to be learned once.
  • Unmaintained Apps: Data living in a specific app’s database is useless if the app goes unmaintained. This is especially problematic in free software, where volunteer maintainers abandoning projects is not uncommon.

Due to the above reasons, we’ve seen in practice that the file system is not in fact dying. It’s actually making its way into places where it previously wasn’t present, including iPhones (which now come with a Files app) and the web (via Nextcloud, Google Drive, and company).

From a resilience point of view some of the shortcomings of content apps listed above are particularly important, such as the flexibility to be moved via USB when there’s no internet, and cross-platform interoperability. This is why I think user-accessible files should be the primary source of truth for user data in apps going forward.

Simple, Standardized Formats

With limited connectivity, a potential risk is that you don’t have the ability to download new software to open a file you’re encountering. This is why sticking to well-known standard formats that any computer is likely to have a viewer/editor for is generally preferable (plain text, standard image formats, PDF, and so on).

When starting a new app, ask yourself, is a whole new format needed or could it use/extend something pre-existing? Perhaps there’s a format you could use that already has an ecosystem of apps that support it, especially on other platforms?

For example, if you were to start a new notes app that can do inline media you could go with a custom binary format and a database, but you could also go with Markdown files in a user-accessible folder. In order to get inline media you could use Textbundle, an extension to Markdown implemented by a number of other Markdown apps on other platforms, which basically packs the contained media into an archive together with the Markdown file.

Side note: I really want a nice GTK app that supports Textbundle (more specifically, its compressed variant Textpack), if you want to make one I’d be deligthed to help on the design side :)

Export as Fallback

Ideally data should be stored in standardized formats with wide support, and human-readable in a text editor as a fallback (if applicable). However, this isn’t possible in every case, for example if an app produces a novel kind of content there are no standardized formats for yet (e.g. a collaborative whiteboard app). In these cases it’s important to make sure the non-standard format is well-documented for people implementing alternative clients, and has support for exporting to more common formats, e.g. exporting the current state of a collaborative whiteboard as PDF or SVG.

Some concrete things we could work on towards better data resilience:

  • Explore new ways to do content apps with the file system as a backend
  • Look at where we’re using custom formats in our apps, and consider switching to standard ones
  • Consider how this fits in with local-first syncing

Keep Old Hardware Running

There are many reasons why old hardware stops being usable, including software built for newer, faster devices becoming too slow on older ones, vendors no longer providing updates for a device, some components (especially batteries) degrading with use over time, and of course planned obsolescence. Some of these factors are purely hardware-related, but some also only depend on software, so we can influence them.

Use old Hardware for Development

I already touched on this in the dedicated section above, but obviously using less CPU, RAM, etc. helps not only with power use, but also allows the software to run on older hardware for longer. Unfortunately most developers use top of the line hardware, so they are least impacted by inefficiencies in their personal use.

One simple way to ensure you keep an eye on performance and resource use: Don’t use the latest, most powerful hardware. Maybe keep your old laptop for a few years longer, and get it repaired instead of buying a new one when something breaks. Or if you’re really hardcore, buy an older device on purpose to use as your main machine. As we all know, the best way to get developers to care about something is to actually dogfood it :)

Hardware Enablement for Common Devices

In a world where it’s difficult to get new hardware, it’ll become increasingly important to reuse existing devices we have lying around. Unfortunately, a lot of this hardware is stuck on very old versions of proprietary software that are both slow and insecure.

With Windows devices there’s an easy solution: Just install an up-to-date free software OS. But while desktop hardware is fairly well-supported by mainline Linux, mobile is a huge mess in this regard. The Android world almost exclusively uses old kernels with lots of non-upstreamable custom patches. It takes years to mainline a device, and it has to be done for every device.

Projects like PostmarketOS are working towards making more Android devices usable, but as you can see from their device support Wiki, success is limited so far. One especially problematic aspect from a resilience point of view is that the devices that tend to be worked on are the ones that developers happen to have, which are generally not the models that sell the most units. Ideally we’d work strategically to mainline some of the most common devices, and make sure they actually fully work. Most likely that’d be mid-range Samsung phones and iPhones. For the latter there’s curiously little work in this direction, despite being a gigantic, relatively homogeneous pool of devices (for example, there are 224 million iPhone 6 out there which don’t get updates anymore).

Hack Bootloaders

Unfortunately, hardware enablement alone is not enough to make old mobile devices more long-lived by installing more up-to date free software. Most mobile devices come with locked bootloaders, which require contacting the manufacturer to get an unlock code to install alternative software – if they allow it at all. This means if the vendor company’s server goes away or you don’t have internet access there’s no way to repurpose a device.

What we’d probably need is a collection of exploits that allow unlocking bootloaders on common devices in a fully offline way, and a user-friendly automated unlocking tool using these exploits. I could imagine this being part of the system’s disk utility app or a separate third-party app, which allows unlocking the bootloader and installing a new OS onto a mobile device you plug in via USB.

Some concrete things we could work on to keep old hardware running:

  • Actively try to ensure older hardware keeps working with new versions of our software (and ideally getting faster with time rather than slower thanks to ongoing performance work)
  • Explore initiatives to do strategic hardware eneblament for some of the most common mobile devices (including iPhones, potentially?)
  • Forge alliances with the infosec/Android modding community and build convenient offline bootloader unlocking tools

Build for Repair

In a less connected future it’s possible that substantial development of complex systems software will stop being a thing, because the necessary expertise will not be available in any single place. In such a scenario being able to locally repair and repurpose hardware and software for new uses and local needs is likely to become important.

Repair is a relatively clearly defined problem space for hardware, but for software it’s kind of a foreign concept. The idea of a centralized development team “releasing” software out into the world at scale is built into our tools, technologies, and culture at every level. You generally don’t repair software, because in most cases you don’t even have the source code, and even if you do  (and the software doesn’t depend on some server component) there’s always going to be a steep learning curve to being able to make meaningful changes to an unfamiliar code base, even for seasoned programmers.

In a connected world it will therefore always be most efficient to have a centralized development team that maintains a project and makes releases for the general public to use. But with that possibly no longer an option in the future, someone else will end up having to make sure things work as best they can at the local level. I don’t think this will mean most people will start making changes to their own software, but I could see software repair becoming a role for specialized technicians, similar to electricians or car mechanics.

How could we build our software in a way that makes it most useful to people in such a future?

Use Well-Understood, Accessible Tech

One of the most important things we can do today to make life easier for potential future software repair technicians is using well-established technology, which they’re likely to already have experience with. Writing apps in Haskell may be a fun exercise, but if you want other people to be able to repair/repurpose them in the future, GJS is probably a better option, simply because so many more people are familiar with the language.

Another important factor determining a technology stack’s repairability is how accessible it is to get started with. How easy is it for someone to get a development environment up and running from scratch? Is there good (offline) documentation? Do you need to understand complex math or memory management concepts?

Local-First Development

Most modern development workflows assume a fast internet connection on a number of levels, including downloading and updating dependencies (e.g. npm modules or flatpak SDKs), documentation, tutorials, Stackoverflow, and so on.

In order to allow repair at the local level, we also need to rethink development workflows in a local-first fashion, meaning things like:

  • Ship all the source code and development tools needed to rebuild/modify the OS and apps with the system
  • Have a first-class flow for replacing parts of the system or apps with locally modified/repaired versions, allowing easy management of different versions, rollbacks, etc.
  • Have great offline documentation and tutorials, and maybe even something like a locally cached subset of Stackoverflow for a few technologies (e.g. the 1000 most popular questions with the “gtk” tag)

Getting the tooling and UX right for a fully integrated local-first software repair flow will be a lot of work, but there’s some interesting relevant art from Endless OS from a few years back. The basic idea was that you transform any app you’re running into an IDE editing the app’s source code (thanks to Will Thompson for the screencast below). The devil is of course in the details for making this a viable solution to local software repair, but I think this would be a very interesting direction to explore further.

Some concrete things we could work on to make our software more repairable:

  • Avoid using obscure languages and technologies for new projects
  • Avoid overly complex and brittle dependency trees
  • Investigate UX for a local-first software repair flow
  • Revive or replace the Devhelp offline documentation app
  • Look into ways to make useful online resources (tutorials, technical blog posts, Stackoverflow threads, etc.) usable offline

This was part three of a four-part series. In the fourth and final installment we’ll wrap up the series by looking at some of the hurdles in moving towards resilience and how we could overcome them.

Post Collapse Computing Part 2: What if we Fail?

This is a lightly edited version of my GUADEC 2022 talk, given at c-base in Berlin on July 21, 2022. Part 1 briefly summarizes the horrors we’re likely to face as a result of the climate crisis, and why civil resistance is our best bet to still avoid some of the worst-case scenarios. Trigger Warning: Very depressing facts about climate and societal collapse.

While I think it’s critical to use the next few years to try and avert the worst effects of this crisis, I believe we also need to think ahead and consider potential failure scenarios.

What would it mean if we fail to force our governments to enact the necessary drastic climate action, both for society at large but also very concretely for us as free software developers? In other words: What does collapse mean for GNOME?

In researching the subject I discovered that there’s actually a discipline studying questions like this, called “Collapsology”.

Collapsology studies the ways in which our current global industrial civilization is fragile and how it could collapse. It looks at these systemic risks in a transdisciplinary way, including ecology, economics, politics, sociology, etc. because all of these aspects of our society are interconnected in complex ways. I’m far from an expert on this topic, so I’m leaning heavily on the literature here, primarily Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens’ book How Everything Can Collapse (translated from the french original).

So what does climate collapse actually look like? What resources, infrastructure, and organizations are most likely to become inaccessible, degrade, or collapse? In a nutshell: Complex, centralized, interdependent systems.

There are systems like that in every part of our lives of course, from agriculture, to pharma, to energy production, and of course electronics. Because this talk’s focus is specifically the impact on free software, I’ll dig deeper on a few areas that affect computing most directly: Supply chains, the power grid, the internet, and Big Tech.

Supply Chains

As we’ve seen repeatedly over the past few years, the supply chains that produce and transport goods across the globe are incredibly fragile. During the first COVID lockdowns it was toilet paper, then we got the chip shortage affecting everything from Play Stations to cars, and more recently a baby formula shortage in the US, among others. To make matters worse, many industries have moved to just-in-time manufacturing over the past decades, making them even less resilient.

Now add to that more and more extreme natural disasters disrupting production and transport, wars and sanctions disrupting trade, and financial crises triggered or exacerbated by some of the above. It’s not hard to imagine goods that are highly dependent on global supply chains becoming prohibitively expensive or just impossible to get in parts of the world.

Computers are one of the most complex things manufactured today, and therefore especially vulnerable to supply chain disruption. Without a global system of resource extraction, manufacturing, and trade there’s no way we can produce chips anywhere near the current level of sophistication. On top of that chip supply chains are incredibly centralized, with most of global chip production being controlled by a single Taiwanese company, and the machines used for that production controlled by a single Dutch company.

Power Grid

Access to an unlimited amount of power, at any time, for very little money, is something we take for granted, but probably shouldn’t. In addition to disruptions by extreme weather events one important factor here is that in an ever-hotter world, air conditioning starts to put an increasing amount of strain on the power grid. In parts of the global south this is one of the reasons why power outages are a daily occurrence, and having power all the time is far from guaranteed.

In order to do computing we of course need power, not only to run/charge our own devices, but also for the data centers and networking infrastructure running a lot of the things we’re connecting to while using those devices.

Which brings us to our next point…

Internet

Having a reliable internet connection requires a huge amount of interconnected infrastructure, from undersea cables, to data centers, to the local cable infrastructure that goes to your neighborhood, and ultimately your router or a nearby cellular tower.

All of this infrastructure is at risk of being disrupted by sea level rise and extreme weather, taken over by political actors wanting to control the flow of information, abandoned by companies when it becomes unprofitable to operate in a certain area due to frequent extreme weather, and so on.

Big Tech

Finally, at the top of the stack there’s the actual applications and services we use. These, too, have become ever more centralized and fragile at all levels over the past decades.

At the most basic level there’s OS updates and app stores. There are billions of iOS devices out there that are literally unable to get security updates or install new software if they lose access to Apple’s servers. Apple collapsing seems unlikely in the short term, but, for example, what if they stop doing business in your country because of sanctions?

We used to warn about lock-in to proprietary software and formats, but at least Photoshop CS2 continues to run on your computer regardless of what happens to the company. With Figma et al you can not only not access your existing files anymore if the server isn’t accessible, you can’t even create new ones.

In order to get a few nice sharing and collaboration features people are increasingly just running all software in the cloud on someone else’s computer, whether it’s Google Slides for presentations, SketchUp for 3D modeling, Notion for note taking, Figma for design, and even games via game streaming services like Stadia.

From a free software perspective another particularly risky point of corporate centralization is Github, given that a huge number of important projects are hosted there. Even if you’re not actively using it yourself for development, you’re almost certainly depending on other projects hosted on Github. If something were to happen to it… yikes.

Failure Scenarios

So to summarize, this is a rough outline of a potential failure scenario, as applied to computing:

  • No new hardware: It’s difficult and expensive to get new devices because there’s little to no new ones being made, or they’re not being sold where you live.
  • Limited power: There’s power some of the time, but only a few hours a day or when there’s enough sun for your solar panels. It’s likely that you’ll want to use it for more important things than powering computers though…
  • Limited connectivity: There’s still a kind of global internet, but not all countries have access to it due to both degraded infrastructure and geopolitical reasons. You’re able to access a slow connection a few times a month, when you’re in another town nearby.
  • No cloud: Apple and Google still exist, but because you don’t have internet access often enough or at sufficient speeds, you can’t install new apps on your iOS/Android devices. The apps you do have on them are largely useless since they assume you always have internet.

This may sound like an unrealistically dystopian scenario, until you realize: Parts of the global south are experiencing this today. Of course a collapse of these systems at the global level would have a lot of other terrible consequences, but I think seeing the global south as a kind of preview of where everyone else is headed is a helpful reference point.

A Smaller World

The future is of course impossible to predict, but in all likelihood we’re headed for a world where everything is a lot more local, one way or the other. Whether by choice (to reduce emissions and be more resilient), or through a full-on collapse, our way of life is going to change drastically over the next decades.

The future we’re looking at is likely to be a lot more disconnected in terms of the movement of goods, people, as well as information. This will necessitate producing things locally, with whatever resources are available locally. Given the complexity of most supply chains, this means many things we build today probably won’t be produced at all anymore, so there will need to be a lot more repair, and a lot less consumption.

Above all though, this will necessitate much stronger communities at the local level, working together to keep things running and make life liveable in the face of the catastrophes to come.

To be Clear: Fuck Nazis

When discussing apocalyptic scenarios like these I think a lot of people’s first point of reference is the Hollywood version of collapse – People out for themselves, fighting for survival as rugged individuals. There are certain types of people attracted by that who hold other reprehensible views, so when discussing topics like preparing for collapse it’s important to distance oneself from them.

That said, individual prepping is also not an effective strategy, because real life is not a Hollywood movie. In crisis scenarios mutual aid is just as natural a response for people as selfishness, and it’s a much better approach to actually survive longer-term. Resilient communities of people helping each other is our best bet to withstand whatever worst case scenarios might be headed our way.

We’ll Still Need Computers…

If this future comes to pass, how to do computing will be far from our biggest concern. Having enough food, drinkable water, and other necessities of life are likely to be higher on our priority list. However, there will definitely be important things that we will need computers for.

The thing to keep in mind here is that we’re not talking about the far future here: The buildings, roads, factories, fields, etc. we’ll be working with in this future are basically what we have today. The factories where we’re currently building BMWs are not going away overnight, even if no BMWs are being built. Neither are the billions of Intel laptops and mid-range Android phones currently in use, even if they’ll be slow and won’t get updates anymore.

So what might we need computers for in this hyper-local, resource-constrained future?

Information Management

At the most basic level, a lot of our information is stored primarily on computers today, and using computers is likely to remain the most efficient way to access it. This includes everything from teaching materials for schools, to tutorials for DIY repairs, books, scientific papers, and datasheets for electronics and other machines.

The same goes for any kind of calculation or data processing. Computers are of course good at the calculations needed for construction/engineering (that’s kind of what they were invented for), but even things like spreadsheets, basic scripting, or accounting software are orders of magnitude more efficient than doing the same things without a computer.

Local Networking

We’re used to networking always meaning “access to the entire internet”, but that’s not the only way to do networks – Our existing computers are perfectly capable of talking to each other on a local network at the level of a building or town, with no connection to a global internet.

There are lots of examples of potential use cases for local-only networking and communication, e.g. city-level mesh networks, or low-connectivity chat apps like Briar.

Reuse, Repair, Repurpose

Finally, there’s a ton of existing infrastructure and machinery that needs computers in order to be able to run, be repaired, or repurposed, including farm equipment, medical devices, public transit, and industrial tools.

I’m assuming – but this is conjecture on my part, it’s really not my area of expertise – the machines we’re currently using to build cars and planes could be repurposed to make something more useful, which can actually still be constructed with locally available resources in this future.

…Running Free Software?

As we’ve already touched on earlier, the centralized nature of proprietary software means it’s inherently less resilient than free software. If the company building it goes away or doesn’t sell you the software anymore, there’s not much you can do.

Given all the risks discussed earlier, it’s possible that free software will therefore have a larger role in a more localized future, because it can be adapted and repaired at the local level in ways that are impossible with proprietary software.

Assumptions to Reconsider?

However, while free software has structural advantages that make it more resilient than proprietary software, there are problematic aspects of current mainstream technology culture that affect us, too. Examples of assumptions that are pretty deeply ingrained in how most modern software (including free software) is built include:

  • Fast internet is always available, offline/low-connectivity is a rare edge case, mostly relevant for travel
  • New, better hardware is always around the corner and will replace the current hardware within a few years
  • Using all the resources available (CPU, storage, power, bandwidth) is fine

Assumptions like these manifest in many subtle ways in how we work and what we build.

Dependencies and Package Managers

Over the past decade language-specific package managers such as npm and crates.io have taken off in an unprecedented way, leading to software with larger and more complex dependency graphs than ever before. This is the dominant paradigm for building software today, newer languages all come with their own built-in package manager.

However, just like physical supply chains, more complex dependency graphs are also less resilient. More dependencies, especially with pinned versions and lack of caching between projects means huge downloads and long build times when building software locally, resulting in lots of bandwidth, power, and disk space being used. Fully offline development is basically impossible, because every project you build needs to download its own specific version of every dependency.

It’s possible to imagine some kind of cross-project shared local dependency cache for this, but to my knowledge no language ecosystem is doing this by default at the moment.

Web-Based Tooling

Core parts of the software development workflow are increasingly moving to web-based tools, especially around code forges like Github or Gitlab. Issue management, merge requests, CI, releases, etc. all happen on these platforms, which are primarily or exclusively used via very, very, slow websites. It’s hard to overstate this: Code forges are among the slowest, shittiest websites out there, basically unusable unless you have a fast connection.

This is, of course, not resilient at all and a huge problem given that we rely on these tools for many of our key workflows.

Cloud Storage & Streaming

As already discussed relying on data centers is problematic on a number of levels, but in practice most people (even in the free software community), have embraced cloud services in some areas, at least at a personal level.

Instead of local photo, music, and movie collections many of us just use Google Photos, Spotify, and Netflix nowadays, which of course affects which kinds of apps are being built. For example, there are no modern, actively developed apps to manage your photo collection locally anymore, but we do have a nice, modern Spotify client

Global Community Without the Internet?

Scariest of all, I think, is imagining free software development without the internet. This movement came into existence and grew alongside the global internet in the 80s and 90s, and it’s almost impossible to imagine what it could look like without it.

Maybe the movement as a whole, as well as individual projects would splinter into smaller, local versions in the regions that are still connected? But would there be a sufficient amount of expertise in each of those regions? Would development at any real scale just stop, and instead people would only do small repairs to what they have at the local level?

I don’t have any smart answers here, but I believe it’s something we really ought to think about.

This was part two of a four-part series. In part 3 we’ll look at concrete ideas and examples of things we can work towards to make our software more resilient.

Post Collapse Computing Part 1: The Crisis is Here

This is a lightly edited version of my GUADEC 2022 talk, given at c-base in Berlin on July 21, 2022. Trigger Warning: Very depressing facts about climate and societal collapse.

In this community I’m primarily known for my work as a designer, but if you know me a bit better you’re aware that I also do a different kind of activism, which sometimes looks like this:

Yours truly (bottom left), chained to a 1.5 degree symbol blocking a bridge near the German parliament.

This was an Extinction Rebellion action in Berlin earlier this year, the week the new IPCC report was released. Among other things, the report says that keeping global warming to within 1.5 degrees, the goal all our governments agreed to, is basically impossible at this point.

The idea with this action in particular was to force the state to symbolically destroy the 1.5 degree goal in order to clear our street blockade. Here’s the police doing that:

Police literally the dismantling the 1.5 degree target :P

It’s Happening Now

The climate crisis is no longer a thing future generations will one day have to deal with, like we were told as kids. It’s here, affecting all of us today, including in the global north. Some of the people travelling to this year’s Berlin Mini GUADEC were delayed by the massive heatwave, because train tracks on the way could not handle the heat.

There are already a number of unavoidable horrible consequences on the horizon. These include areas around the equator where the combination of temperature and humidity is deadly for humans for parts of the year, crop failures causing ever larger famines, conflicts around resources such as water, and general infrastructure breakdown caused by a combination of ever more extreme weather events and decreasing capacity to deal with them.

Second-order consequences will include billions of people having to flee to less affected areas, which in turn will have almost unimaginable political consequences – If 5 million refugees from the Syrian civil war caused a Europe-wide resurgence in proto-fascist parties, what will 100 million or more do?

And that’s not the worst of it.

Tipping Over

The climate system is not linear. There are a number of tipping elements which can, once destabilized, not be brought back to their previous state and go from being carbon sinks to actually releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

These include forests such as the Amazon, polar ice shields such as in Greenland, and perhaps most ominously, the gigantic amounts of methane frozen in the Russian permafrost. If some or all of these elements tip, they can kick off a self-reinforcing feedback loop of ever-accelerating warming, independent of human emissions.

We don’t know which tipping points are reached at what temperature exactly, but past 2 degrees it’s very likely that we’ll cross enough of them to cause 4, 5, or more degrees of warming.

We Have 3 Years

While many terrible things can’t be avoided anymore, scientists tell us that we still have a “brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity” to avoid some of the worst consequences – If we manage to turn things around and start actually reducing emissions in the next few years, and then continue doing so over the following decades.

That doesn’t mean each of us individually deciding to buy organic food and bamboo toothbrushes – The individual carbon footprint was literally invented by BP to deflect responsibility from corporations onto people. It’s obviously important to reduce our emissions as much as possible individually (especially luxury emissions such as meat and air travel), but that should not be where we stop or invest most of our energy.

No amount of individual action can really move the needle when just 100 companies are responsible for 70% of global emissions. All the real solutions are structural.

Unfortunately, on that front we’ve seen zero actual progress over the 40+ years that we’ve known about the impending catastrophe. Emissions have continuously increased in the past decades, rather than decreased. We’ve emitted more since the release of the first IPCC report in 1992 than in the entire history of humanity before that point. Even now, our governments are still subsidizing new fossil infrastructure with public money, while failing to meet the (already insufficient) goals they set for themselves.

Climate policy so far has completely failed to achieve even a reduction in new emissions, let alone removing carbon from the atmosphere to get back to a safe level below 350 ppm.

It’s not too Late – Yet

This political and economic system is clearly not capable of the kind of action needed to avert this crisis. However, we’re also not going to be able to build an entirely new system in the next few years, there’s just not enough time. We can either try to use the existing state regulatory apparatus to reduce emissions now, or accept collapse as inevitable.

That sounds incredibly bleak, and it is – but there really is still a path to turn this around, and there are people and movements with a plan. Depending on where you live they have different names, logos, and tactics, but the strategy is roughly the same:

  1. Mass Mobilization: Organize a small part of the population (something like a single digit percentage) into a mass civil resistance movement, and generate awareness of the emergency in the broader population.
  2. Civil Resistance: Use civil disobedience tactics to disrupt business, politics, and infrastructure and do enough economic damage that the government can’t ignore it.
  3. Citizens’ Assemblies: Demand that the government give the power to decide how to respond to the climate crisis to Citizens’ Assemblies. Members of these assemblies are chosen at random, in a way that is representative of the population, and advised by scientific experts. The assemblies can then decide how to reduce emissions and mitigate the effects of the crisis in a way that is both effective and socially equitable, because they are not beholden to capital interests.

This is of course an incredibly simplified version of the strategy (and I’d recommend reading up on it in detail), but it’s basically what groups such as Exctinction Rebellion (international), Just Stop Oil (UK), Letzte Generation (DE), Dernière Rénovation (FR), and many others are working towards.

Successful multi-day blockade at “Großer Stern” in Berlin, 2019

So in the face of this, should we all just drop everything and start doing blockades for the next few years?

Well, yes. If you’re not currently doing civil disobedience wherever you live, I’d recommend looking into what groups exist locally and joining them. Even if you’re not ready to glue yourself to the road, there’s plenty of stuff you can do to help. They need your support to succeed, and we all really need them to succeed.

If you’re based in or near Germany, there’s actually a great opportunity coming up for getting involved: There’s a big rebellion wave September 17-20, so now’s an ideal time to get in touch with a local group nearby, do an action training, and book the trip to Berlin! See you there ;)

This is the first part of a four-part series. In part 2 we’ll explore what happens if we don’t manage to force our governments to enact radical change in the next few years, and what that would mean concretely for free software.

Berlin Mini GUADEC 2022

Given the location of this year’s GUADEC many of us couldn’t make it to the real event (or didn’t want to because of the huge emissions), but since there’s a relatively large local community in Berlin and nearby central Europe, we decided to have a new edition of our satellite event, to watch the talks together remotely.

This year we were quite a few more people than last year (a bit more than 20 overall), so it almost had a real conference character, though the organization was a lot more barebones than a real event of course.

Thanks to Sonny Piers we had c-base as our venue this year, which was very cool. In addition to the space ship interior we also had a nice outside area near the river we could use for COVID-friendly hacking.

The main hacking area inside at c-base

We also had a number of local live talks streamed from Berlin. Thanks to the people from c-base for their professional help with the streaming setup!

On Thursday I gave my talk about post-collapse computing, i.e. why we need radical climate action now to prevent a total catastrophe, and failing that, what we could do to make our software more resilient in the face of an ever-worsening crisis.

Unfortunately I ran out of time towards the end so there wasn’t any room for questions/discussion, which is what I’d been looking forward to the most. I’ll write it up in blog post form soon though, so hopefully that can still happen asynchronously.

Hacking outside c-base on the river side

Since Allan, Jakub, and I were there we wanted to use the opportunity to work on some difficult design questions in person, particularly around tiling and window management. We made good progress in some of these areas, and I’m personally very excited about the shape this work is taking.

Because we had a number of app maintainers attending we ended up doing a lot of hallway design reviews and discussions, including about Files, Contacts, Software, Fractal, and Health. Of course, inevitably there were also a lot of the kinds of cross-discipline conversations that can only happen in these in-person settings, and which are often what sets the direction for big things to come.

One area I’m particularly interested in is local-first and better offline support across the stack, both from a resilience and UX point of view. We never quite found our footing in the cloud era (i.e. the past decade) because we’re not really set up to manage server infrastructure, but looking ahead at a local-first future, we’re actually in a much better position.

The Purism gang posing with the Librem 5: Julian, Adrien, and myself

For some more impressions, check out Jakub’s video from the event.

Thanks to everyone for joining, c-base for hosting, the GNOME Foundation for financial support for the event, and hopefully see you all next year!

Save the Date: Berlin Mini GUADEC

Since GUADEC is hard to get to from Europe and some of us don’t do air travel, we’re going to do another edition of Berlin Mini GUADEC this year!

We have a pretty solid local community in Berlin these days, and there are a lot of other contributors living reasonably close by in and around central Europe. Last year’s edition was very fun and productive with minimal organizational effort, and this year will be even better!

Location and other details are TBA, but it’s going to be in Berlin during the conference and BoF days (July 20th to 25th).

Update: The location is C-Base (Rungestraße 20 in Kreuzberg, near U Jannowitzbrücke), and there’s now a Wiki page. Please add yourself to the attendee list so we get an idea how many people will be joining :)

See you in Berlin!

Software 41: Context Tiles

GNOME 41 is going to be released in a few weeks, and as you may have heard it will come with a major refresh to Software’s interface.

Our goals for this initiative included making it a more appealing place to discover and install new apps, exposing app information more clearly, and making it more reliable overall. We’ve made big strides in all these areas, and I think you’ll be impressed how much nicer the app feels in 41.

There’s a lot of UI polish all across the app, including a cleaner layout for app cards, more consistent list views, a new simplified set of categories, a better layout for category pages, and much more.

Most of the groundwork for adaptiveness is also in place now. There are still a few views in need of additional tweaks, but for the most part the app is adaptive in 41.

However, the most visible change in this release is probably the near-complete overhaul of the app details pages. This includes a prettier header section, a more prominent screenshot carousel, and an all-new way of displaying app metadata.

Introducing Context Tiles

For the app details page we wanted to tackle a number of long-standing tricky questions about how to best communicate information about apps. These include:

  • Communicating app download size in a more nuanced way, especially for Flatpak apps where downloading additional shared runtimes may be required as part of installing an app
  • Showing the benefits of software freedom in a tangible way rather than just displaying the license
  • Making it clearer which files, devices, and capabilities apps have access to on the system
  • Incentivizing app developers to use portals rather than poking holes in the sandbox
  • Warning people about potential security problems
  • Providing information on whether the app will work on the current hardware (especially relevant for mobile)
  • Exposing age ratings more prominently and with more context

The solution we came up with is what we call context tiles. The idea is that each of these tiles provides the most important information about a given area at a glance, and clicking it opens a dialog with the full details.

Context tiles on the app details page

Storage

The storage tile has two different states: When the app is not installed, it shows the download size of the app, as well as any additional required downloads (e.g. runtimes). When the app is installed it changes to show the size the app is taking up on disk.

Safety

The Safety tile combines information from a number of sources to give people an overall idea of how safe an app is to install and use.

At the most basic level this is about how technically secure an app is. Two important questions here are whether an app is sandboxed (i.e. whether it’s flatpaked or running on the host), and whether it uses Wayland.

However, even if an app is sandboxed it can still have unlimited access to e.g. your home folder or the webcam, if these are defined as static permissions in the Flatpak manifest.

While for some apps there is no alternative to this (e.g. IDEs are probably always going to need access to the file system), in many cases there are more secure portal APIs through which people can allow limited one-time access to various resources.

For example, if you switch an app from using the old GtkFileChooser to the portal-based GtkFileChooserNative you can avoid requiring a sandbox hole for the file system.

All of the above is of course a lot worse if the app also has internet access, since that can make security issues remotely exploitable and allows malicious apps to potentially exfiltrate user data.

While very important, sandboxing is not the entire story here though. Public auditability of the code is also very important for ensuring the security of an app, especially for apps which have a lot of permissions. This is also taken into consideration to assess the overall safety of an app, as a practical advantage of software freedom.

Folding all of these factors into a single rating at scale isn’t easy. I expect we’ll continue to iterate on this over the next few cycles, but I think what we have in 41 is a great step in the right direction.

Hardware Support

With GNOME Mobile progressing nicely and large parts of our app ecosystem going adaptive it’s becoming more important to be able to check whether an app is adaptive before installing it. However, while adaptiveness is the most prominent use case for the hardware support tile at the moment, it’s not the only one.

The hardware support tile is a generic way to display which input and output devices an app supports or requires, and whether they match the currently available hardware. For example, this can also be used to communicate whether an app is fully keyboard-accessible or requires a gamepad.

Age Rating

Age ratings (via OARS) have been in Software for years, but we’ve wanted to present this information in a better way for some time.

The context tile we’re introducing in 41 shows the reasons for the rating at a glance, rather than just a rating.

The dialog shows more information on the exact types of content the app includes, though the current implementation is not quite the design we’d like here eventually. Due to technical constraints we currently list every single type of content and whether or not the app contains it, but ideally it would only show broad categories for things the app doesn’t contain. This will hopefully be improved next cycle to make the list easier to scan.

Metadata Matters

No matter how good an app store itself is, its appeal for people ultimately comes from the apps within it. Luckily GNOME has a sizable ecosystem of cool third party apps these days, exactly the kinds of apps people are looking to discover when they open Software.

However, not all of these apps look as good as they could in Software currently due to incomplete, outdated, or low quality metadata.

If the version of Adwaita on your screenshots is so old that people get nostalgic it’s probably time to take new ones ;)

Additionally, Software 41 comes with some changes to how app metadata is presented (e.g. context tiles, larger screenshots), which make it more prominently visible than before.

This means now is the perfect moment to review and update your app metadata and make a new release ahead of the GNOME 41 release in a few weeks.

Lucky for you I already wrote a blog post walking you through the different kinds of metadata your app needs to really shine in Software 41. Please check it out and update your apps!

Conclusion

Software 41 was a real team effort, and I’d like to thank everyone who helped make it happen, especially Philip Withnall, Phaedrus Leeds, Adrien Plazas, and Milan Crha for doing most of the implementation work, but also Allan Day and Jakub Steiner for helping with various aspects of the design.

This is also a cool success story for cross-company upstream collaboration with people from Endless, Purism, and Red Hat all working together on an upstream-first product initiative. High fives all around!

Get your apps ready for Software 41

Software 41 will be released with the rest of GNOME 41 in a few weeks, and it brings a number of changes to how app metadata is presented, including the newly added hardware support information, larger screenshots, more visible age ratings, and more.

If you haven’t updated your app’s metadata in a while this is the perfect moment to review what you have, update what’s missing, and release a new version ahead of the GNOME 41 release!

In this blog post I’ll walk you through the different kinds of metadata your app needs to really shine in Software 41, and best practices for adding it.

App Summary

The app summary is a very short description that gives people an idea of what the app does. It’s often used in combination with the app name, e.g. on banners and app tiles.

If your summary is ellipsized on the app tile, you know what to do :)

In Software 41 we’re using the summary much more prominently than before, so it’s quite important for making your app look good. In particular, make sure to keep it short (we recommend below 35 characters, but the shorter the better), or it will look weird or be ellipsized.

Writing a good summary

The summary should answer the question “What superpower does this app give me?”. It doesn’t need to comprehensively describe everything the app does, as long as it highlights one important aspect and makes it clear why it’s valuable.

Some general guidance:

  • Keep it short (less than 35 characters)
  • Be engaging and make people curious
  • Use imperative if possible (e.g. “Browse the web” instead of “A web browser”)
  • Use sentence case

Things to avoid:

  • Technical details (e.g. the toolkit or programming language)
  • Structures like “GUI for X” or “Client for Y”
  • Mentioning the target environment (e.g. “X for GNOME”)
  • Repeating the app’s name
  • Overly generic adjectives like “simple”, “easy”, “powerful”, etc.
  • Articles (e.g. “A …” or “An …”)
  • Punctuation (e.g. a period at the end)
  • Title case (e.g. “Chat With Your Team”)

Good examples:

  • Maps: “Find places around the world”
  • Shortwave: “Listen to internet radio”
  • Byte: “Rediscover your music”

Code Example

The app summary is set in your appdata XML file, and looks like this:

<summary>Listen to internet radio</summary>

Appstream documentation

Device Support

Hardware support metadata describes what kinds of input and output devices an app supports, or requires to be useful. This is a relatively recent addition to appstream, and will be displayed in Software 41 for the first time.

The primary use case for this at the moment is devices with small displays needing to query whether an app will fit on the screen, but there are all sorts of other uses for this, e.g. to indicate that an app is not fully keyboard-accessible or that a game needs a gamepad.

Code Examples

Appstream has a way for apps to declare what hardware they absolutely need (<require>), and things that are known to work (<recommends>). You can use these two tags in your appdata XML to specify what hardware is supported.

For screen size, test the minimum size your app can scale to and put that in as a requirement. The “ge” stands for “greater or equal”, so this is what you’d do if your app can scale to phone sizes (360px or larger):

<requires>
  <display_length compare="ge">360</display_length>
</requires>

Note: The appstream spec also specifies some named sizes (xsmall, small, large, etc.), which are broken and should not be used. It’s likely that they’ll be removed in the future, but for now just don’t use them.

Input devices can be specified like so:

<recommends>
  <control>keyboard</control>
  <control>pointing</control>
  <control>touch</control>
</recommends>

Appstream documentation

Screenshots

If you want your app to make a good impression good screenshots are a must-have. This is especially true in 41, because screenshots are much larger and more prominent now.

The new, larger screenshot carousel

Some general guidance for taking good app screenshots:

  • Provide multiple screenshots showing off the main areas of the app
  • Use window screenshots with a baked-in shadow (you can easily take them with Alt+PrintScr).
  • For apps that show content (e.g. media apps, chat apps, creative tools, file viewers, etc.) the quality of the example content makes the screenshot. Setting up a great screenshot with content takes a ton of time, but it’s absolutely worth it.
  • If you’re only doing screenshots in a single language/locale, use en-US.
  • Don’t force a large size if your app is generally used at small sizes. If the app is e.g. a small utility app a tiny window size is fine.

Before taking your screenshots make sure your system is using GNOME default settings. If your distribution changes these, an easy way to make sure they are all correct is to take them in a VM with Fedora, Arch, or something else that keeps to defaults. In particular, make sure you have the following settings:

  • System font: Cantarell
  • GTK stylesheet: Adwaita
  • System icons: Adwaita Icon Theme
  • Window controls: Close button only, on the right side

Things to avoid:

  • Fullscreen screenshots with no borders or shadow.
  • Awkward aspect ratios. Use what feels natural for the app, ignore the 16:9 recommendation in the appstream spec.
  • Huge window sizes. They make it very hard to see things in the carousel. Something like 800×600 is a good starting point for most apps.

Code Example

Screenshots are defined in the appdata XML file and consist of an image and a caption which describes the image.

  <screenshots>
    <screenshot type="default">
      <image>https://domain.tld/screenshot.png</image>
      <caption>Screenshot caption</caption>
    </screenshot>
  </screenshots>

Appstream documentation

Other Metadata

The things I’ve covered in detail here are the most prominent pieces of metadata, but there are also a number of others which are less visible and less work to add, but nevertheless important.

These include links to various websites for the project, all of which are also defined in the appstream XML.

  • App website (or code repository if it has no dedicated website)
  • Issue tracker
  • Donations
  • Translations
  • Online help or user documentation

When making releases it’s also important to add release notes for the new version to your appdata file, otherwise the version history box on your details page looks pretty sad:

Conclusion

I hope this has been useful, and inspired you to update your metadata today!

Most of these things can be updated in a few minutes, and it’s really worth it. It doesn’t just make your app look good, but the ecosystem as a whole.

Thanks in advance :)

Berlin Mini GUADEC

Like everyone else, I’m sad that we can’t have in-person conferences at the moment, especially GUADEC. However, thanks to the lucky/privileged combination of low COVID case numbers in central Europe over the summer, vaccines being available to younger people now, and a relatively large local community in and around Berlin we were able to put together a tiny in-person GUADEC satellite event.

Despite the somewhat different context we did a surprising number of classic GUADEC activities such as struggling to make it to the venue by lunchtime, missing talks we wanted to watch, and walking around forever to find food.

As usual we also did quite a bit of hacking (on Adwaita, Fractal, and Shell among other things), and had many interesting cross-domain discussions that rarely happen outside of physical meetups.

Thanks to Elio Qoshi and Onion Space for hosting, the GNOME Foundation for sponsoring, and everyone for attending. See you all at a real GUADEC next year, hopefully!

Community Power Part 5: First Steps

In the previous parts of this series (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4) we looked at how power works within GNOME, and what this means for people wanting to have an impact in the project. An important takeaway was that the most effective way to do that is to get acquainted with the project’s ethos and values, and then working towards things that align with these.

However, you have to start somewhere. In practical terms, how do you do that?

Start Small

Perhaps you have lots of big ideas and futuristic plans for the project, and your first impulse is to start working on those. However, if you’re a new contributor keep the following in mind:

  • There’s often important context and history around a subject that you may not be aware of yet. Having this context inform your ideas generally makes them better and easier for others to get on board with.
  • It’s important to build trust with the community. People are likely to be skeptical of super ambitious proposals from people they don’t know yet, and who may not stick around long term.
  • Learning to effectively advertise your ideas and get buy-in from various people takes time. This goes especially for bigger changes, e.g. ones which impact many different modules.

Ideally the size of the things you propose should be proportionate to how well-integrated into the community you are. Trying to do a complete rewrite of GNOME Shell as your first contribution is likely not going to result in much. Something simple and self-contained, such as an individual view in an app is usually a good place to get started.

This doesn’t mean newcomers shouldn’t dream big (I certainly did). However, realistically you’ll be more successful starting with small tasks and working your way up to larger ones as you gain a better understanding of the project’s history, the underlying technologies, and the interests of various stakeholders.

Jumping In

What exactly to do first depends on the area you’re planning on contributing to. I’ll keep this focused on the areas I’m personally most involved with and which have the most immediate impact on the product, but of course there are lots of other great ways to get involved, such as documentation, engagement, and localization.

  • For programming there is a newcomer guide that guides you towards your first merge request. Check out the developer portal for documentation and other resources. Beyond the newcomer projects you can of course also just look at open newcomer (and non-newcomer) issues in specific projects written in your language of choice on GNOME Gitlab.
  • For design it’s easiest to just reach out to the design team and ask them to help you find a good first task. Ideally you’d start working with developers on something real as soon as possible, and the design team usually know what urgently needs design at the moment.

Of course, if you’re a developer there’s also the option of starting out by writing your own third-party apps, rather than contributing to existing ones. A great third-party app is a very valuable contribution to the project, and with GNOME Circle there is a direct path to GNOME Foundation membership.

Community

Becoming a part of the community is not just about doing work. It’s also about generally being active in community spaces, whether that’s hanging out in chat rooms, interacting with fellow contributors on social media, or going to physical meetups, hackfests, and conferences.

Some starting points for that:

  • Join the Matrix channels for the projects you’re interested in. Depending on the channel it’s possible that not much is going on at the moment, but this tends to be seasonal. Especially app-specific channels can fluctuate wildly in activity depending on how many people are working on the app right now.
  • Join some of the larger “general” GNOME Matrix channels for project-wide discussions and community stuff.
  • Reach out to people who work on things you want to get into and ask them about ways to get involved more closely. Of course it’s important to be respectful of people’s time, but most people I know are happy to answer a few quick questions once in a while.
  • Come to GUADEC, LAS, or other real-world meetups. Meeting other contributors face to face is one of the best ways to truly become part of the community, and it’s a lot of fun! Once it’s possible again COVID-wise, I highly recommend attending an in-person event.

Doing the Work

If you follow the above steps and contribute on a regular basis for a few months you’ll find that you’ve organically become a part of the project.

People will start to ask your opinion about what they’re currently doing, or for you to review their work. You’ll probably specialize in one or a few areas, and maybe become the go-to person for those things. Before you know it someone will ask you if you’re coming to the next hackfest, if you’ve already got your Foundation membership, or if you’d like to become co-maintainer of a module.

If you’ve joined the project with big ideas, this is the point where you can really start moving towards making those ideas a reality. Of course, making big changes isn’t easy even as a long-time contributor. Depending on the scope of an initiative it can take months or years to get something done (for example, our adaptive apps initiative started in 2018 and is still ongoing).

However, as an experienced contributor you have the technical, social, and ideological context to push for your ideas in a way that aligns with other people’s goals and motivations. This not only makes it less likely that your plans will face opposition, but if you’re doing it right it people will join you and help make it happen.

Conclusion

This concludes my 5-part series on how power works in the GNOME community, and how to get your pet feature implemented. Sorry to disappoint if you thought it was going to be quick and easy :)

On the plus side though, it’s a chance to be part of this amazing community. The friends you make along the way are truly worth it!

While this is the end of the series as I originally planned it, there are definitely areas it doesn’t cover and that I might write about in the future. If there are specific topics you’d be interested in, feel free to leave a comment.

Happy hacking!

Community Power Part 4: The GNOME Way

In the first three parts of this series (part 1, part 2, part 3) we looked at how power works within GNOME and what that means for getting things done. We got to the point that to make things happen you (or someone you’ve hired) need to become a trusted member of the community, which requires understanding the project’s ethos.

In this post we’ll go over that ethos, both in terms of high level values, and what those translate to in more practical terms.

Values and Principles

GNOME is a very principled project, and there’s a fair amount of writing on this topic already.

Allan Day’s “The GNOME Way” (2017) is a great starting point, but I’d also recommend Havoc Pennington’s classic “Choosing our Preferences” (2002), and Emmanuele Bassi’s “Dev v. Ops” (2017). I’ve also written about some aspects of this in the past, including “There is no Linux Platform (2019)”. For some broader historical context also check out Emmanuele’s excellent History of GNOME podcast.

To give you an overview though, here’s my personal bullet point summary. It follows the same structure as the development process laid out in part 2 based on what areas specific values and ideas apply to. It’s not meant to be comprehensive, but rather give you an idea of the way people inside the project think.

The Why

Base motivations that inform everything we do.

  • We believe in software freedom as an inclusive, accountable model for producing technology in the commons.
  • Our software is built to be usable by everyone. We care deeply about user experience, accessibility, internationalization, and support for a diverse range of hardware.
  • Software should be structurally and aesthetically elegant, both in terms of underlying technology and user interface.

The What

What kinds of things we think are worth pursuing, and (just as important) what kinds of things should be avoided.

  • Third-party apps are the best abstraction to extend the core system with additional functionality. This is why we put a huge amount of work into empowering third party app developers to build more and better apps.
  • Every preference has a cost, and this cost rises exponentially as you add more of them. This is why we avoid preferences as much as possible, and focus on fixing the underlying problems instead.
  • Similarly, there is a direct relationship between how vertically integrated a product is and how cohesive you can make it. Every unnecessary variable you eliminate across the stack frees up time and energy, and creates opportunities for features you couldn’t otherwise build.
  • People’s attention is precious. We pride ourselves in being distraction free.

The How

Useful rules of thumb around how we go about making things.

  • We don’t do hacks. Rather than working around a problem at the wrong layer of abstraction, we believe in going to the root of the problem and fixing it for everyone, even if that means digging into lower layers (and ends up being far more difficult as a result).
  • We see design holistically, rather than as an isolated thing the design team does. It’s not just about functionality and aesthetics, but also underlying technology, and what to build in the first place. Even if you’re not contributing on the design team, developing an affinity for design will make you a more effective contributor.
  • Looking at relevant art is important, but simply copying the competition doesn’t usually produce great results. We have a proud history of inventing new paradigms that are better than the status quo.
  • As a general rule, start from the user experience you want and then go about building the technology necessary to create it, not the other way around. However: This is not an excuse for bad engineering or pursuing ideas that are conceptually impossible (e.g. multi-protocol chat clients).
  • Defer to the Expert. Everyone has different areas of expertise, such as user experience, security, accessibility, performance, or localization. Listen to the people most experienced in a given domain.
  • Design is all about trade-offs. Be wary of hard and fast rules that only look at one part of a problem (e.g. “vertical space is at a premium, therefore…”), and instead try to balance various concerns in a way that works well overall.

In Practice

Some of the above principles are quite abstract, so what do they translate to when actually building software day to day? Here are some examples of how they apply to real-world questions.

  • App developers should do their own packaging. It’s the only way to do it sustainably at scale.
  • Flatpak is the future of app distribution.
  • The “traditional desktop” is dead, and it’s not coming back (Note: I’m talking about Windows 95 era UI patterns here, not desktop vs. mobile). Instead of trying to bring back old concepts like menu bars or status icons, invent something better from first principles.
  • System-wide theming is a broken idea. If you don’t like the way apps look, contribute to them directly (or to the platform style).
  • Shell extensions are always going to be a niche thing. If you want to have real impact your time is better invested working on apps or GNOME Shell itself.
  • “Filling the available space” is rarely a good goal by itself, and an easy way to design yourself into a corner.

All of the above is of course my personal perception, and you’ll find variations on these ideas depending on who you talk to. However, in my experience most of them are shared fairly consistently by people across the community, especially given our informal structure.

Now that we’ve covered how things get done, by whom, and why, you’re in a great position to start making your mark. In the next part of this series we’ll look at practical first steps for contributing.

Until then, happy hacking!

Community Power Part 3: Just Do It!

In parts 1 and 2 of the series we looked at how different groups inside the GNOME community work together to get things done. In this post we’ll look at what that means for people wanting to push for their personal agenda, e.g. getting a specific feature implemented or bug fixed.

Implicit in the theoretical question how power works in GNOME is often a more practical one: How can I get access to it? How can I exercise power to get something I want?

At a high level that’s very easy to answer: You either do the work yourself, or you convince someone else to do it.

Do It Yourself

If you’re the person working on something you have a ton of power over that thing. Designing and building software is in essence an endless stream of decisions. The more work you do, the more of those decisions you end up making.

Of course, in practice it’s not quite that simple. User-visible features need design reviews, and unless you’re the sole maintainer of a project you also need to go through code reviews to get your changes merged. As a designer, most things you design need to be implemented by someone else, so you have to convince them to do that.

However, it’s definitely possible to have a huge impact simply by doing a lot of work, and not only because of all the decisions you end up making directly as you implement things. If you contribute regularly to a module you’ll eventually end up reviewing other people’s work, and generally being asked for your opinion on topics you’re knowledgeable about.

Making Your Case

If you can’t, don’t want to, or don’t have time to do the work yourself, you’ll need to find someone else to do it for you. This is obviously a difficult task, because you’re essentially trying to convince people to work for you for free.

Some general tips for this:

  • Get an idea of what kinds of things the people you’re trying to convince are interested in, e.g. technologies they like and types of problems they care about.
  • Make the case that your idea fits into something they are already working on, or will help them reach goals they are already pursuing.
  • Generally speaking, you’ll have a much better chance with new-ish contributors. They tend to be less overworked since they don’t maintain as many mission-critical modules.

Realistically, unless your idea is very small in scope, or exactly what someone was already looking for, this strategy is not very likely to succeed. Most contributors, volunteer or paid, already have a huge backlog of their own to work through. There are only so many hours in the day, and GtkTimeMachine is not yet a thing :)

However, the chances are not zero either, and it’s always possible that even if your idea isn’t picked up right away it will spark something later on, or influence future discussions.

Paying Someone Else

You can of course also convince people to work on something you want by hiring them (radical, I know!).

There are plenty of very talented people in the GNOME community who do contract development, from individuals to fairly large consultancies. You can also hire someone from outside the project, but then they will have to build trust with the community first, which is non-trivial overhead. In most cases, hiring existing contributors is orders of magnitude more effective than people who aren’t already a part of the project.

How to hire people to implement things for you is out of scope for this series, but if you’d like advice on it feel free to contact me or leave a comment. If there’s enough interest I might write about it in the future.


All of that said, if the thing you want doesn’t align with the ethos of the project it’s going to be difficult regardless of which strategy you go with. This is why familiarizing yourself with that ethos is important if you want to make your mark on the project. To help with that we’ll go over GNOME’s principles and values in the next part of this series.

Until then, happy hacking!

Community Power Part 2: The Process

In part 1 of this series we looked at some common misconceptions about how power works inside the GNOME project and went over the roles and responsibilites of various sub-groups.

With that in place, let’s look at how of a feature (or app, redesign, or other product initiative) goes from idea to reality.

The Why

At the base of everything are the motivations for why we embark on new product initiatives. These are our shared values, beliefs, and goals, rooted in GNOME’s history and culture. They include goals like making the system more approachable or empowering third party developers, as well as non-goals, such as distracting people or introducing unnecessary complexity.

Since people across the project generally already agree on these it’s not something we talk about much day-to-day, but it informs everything we do.

This topic is important for understanding our development process, but big enough to warrant its own separate post in this series. I’ll go into a lot more detail there.

The What

At any given moment there are potentially hundreds of equally important things people working on GNOME could do to further the project’s goals. How do we choose what to work on when nobody is in charge?

This often depends on relatively hard to predict internal and external factors, such as

  • A volunteer taking a personal interest in solving a problem and getting others excited about it (e.g. Alexander Mikhaylenko’s multi-year quest for better 1-1 touchpad gestures)
  • A company giving their developers work time to focus on getting a specific feature done upstream (e.g. Endless with the customizable app grid)
  • The design team coming up with something and convincing developers to make it happen (e.g. the Shell dialog redesign in 3.36)
  • A technological shift presenting a rare opportunity to get a long-desired feature in (e.g. the Libadwaita stylesheet refresh enabling recoloring)

For larger efforts, momentum is key: If people see exciting developments in an area they’ll want to get involved and help make it even better, resulting in a virtuous cycle. A recent example of this was GNOME 40, where lots of contributors who don’t usually do much GNOME Shell UI work pitched in during the last few weeks of the cycle to get it over the line.

If something touches more than a handful of modules (e.g. the app menu migration), the typical approach is to start a formal “Initiative”: This is basically a Gitlab issue with a checklist of all affected modules and information on how people can help. Any contributor can start an initiative, but it’s of course not guaranteed that others will be interested in helping with it and there are plenty of stalled or slow-moving ones alongside the success stories.

The How

If a new app or feature is user-facing, the first step towards making it happen is to figure out the user experience we’re aiming for. This means that at some point before starting implementation the designers need to work through the problem, formulate goals, look at relevant art, and propose a way forward (often in the form of mockups). This usually involves a bunch of iterations, conversations with various stakeholders, and depending on the scale of the initiative, user research.

If the feature is not user-facing but has non-trivial technical implications (e.g. new dependencies) it’s good to check with some experienced developers or the release team whether it fits into the GNOME stack from a technical point of view.

Once there is a more or less agreed-upon design direction, the implementation can start. Depending on the size and scope of the feature there are likely additional design or implementation questions that require input from different people throughout the process.

When the feature starts getting to the point where it can be tested by others it gets more thorough design reviews (if it’s user facing), before finally being submitted for code review by the module’s maintainers. Once the maintainers are happy with the code, they merge it into the project’s main branch.


In the next installment we’ll look at what this power structure and development process mean for individual contributors wanting to work towards a specific goal, such as getting their pet bug fixed or feature implemented.

Until then, happy hacking!

Community Power Part 1: Misconceptions

People new to the GNOME community often have a hard time understanding how we set goals, make decisions, assume responsibility, prioritize tasks, and so on. In short: They wonder where the power is.

When you don’t know how something works it’s natural to come up with a plausible story based on the available information. For example, some people intuitively assume that since our product is similar in function and appearance to those made by the Apples and Microsofts of the world, we must also be organized in a similar way.

This leads them to think that GNOME is developed by a centralized company with a hierarchical structure, where developers are assigned tasks by their manager, based on a roadmap set by higher management, with a marketing department coordinating public-facing messaging, and so on. Basically, they think we’re a tech company.

This in turn leads to things like

  • People making customer service style complaints, like they would to a company whose product they bought
  • General confusion around how resources are allocated (“Why are they working on X when they don’t even have Y?”)
  • Blaming/praising the GNOME Foundation for specific things to do with the product

If you’ve been around the community for a while you know that this view of the project bears no resemblance to how things actually work. However, given how complex the reality is it’s not surprising that some people have these misconceptions.

To understand how things are really done we need to examine the various groups involved in making GNOME, and how they interact.

GNOME Foundation

The GNOME Foundation is a US-based non-profit that owns the GNOME trademark, hosts our Gitlab and other infrastructure, organizes conferences, and employs one full-time GTK developer. This means that beyond setting priorities for said GTK developer, it has little to no influence on development.

Update: As of June 14, the GNOME Foundation no longer employs any GTK developers.

Individual Developers

The people actually making the product are either volunteers (and thus answer to nobody), or work for one of about a dozen companies employing people to work on various parts of GNOME. All of these companies have different interests and areas of focus depending on how they use GNOME, and tend to contribute accordingly.

In practice the line between “employed” contributor and volunteer can be quite blurry, as many contributors are paid to work on some specific things but also additionally contribute to other parts of GNOME in their free time.

Maintainers

Each module (e.g. app, library, or system component) has one or more maintainers. They are responsible for reviewing proposed changes, making releases, and generally managing the project.

In theory the individual maintainers of each module have more or less absolute power over those modules. They can merge any changes to the code, add and remove features, change the user interface, etc.

However, in practice maintainers rarely make non-trivial changes without consulting/communicating with other stakeholders across the project, for example the design team on things related to the user experience, the maintainers of other modules affected by a change, or the release team if dependencies change.

Release Team

The release team is responsible for coordinating the release of the entire suite of GNOME software as a single coherent product.

In addition to getting out two major releases every year (plus various point releases) they also curate what is and isn’t part of the core set of GNOME software, take care of the GNOME Flatpak runtimes, manage dependencies, fix build failures, and other related tasks.

The Release Team has a lot of power in the sense that they literally decide what is and isn’t part of GNOME. They can add and remove apps from the core set, and set system-wide default settings. However, they do not actually develop or maintain most of the modules, so the degree to which they can concretely impact the product is limited.

Design Team

Perhaps somewhat unusually for a free software project GNOME has a very active and well-respected design team (If I do say so myself :P). Anything related to the user experience is their purview, and in theory they have final say.

This includes most major product initiatives, such as introducing new apps or features, redesigning existing ones, the visual design of apps and system, design patterns and guidelines, and more.

However: There is nothing forcing developers to follow design team guidance. The design team’s power lies primarily in people trusting them to make the right decisions, and working with them to implement their designs.

How do things get done then?

No one person or group ultimately has much power over the direction of the project by themselves. Any major initiative requires people from multiple groups to work together.

This collaboration requires, above all, mutual trust on a number of levels:

  • Trust in the abilities of people from other teams, especially when it’s not your area of expertise
  • Trust that other people also embody the project’s values
  • Trust that people care about GNOME first and foremost (as opposed to, say, their employer’s interests)
  • Trust that people are in it for the long run (rather than just trying to quickly land something and then disappear)

This atmosphere of trust across the project allows for surprisingly smooth and efficient collaboration across dozens of modules and hundreds of contributors, despite there being little direct communication between most participants.


This concludes the first part of the series. In part 2 we’ll look at the various stages of how a feature is developed from conception to shipping.

Until then, happy hacking!

Permanent Revolution

10 years ago today was April 6, 2011.

Windows XP was still everywhere. Smartphones were tiny, and not everyone had one yet. New operating systems were coming out left and right. Android phones had physical buttons, and webOS seemed to have a bright future. There was general agreement that the internet would bring about a better world, if only we could give everyone unrestricted access to it.

This was the world into which GNOME 3.0 was released.

I can’t speak to what it was like inside the project back then, this is all way before my time. I was still in high school, and though I wasn’t personally contributing to any free software projects yet, I remember it being a very exciting moment.

Screenshot of the GNOME 3.0 live ISO with Settings, Gedit, Calculator, and Evince Screenshot of the GNOME 3.0 live ISO showing Settings, Gedit, Calculator, and Evince in the overview

3.0 was a turning point. It was a clear sign that we’d not only caught up to, but confidently overtaken the proprietary desktops. It was the promise that everything old and crufty about computing could be overcome and replaced with something better.

As an aspiring designer and free software activist it was incredibly inspiring to me personally, and I know I’m not alone in that. There’s an entire generation of us who are here because of GNOME 3, and are proud to continue working in that tradition.

Here’s to permanent revolution. Here’s to the hundreds who worked on GNOME 3.

Drawing GNOME App Mockups

I’ve written about designing GNOME apps at a high level before, but not about the actual process of drawing UI mockups the way we do on the GNOME design team. In this tutorial we’ll pick up the Read It Later example from previous tutorials again, and draw some mockups in Inkscape from scratch.

Before we start, let’s look at the sketches we’re going to base this on. I’ve re-drawn some of the sketches from my last app design blog post with just the parts we’ll need for this tutorial.

I recommend having a look at that other blog post before jumping into this one, as it will give you some background on the basic design patterns and show step by step how we got to this layout.

What’s in a Mockup?

After you’ve designed the basic structure of your app (e.g. as a sketch on paper) but before starting implementation, it’s good to check what your layout will look like with real UI elements.

Left: The initial mockup drawn in Inkscape, right: Screenshot of the real app

This doesn’t mean mockups need to recreate every gradient and highlight from the GTK stylesheet. Doing that would make mockups very hard to edit and keep in sync as the stylesheet evolves. However, things like spacing, border radii, button styling, etc. can be made to look very close to how they’ll look in the implemented version with relatively little effort. This is why on the GNOME design team we use a simplified style somewhere between a wireframe and a mockup, where sizes and metrics are mostly pixel-perfect, but UI visuals are not.

This level of fidelity is great for trying variations on layouts, placement of individual controls, different icon metaphors, etc. which are the most important things to validate before starting development. Once the implementation is in progress there’s usually additional rounds of iteration on different aspects of the design, but those don’t always require mockups as you can just iterate directly in code at that point.

Pre-Requisites

In order to be able to follow along with this tutorial, you’ll need to install a few apps:

  • Inkscape: The vector drawing app we’ll be using to draw our mockup
  • Icon Library: A handy app for finding symbolic icons to use in mockups

Next, you need the GNOME mockup template. This is an SVG file with many of our most common UI patterns, which enables you to make mockups by copying and adapting these existing components, rather than having to draw every element yourself. You can download the template from GNOME Gitlab.

Finally, you need a recent version of Cantarell, GNOME’s interface font. It’s possible that while you may have a font with that name installed, it’s not the right version, because some distributions and Google Fonts are still on an old version (which has only 2 weights, rather than 5). You can download the new version here.

Inkscape Basics

If you’ve never used Inkscape before it might be good to do some more general beginner tutorials as a first step. I’ll assume familiarity with navigation and object manipulation primitives such as selection, moving/scaling/rotating, duplicating, manipulating z-index, grouping/ungrouping, and navigating through group hierarchies.

Nevertheless, here’s a quick overview of the features we’ll be using primarily.

Controls

Inkscape has a lot of features, but we only need a small subset for what we’re doing. Most interfaces are just nested rectangles, after all ;)

Toolbox (the toolbar on the left edge):

  • Selection/movement/scaling tool (S)
  • Rectangle tool (R)
  • Ellipse tool (E)
  • Text tool (T)
  • Color picker (D)

Properties Sidebar (configuration dialogs docked to the right side):

  • Fill & Stroke (Ctrl + Shift + F)
  • Align & Distribute (Ctrl + Shift + A)
  • Export (Ctrl + Shift + E)
  • Document Properties (Ctrl + Shift + D)

Snap Controls (the toolbar on the right edge): Inkscape has very fine-grained snapping controls to configure what should be snapped to when you move items on the canvas (e.g. path nodes, object center, path intersections). It’s a bit fiddly, but very useful for making sure things are aligned to the grid. The icon tooltips are your friends :)

When aligning things or working with the pixel grid it’s very helpful to have the page grid visible. It can be toggled with the # shortcut or in the View menu.

Advanced: Partial Rounded Corners

One sort of advanced thing I started doing recently is using path effects to get rounded corners only on specific corners of a rectangle. This is handy compared to having the rounding baked into the geometry, because it keeps the rounding flexible, so the object can be scaled without affecting the rounded corners.

The feature is quite hidden and looks very complex, but once you know where it is it’s not that scary. You can find it in Path > Path Effects... > + > Corners (Fillet/Chamfer).

You’ll find that the mockup templates use this path effect technique for e.g. rounded bottom corners on windows.

Color Palette

It’s not as important for mockups as it is for app icons, but still nice to have: The GNOME color palette. Inkscape 1.0+ includes it by default, so you can just choose it from the arrow menu on the right.

Otherwise you can also get it via the dedicated color palette app, or download the .gpl from Gitlab and put it in ~/.var/app/org.inkscape.Inkscape/config/inkscape/palettes for Flatpak Inkscape or ~/.config/inkscape/palettes if it’s on the host.

Page Setup

With that out of the way, let’s get started making our mockup! First, we need a basic page to start from. We can start from the empty-page.svg file, by opening that file and saving it under the name we’ll ultimately want for our mockup, e.g. read-later.svg.

GNOME mockups usually consist of one or more views laid out on a “page” of whatever size is needed to make the content fit. There’s usually a title and description at the top, plus additional captions to explain things about the individual screens where it’s needed (example).

The page dimensions can be adjusted in Document Properties (Ctrl + Shift + D). One useful shortcut here is Ctrl+Shift+R, which resizes to the bounding box of the current selection (Note: Only use this shortcut if the thing you’re resizing to is e.g. a rectangle you set up for that purpose. Resizing the page to things off the pixel grid will break it, because it moves the document origin).

Let’s do that, and tweak the title and description for our case:

Desktop View

Now that the page is set up we can add our first screen. This is the sketch we’re going to be drawing first:

As a first step, let’s bring in the window template with view switcher from pattern-templates.svg. Open that file in Inkscape, select the top leftmost screen, copy it, and paste it into your mockup file.

After roughly positioning the window, check the exact position using the numeric position entries in the bar at the top, and make sure both X and Y positions are full integers (if they’re not integers it means your mockup is off the pixel grid and will look blurry).

It’s worth pointing out that while in this case we’re just starting from the plain default templates, it’s often faster to start from an existing mockup for another app. The app-mockups repository on GNOME Gitlab is full of existing mockups to borrow elements from or use as a starting point for a new mockup. That said, depending on their age those mockups might be using outdated patterns, so it’s good to check when a particular mockup was last updated :)

Headerbar

Let’s start by adjusting the headerbar to what we have in our sketch. Conveniently, several of the buttons don’t need to change at all from the template. All we need to do here is move the search button to the left, delete the add button, and adjust the switcher.

As a general rule, spacing between elements is a multiple of 6 pixels (so 6, 12, 18, 24…). For example, there are 6px of padding around buttons inside a headerbar, and 6px between the individual buttons.

When moving/placing elements, always make sure that snapping to bounding box is active (topmost group of snapping controls). As with the placement of the window earlier, it’s good to verify that sizes and positions are even integers in the toolbar up top.

Next up: The view switcher. You can start by changing the three labels, and then re-centering the icon + label groups on their respective containers. The inactive items have invisible containers, so they’re a bit fiddly to select.

For the icons, you can fire up Icon Library and search for the following icons:

  • Unread: view-paged
  • Archive: drawer *
  • Favorites: star-outline-thick

* This icon isn’t included yet, but will be in a future version

You can paste icons directly into Inkscape using the “Copy to Clipboard” feature. Before pasting, navigate into the relevant icon group (each of the icons is grouped with an invisible 16px rectangle, because that’s the icon canvas size). When placing an icon, make sure to center it on the invisible canvas rectangle, and place them on the pixel grid. You may want to turn on outline mode (Ctrl+5 cycles through display modes) to deal with the invisible rectangles more easily.

Once the icons are replaced, change the label strings with the text tool, and move the icon+label blocks horizontally so they look centered within their containers. I personally just do this manually by eye rather than using the alignment tool, so I don’t lose the icon’s alignment to the pixel grid, but you can also align and then manually move it to the closest position on the pixel grid.

With this, the headerbar is complete now:

Content

Let’s look at the content inside the window next. We can keep the basic structure of the listbox from the template, but obviously we want to change what’s in the list.

I’ve prepared some example content we can just copy and paste that into our mockup. Each article consists of three labels, one using the regular font size (10.5pt), and two using the small one (9pt). The metadata label also uses a lighter gray, to distinguish it from the body copy (you can get the color from the labels on the right side of the list in the template using the color picker tool).

The list from the template is grouped and has a clipping mask to cut off scrolling content at the bottom. Since our layout is different anyway we can remove the clipping by simply ungrouping (Ctrl + Shift + G). Next, we can delete all content except the first row, and change that to our first article.

In order to accommodate multiple pieces of content inline as part of the same label, a common pattern is to use middle dots (“·”) as dividers. Pro tip: The Typography app makes it easy to copy and paste typographic symbols like this one into your mockups.

After adding the articles in the first listbox, we need the “Show more” button at the bottom. For that we can just resize the list so it extends past the last article, and add a centered label on that area.

Some of the articles also have images associated with them (there are download URLs for the images in the example content file). Images that aren’t already square need to be clipped to a square shape for our layout. To do that in Inkscape

  • Pull in the image via drag and drop from the file manager (or paste it directly from a website via “Copy Image”)
  • Place a rectangle with the right size/proportions where we want the image to go in the layout. In this case, images should be 80px squares, with 12px spacing all around.
  • Move and scale the image to cover the rectangle on all sides
  • Select both the image and the rectangle, and do Object > Clip > Set. Note that the clipping object (the rectangle) needs to be above the target (the image).
Left: semi-transparent clipping rectangle overlaying image, right: clipped image

With the first list done, we can move it down a bit and add a title above it. You can re-use one of the titles from the list for that, and just horizontally align it with the list container. Spacing between title baseline and list should also be 12px, and above the title 18px to the edge of the view.

After that, our first list is complete:

For the second list we can duplicate our first list, move it down below, and just change the content:

In order to have it cut off nicely at the bottom we can bring back a clipping mask. Group the list, duplicate the window background rectangle, and use that as a clipping mask for the list. To make the last article a little more visible I’m also resizing the window background to be a little bit taller first.

For the primary menu we can pretty much just re-use the menu from the template (top left, outside the canvas). Copy over the template popover and button, and vertically align it so the button is at the same height as the one in the window.

Since we don’t need many actions other than the default ones, all we need to do here is change a few labels, add another divider, and put in the name of the app.

That leaves us with a bunch of whitespace in the popover though, so let’s move up the actions and then resize the popover by selecting the bottom nodes and moving them up using the arrow keys:

And with that, our menu looks pretty good:

That completes our desktop view, and we can move on to mobile.

Mobile View

Now that we have a desktop view, let’s do a mobile version of it. Let’s have another look at our sketch:

We can re-use all the elements from the desktop view here, but we need to resize and move around a few things.

As a starting point for the layout, let’s bring in the mobile template. I like to align the mobile headerbar with the desktop one vertically, so all the headerbar buttons have the same vertical position.

Headerbar & Navigation

On mobile sizes there’s not enough horizontal space to keep the view switcher in the headerbar, so instead there’s just a title. The view switcher is in a separate bar at the bottom.

For the headerbar we can duplicate the buttons from the desktop mockup and use them to replace the placeholder buttons on the mobile template.

For the switcher, start by deleting all items except one. Then center the remaining one, and resize the background rectangle to a bit less than a third of the width of the view.

After that you can duplicate the item twice, and move the two additional switcher items to the sides:

Now you can change the icons and strings, and delete the backgrounds on two of the items, and we have a complete mobile switcher:

Content

Adapting the content is easy in this case. Duplicate the lists from the desktop mockup, left-align it with the lists from the template and delete the original lists.

Then we just need to resize the text boxes by moving the handle on the right of the baseline, truncate the text to two lines, move the images to 12px from the right edge, and center the “Show More” label.

Repeat the same thing for the second list, and we have a complete mobile layout!

Page Size & Export

If we zoom out and look at the whole thing together, we can see that this looks pretty much done now:

However, the canvas size is too big for the content we have. Open Document Properties (Ctrl + Shift + D) and change the size to about 1780×1100px.

This is what it looks like with the new page size:

Now that the mockup is ready, let’s export a PNG for easy sharing. Open the Export dialog (Ctrl+Shift+E), choose “Page” at the very top, make sure the DPI is 96, and set the file path. Then press Export, and try opening the PNG in an image viewer to check if there are any issues you missed.

On the design team we usually then push the finished mockup to a git repository, but that’s out of scope for this tutorial.

Conclusion

Congratulation, you made it all the way to the end! I hope this was useful, and you’ll go on to make many great mockups using what you learned :)

You can download the SVG for the mockup I created for this tutorial from GNOME Gitlab. It might come in handy if you have problems with a specific part of the tutorial and want to see how I did it. By the way: The inkscape-tutorial-resources repository contains snapshots of all templates and resources used in this tutorial, in case the original ones change in the future.

Obviously for a real mockup we’d do additional screens (e.g. the article page, various other menus, settings screens, and the like), but I think we’ve covered most of the basics with just this one screen. If you have questions feel free to comment or get in touch!

There is No “Linux” Platform (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a series on what’s wrong with the free desktop app ecosystem and how we can fix it, based on the talk Jordan Petridis and I gave at LAS 2019 in Barcelona.

In Part 1 we looked at all the different elements making up a platform, and found that there is only one “complete” platform in the free software desktop world at the moment. This is because desktops control the developer platforms, while packaging and system integration is managed by separate communities, the distributions, for historical reasons. This additional layer of middlemen is a key reason why we don’t have real platforms.

Power to the Makers

The problems outlined in Part 1 are of course not new, and people have been working on solutions to them for a long time. Some of these solutions have really started to come together over the last few years, empowering the people making the software to distribute it directly to the people using it.

Thanks to the work of many amazing people in our community you can now develop an app in GNOME Builder, submit it to Flathub, get it reviewed, and have it available for people to install right away. Once it’s on there you can also update it on a schedule you control. No more waiting 6 months for the next distribution release!

Thanks to GNOME Builder’s Flatpak integration, “works on my machine” is largely a thing of the past now!

But though this is all very awesome, Flatpak is unfortunately not a complete solution to the platform conundrum discussed earlier in this series.

Flatpak is Not Enough

Flatpak does solve a number of the issues around app distribution very elegantly, because app developers do their own packaging, and control their release schedule. It’s also a unified package format that works across different host systems, and the Flatpak runtimes are clearly defined development targets to do QA against.

But that doesn’t magically fix all our problems. The two elephants in the room are

  1. The Host still matters: Flatpak only solves part of the issues with distro packaged apps
  2. Downstream drama: Flatpak does not address the conflicts between desktops and distributions

1. The Host Still Matters

Even with Flatpak there are still some unpredictable variables on the host system which affect app developers. On the technical side a number of things can go wrong, from an outdated Flatpak version (which can mean some Portals apps rely on may be missing), to missing/incompatible system APIs such as password storage, calendar, or address book.

These things can lead to applications not working properly, or at all. For example, this is why new versions of GNOME Contacts cannot access any contacts on Debian 10, why recent GNOME Calendar cannot access any calendars on Ubuntu 18.04, or why Fractal doesn’t remember your password across restarts on some non-GNOME environments.

There are also user-facing integration points where applications interface with the system. These include things like notifications, the application menu, search providers, the old systray, and the design patterns used in individual apps.

For example, when the system UI or design guidelines change, applications follow the platform and change their UI accordingly. This means if you install newer apps on an older system, there are going to be weird edge cases. For example, if you install new apps on Debian 10 you get a confusing mix of the old and new application menu paradigms because the design guidelines were changed with GNOME 3.32 (early 2019).

Before GNOME 3.32 applications had global menu items in the application menu in the Shell top bar, but now they are in the primary menu, inside the app window.

Flatpak also applies the host GTK stylesheet and icon set to apps. This means that if the host distribution overrides the system stylesheet, Flatpak will happily apply random, never-tested CSS to every app. Obviously this leads to lots of issues, ranging from ugly but relatively harmless glitches to real usability issues, such as illegible text on buttons. For more background on this particular issue, see this blog post.

Some of these issues could be fixed with more standardization, changes to Flatpak, or new portals. However, fundamentally, in order to be a real platform you need a clearly defined environment to develop and test for. Flatpak alone is not enough to achieve that.

Just like “write once, run everywhere” is always an illusion, it’s never going to be possible to completely split apps from the OS. You always need app developers to do some extra work to support different environments, and currently every distribution represents yet another extra environment to support.

2. Downstream Drama

Flatpak does not completely solve the issues app developers face in shipping their software, because these can not be isolated from the ones desktop developers face. In order to fix the app developer story we need real platforms. In order to get those we need to resolve the desktop/distribution dilemma.

The issues here roughly match the ones with traditional distribution packaging mentioned in Part 1, and can be grouped into three broad categories:

  • Structural issues inherent to having distributions and desktops be separate projects.
  • Fragmentation issues because we have multiple of everything so there’s duplication and/or bad abstraction layers.
  • Configuration issues, primarily around settings and other defaults, which have to be set at the distribution level but affect the user experience.

Structural Issues

One of the biggest structural issues is distribution release schedules not being aligned with the upstream one (or between different distributions). GNOME releases every 6 months, but distributions can take anywhere from a few weeks to several years to ship these releases.

This category also includes distributions overriding upstream decisions around system UX, as well as theming/branding issues, due to problematic downstream incentives. This means there is no clear platform visual identity developers can target.

For example, Ubuntu 18.04 (the current LTS) ships with GNOME 3.28 (from March 2018), includes significant changes to system UX and APIs (e.g. Unity-style dock, desktop icons, systray extension), and ships a branded stylesheet that breaks even in core applications.

Ubuntu 18.04 overrides the GTK system stylesheet, which results in the “Create” button on the new folder dialog in Files being invisible (among many many other issues, especially in third party apps).

Fragmentation Issues

Having multiple implementations of everything means we either need do tons of duplicate work, or try to abstract over the different implementations.

On one end of the spectrum there are OS installers: There is no GNOME installer, so every distribution builds their own. Unfortunately, most of these installers are not very good, and don’t integrate well with the rest of the desktop experience (e.g. they use different design patterns than the OS itself). This can be either due to a lack of resources (e.g. not every downstream has their own GNOME designers), or because different distributions have specific downstream goals and motivations (e.g. Fedora and RHEL share an installer, which introduces lots of complexity).

The famously awkward Fedora installer is a good example of why such core parts of the experience should be designed and developed upstream. Unfortunately this isn’t really feasible due to distribution fragmentation.

In other areas we have the opposite problem, because we’re trying to abstract over the fragmentation with a single component. For example, PackageKit is meant to abstract over different package formats, but in practice it only works for a handful of them, and even for those it’s often buggy. The PackageKit maintainers have officially given up on this approach.

Configuration Issues

This includes the default apps, the fonts shipped with the system by default, the terminal shell and prompt, and the UX around things like Plymouth. All of these things are usually configured at the distribution level and are therefore often not great, because these choices need to be made in concert with the rest of the platform UX.

Forging Platforms

Given the constraint of there being multiple different desktops projects and technology stacks (and the host still mattering), we’ll never have a single “Linux” or “FreeDesktop” platform. We could have one platform per desktop though.

From an app developer point of view, testing for GNOME, KDE, and elementary isn’t as nice as testing only for a single platform, but it’s not impossible. However, testing for Debian, Fedora, multiple Ubuntu releases, OpenSUSE, Arch, Endless, and dozens more is not and never will be feasible, even with Flatpak. Multiple different distributions, even ones that ship the same desktop environment, don’t add up to a platform. But exactly that is what we need, one way or another.

The question is, how do we get there?

The Nuclear Option

When we look at it from a Flatpak context, the solution seems obvious. Flatpak is solving the middleman problem for app developers by circumventing the distributions and providing a direct channel between developers and end users. What if we could do the same thing for the OS itself?

Of course the situation isn’t exactly the same, so what would that mean in practice?

With Flatpak runtimes there is no extra “distribution” abstraction layer. There are no Debian or Fedora runtimes, just GNOME and KDE, because those are the technology stacks app developers target.

These runtimes are already more or less full-fledged distributions which are controlled by the desktops, we’re just not using them as such. The Freedesktop SDK (which most runtimes are based on) is not based in any distro, but built directly from upstream sources using Buildstream as the build tool, and it already has most of the things you need to make a basic operating system.

There is an early-stage effort to make bootable nightly GNOME OS images for development/testing, built on top of the Freedesktop SDK. From there it wouldn’t be a huge leap to actually make an independent, consumer-facing platform OS for GNOME (and KDE, and other platforms).

However, though this is likely to become a very attractive solution in the future, there are a number of hurdles to be overcome:

  • An OS needs an installer, OS updates, a Plymouth theme, etc. All of these are being worked on for the nightly GNOME OS images, but are not quite there yet.
  • A “real” OS needs a dedicated group of people doing things like release management, security tracking, and QA. These are being done to some degree for the Flatpak runtimes, but a consumer OS would need more manpower.
  • It’s an OSTree-based immutable system, which means there is no traditional package management. Apps are installed via Flatpak, and server/developer workflows need to happen in containers. Though projects like Silverblue’s toolbox have come a long way over the past few years, there’s still work to be done before immutable OSes can painlessly replace systems with old-school package managers for all use cases.

It takes time to start a new operating system from scratch, especially when it’s using cutting-edge technology. So while things like GNOME OS could be amazing in the longer-term future, it’s likely going to take a few more years before this becomes a viable alternative.

Squaring the Circle

What could we do within the constraints of the technology, ecosystem, and communities we have today, then? If we can’t go around distributions with a platform OS, the only alternative is to meld the distributions into a meta platform OS.

Technically there’s nothing stopping a group of separate distributions from acting more or less like a unified platform OS together. It would require extraordinary discipline and compromise on all sides (admittedly not things our communities are usually known for), but given how important it is that we fix this problem, it’s at least worth thinking about.

To get an idea what this could look like in practice, let’s think through some of the specific issues mentioned earlier:

Release Schedule: This is probably among the thorniest issues since release cycles vary wildly in length and structure, and changing them is very difficult. It’s not unimaginable that at least some progress could be made here though. For example, GNOME could have long term support releases every 2-3 years for “stable” distributions like RHEL and Ubuntu LTS. Distributions could then agree to either be on the regular 6 month schedule, or the 2 year “LTS” schedule. Alternatively, all distributions could find a single compromise schedule that can work for everyone (e.g. maybe one release per year, like mobile operating systems do).

Theming/Branding: Some distributions want ways to customize the OS experience such that their system looks recognizably different from others. This is not necessarily a problem, as long as this is done using APIs that are supported and intended to be used in this way (which unfortunately is currently not happening in many cases).

Creating more branding opportunities which do not break APIs which apps rely upon (especially third party apps shipped via Flatpak), is certainly possible and there have been discussions in this direction (e.g. GTK accent colors). Whether distributions would limit themselves to these APIs once they exist is of course an open question, but at least there is a ongoing dialog about this.

System UX/API Changes: Some distributions make significant changes to the core system, which fragments the visual identity of the platform at best, and severely damages the app ecosystem at worst. This includes things like adding a permanent dock, icons on the desktop, re-enabling the systray, or a “dark mode” setting which just changes the system stylesheet from under apps.

The solution here is simple in theory: If you think a change to the system UX is needed to fix a specific problem, don’t just patch it downstream, but instead help to address the actual underlying issue (We already touched on this in Part 1). For example, if you find that new users are confused by the empty desktop at startup, don’t just ship an extension that completely breaks the structure of the shell. Bring the problem to the upstream designers and developers, figure out a solution together, and help implement it upstream.

In practice it’s not always that easy, but a lot can be done by simply adopting an upstream-first UX mindset. It can take a while to get used to, especially for companies with more, uh, “traditional” internal processes, but it’s definitely possible seeing as it’s working well for Red Hat and Purism, for example.

OS Installer: It may not be doable to have a single code base, but we could definitely share at least the design (and possibly some UI code) for the installers used across distributions. A cross-distribution initiative for nice, native GNOME installers across the major distributions would probably not be easy logistically, but is not unimaginable.

Software Installation & Updates: GNOME Software and PackageKit’s “abstract across distros” strategy has clearly failed, and we need a new approach here. For applications there is a relatively easy solution: Distributions stop packaging apps, and work together on a common repository of developer-submitted Flatpaks (e.g. something like Flathub). We’d need to work out how this common solution can accommodate various distribution policies around e.g. proprietary software, but this seems very doable and most of it already exists in Flathub.

The resources currently going into repackaging every app for every distribution could be pooled to review the apps submitted by developers to the common Flatpak repository.

Seeing as most distributions are not (yet) image-based like e.g. Silverblue or Endless, we would still also need a way to update the packages that make up the core system. For this there’s probably no way around backend duplication.

System Default Configuration: Making progress in this area is likely not too difficult comparatively. The main thing we’d need is better coordination between the various parties needed to synchronize these things better (which is of course easier said than done). Having some kind of common forum where the upstream design and release team, as well as people in charge of major distributions can discuss and standardize defaults across the entire ecosystem might work for that.

The Bottom Line

If we want a future with real platforms we can either go around the distributions or have them all work together (or potentially both), but one way or another we need to vertically integrate.

Neither path is straightforward or easy, and there’s a huge amount of work ahead either way. However, the first and most important step is acknowledging that this problem exists, and that we need to radically change our approach if we’re serious about building attractive app ecosystems.

The good news is that many people across different projects are already working towards enabling this future. We hope that you’ll join us.

Happy hacking :)

Doing Things That Scale

There was a point in my life when I ran Arch, had an elaborate personalized terminal prompt, and my own custom icon theme. I stopped doing all these things at various points for different reasons, but underlying them all is a general feeling that it’s taken me some time to figure out how to articulate: I no longer want to invest time in things that don’t scale.

What I mean by that in particular is things that

  1. Only fix a problem for myself (and maybe a small group of others)
  2. Have to be maintained in perpetuity (by me)

Not only is it highly wasteful for me to come up with a custom solution to every problem, but in most cases those solutions would be worse than ones developed in collaboration with others. It also means nobody will help maintain these solutions in the long run, so I’ll be stuck with extra work, forever.

Conversely, things that scale

  1. Fix the problem in way that will just work™ for most people, most of the time
  2. Are developed, used, and maintained by a wider community

A few examples:

I used to have an Arch GNU/Linux setup with tons of tweaks and customizations. These days I just run vanilla Fedora. It’s not perfect, but for actually getting things done it’s way better than what I had before. I’m also much happier knowing that if something goes seriously wrong I can reinstall and get to a usable system in half an hour, as opposed to several hours of tedious work for setting up Arch. Plus, this is a setup I can install for friends and relatives, because it does a decent job at getting people to update when I’m not around.

Until relatively recently I always set a custom monospace font in my editor and terminal when setting up a new machine. At some point I realized that I wouldn’t have to do that if the default was nicer, so I just opened an issue. A discussion ensued, a better default was agreed upon, and voilà — my problem was solved. One less thing to do after every install. And of course, everyone else now gets a nicer default font too!

I also used to use ZSH with a configuration framework and various plugins to get autocompletion, git status, a fancy prompt etc. A few years ago I switched to fish. It gives me most of what I used to get from my custom ZSH thing, but it does so out of the box, no configuration needed. Of course ideally we’d have all of these things in the default shell so everyone gets these features for free, but that’s hard to do unfortunately (if you’re interested in making it happen I’d love to talk!).

Years ago I used to maintain my own extension set to the Faenza icon theme, because Faenza didn’t cover every app I was using. Eventually I realized that trying to draw a consistent icon for every single third party app was impossible. The more icons I added, the more those few apps that didn’t have custom icons stuck out. Nowadays when I see an app with a poor icon I file an issue asking if the developer would like help with a nicer one. This has worked out great in most cases, and now I probably have more consistent app icons on my system than back when I used a custom theme. And of course, everyone gets to enjoy the nicer icons, not only me.

Some other things that don’t scale (in no particular order):

  • Separate home partition
  • Dotfiles
  • Non-trivial downstream patches
  • Manual tracker/cookie/Javascript blocking (I use uMatrix, which is already a lot nicer than NoScript, but still a pretty terrible experience)
  • Multiple Firefox profiles
  • User styles on websites
  • Running your blog on a static site generator
  • Manual backups
  • Encrypted email
  • Hosting your own email (and self-hosting more generally)
  • Google-free Android (I use Lineage on a Pixel 1, it’s a miserable existence)
  • Buying a Windows computer and installing GNU/Linux
  • Auto-starting apps
  • Custom keyboard shortcuts, e.g. for launching apps (I still have a few of these, mostly because of muscle memory)

The free software community tends to celebrate custom, hacky solutions to problems as something positive (“It’s so flexible!”), even when these hacks are only necessary because things are broken by default. It’s nice that people with a lot of time and technical skills can fix their own problems, but the benefits from that don’t automatically trickle down to everybody else.

If we want ethical technology to become accessible to more people, we need to invest our (very limited) time and energy in solutions that scale. This means good defaults instead of endless customization, apps instead of scripts, “it just works” instead of “read the fucking manual”. The extra effort to make proper solutions that work for everyone, rather than hacks just for ourselves can seem daunting, but is always worth it in the long run. Just as with accessibility and commenting your code, the person most likely to benefit from it is you, in the future.

Designing an Icon for Your App

You’ve designed your app’s interface, and found the perfect name for it. But of course a great app also needs a great icon before you can release it to the world.

After the name, the app icon is the most important part of an app’s brand. The icon can help explain at a glance what the app does, and serves as an entry point to the rest of the experience. A high quality icon can make people want to use an app more, because it’s a stand-in for the quality of the entire app.

Think of the app icon like an album cover for your app. Yes, technically the music is the same even if you have a terrible cover, but a great cover can capture the spirit of the album and elevate the quality of the thing as a whole.

Metaphors

The first thing you need is a metaphor, i.e. some kind of physical object, symbol, or other visual artifact that symbolizes your application.

Finding a good metaphor is a fuzzy and sometimes difficult process, as it’s often hard to find a physical object many people will recognize as related to the domain of your app. There are no hard and fast rules for this, but ideally your icon metaphor should fall into one of these categories:

  • Physical objects directly related to what the app does (e.g. a speaker for Music)
  • Physical objects vaguely related to the app’s domain or an older analog version of it (e.g. a cassette tape for Podcasts)
  • Symbols related to the domain (e.g. the “play” triangle for Videos)
  • A simplified/stylized version of the app’s user interface (e.g. Peek)

The Music, Podcasts, Videos, and Peek icons

There are also anti-patterns for metaphors which should be avoided, if possible:

  • Heavily stylized symbols or logos (e.g. Fondo)
  • Completely random objects or symbols (e.g. Dino)
  • Mascots (e.g. GIMP)

These kinds of metaphors can work, but they make it harder to see at a glance what the app does, and don’t fit in as well with the rest of the system.

Let’s try an example: Remember the Reading List app we designed in a previous tutorial? Let’s make an icon for that!

My process for brainstorming metaphors is quite similar to the one I use to brainstorm names: I come up with a few ideas for physical objects, put them in a thesaurus to find more related ones, and repeat that until I have a list with at least a few viable candidates.

Let’s start with related physical objects:

  • Reading List
  • List
  • Book
  • Bookshelf
  • Article
  • Newspaper
  • Bookmark

How about related non-objects? Maybe we can find some more interesting objects that way:

  • Reading, the activity: Couch, reading light, tea/coffee, glasses
  • Later (as in, “read later”): Clock, timer
  • Collecting things: Folder, clipboard

Now that we have a few options, let’s see which ones are viable. Ideally, the metaphor you choose should have these attributes:

  • Somewhat specific to the app’s domain (e.g. a book is probably too generic in our case)
  • Recognizable at small sizes
  • Can be drawn in a simple, geometric style (this can save you a lot of work later on)

In this case, the most viable options are probably

  • Stack of books
  • Bookshelf
  • Bookmark
  • One of the above + a clock

Sketches

Now that we have some metaphors, let’s try to sketch them to see if they make for good icons. I usually use pencil and paper for this, but you can also use a whiteboard, digital drawing tablet, or whatever else works for you to quickly visualize some concepts.

There are also official sketching templates with the base icon shapes available for download.

While sketching it’s good to think about the overall shape your icon will have. If it makes sense for your metaphor, try to make the icon not just a simple square or circle, but something more unique and interesting. If it doesn’t make sense in your case don’t force it though, there are other ways to make the icon visually unique and interesting, such as color and structure.

In this case, it looks like there are a number of viable concepts among our sketches, though nothing jumps out as the obvious best option. I kind of like the bookshelf, so let’s try going forward with that one.

Start from a Template

We now have a concept we like, so we can move to vector. This is where we can start using the shiny new icon design tools!

The first step is to install App Icon Preview from Flathub. We’ll also need a vector editor that works well with SVG, such as Inkscape.

Open App Icon Preview, and hit the “New App Icon” button on the welcome screen. We’re asked for the Reverse Domain Name Notation name of the app (e.g. org.mozilla.Firefox), and where to store the icon project file.

In most cases you’ll want to keep this file in your app’s git repository. Think of it as your icon’s source file, which the final icon assets are later exported from.

After that, the icon will open in preview mode in App Icon Preview. Now we open the same file in a vector drawing app, and edit it from there. Every time we save the source file, the preview will automatically update.

Now we have our icon source file open in both App Icon Preview and Inkscape. Icon Preview shows just the icon grid:

In Inkscape, open the Layers panel (Ctrl + Shift + L) and check out the layer structure. The icons layer is where the actual icon goes. The grid and baseplate layers contain the icon grid and the canvas respectively.

Behind everything else is the template layer, which doesn’t contain anything visible and is only needed so App Icon Preview can get the canvas size for preview and export. Don’t change, hide, rename, or delete this layer, because the icon might not show up in App Icon Preview anymore.

When previewing the icon in App Icon Preview you’ll want to hide the grid and baseplate layers (using the little eye icon next to the layers).

Make sure you have the GNOME HIG Colors palette in Inkscape. Inkscape 1.0 Beta has it by default, otherwise you can download it from the HIG App Icons repository and put it in ~/.var/app/org.inkscape.Inkscape/config/inkscape/palettes for Flatpak Inkscape or ~/.config/inkscape/palettes if it’s on the host. There’s also a color palette app, which you can get on Flathub.

Inkscape Tips

Once you’re familiar with the template, you can start drawing your icon idea as vector. If you’re using Inkscape and aren’t very familiar with the app yet, here’s a quick overview of the things you’ll likely need.

Toolbox (the toolbar on the left edge)

  • Selection/movement/scaling tool (S)
  • Rectangle tool (R)
  • Ellipse tool (E)

And if you’re doing something a little more advanced:

  • Bezier path drawing tool (B)
  • Path & node editor (N)
  • Gradient editor

Dialogs Sidebar (configuration dialogs docked to the right side)

  • Fill & Stroke (Ctrl + Shift + F)
  • Align & Distribute (Ctrl + Shift + A)
  • Layers (Ctrl + Shift + L)

Snap Controls (the toolbar on the right edge) Inkscape has very fine-grained snapping controls, where you can configure what should be snapped to when you move items on the canvas (e.g. path nodes, object center, path intersections). It’s a bit fiddly, but very useful for making sure things are aligned to the grid. The icon tooltips are your friends :)

Of course, teaching Inkscape is a bit out of scope for this guide. If you’re just getting started with it, I recommend doing a few beginner tutorials first to familiarize yourself with the basic workflows (especially around the tools listed here).

The GNOME Icon Style

Traditionally, GNOME app icons were very complex, with lots of photorealistic detail and many different sizes which had to be drawn separately. This changed when we revamped the style in 2018, with the explicit goal of making it easier to produce, and more approachable for third party icon designers.

The new style is very geometric, so in many cases you can draw an entire icon with just basic shapes.

These icons consist of rectangles (some with rounded corners) and circles exclusively

Perspective

One important attribute of the style is the abstract perspective. Even though the style is simple and geometric, it’s not “flat”: It makes use of material, depth, and perspective, but in a way that is optimized for easy production as vector.

The perspective works by “folding” horizontal and vertical layers into one dimension, so you can see the object orthogonally from both the top and the front.

This results in a kind of “chin” an the bottom of the object, which is shaded darker than the top surface, since light comes evenly from the top/back.

The perspective is achieved by folding the top and front views together

In practice, this usually doesn’t have a huge impact, since it’s also suggested to make objects not too tall, when possible. A lot of icons are just a simple 2D shape with a small chin at the bottom.

That said, it can look very weird when you get the perspective wrong, e.g. by folding the layers from the top/back instead of the front, so it’s important to keep this in mind.

Material & Lighting

Icons can make use of skeuomorphic materials (e.g. wood, metal, or glass) if it’s needed for the physical metaphor, but outside of those special cases it’s recommended to keep things simple.

Examples of icons with realistic materials

Straight surfaces have flat colors (instead of e.g. slight vertical gradients), but curved surfaces can/should have gradients. The corners on the chin on rounded base shapes should have a highlight gradient.

The highlight on the corners of the chin is done with a horizontal gradient.

Shadows inside the icon should be avoided if possible, but can be used if necessary (e.g. for contrast reasons). Do not use drop shadows that affect the app outline though, because GTK renders such a shadow automatically.

Icon Grid & Standard Shapes

In order to make sure icons are somewhat similar in size, alignment, etc. we have a grid system.

The canvas is 128x128px (for legacy reasons), but you’re designing for 64×64, while also taking 32×32 into account where possible. In general, it’s good to make sure you’re putting as many lines as possible on grid lines, so they’re sharp even at 32. Testing in App Icon Preview helps a lot with this.

Each of the grid squares is 8×8 pixels. In order to be pixel-perfect at 64 and 32, orthogonal lines/edges should be on these grid lines (or fractions of them).

The icon grid also has some standard shapes for wide, tall, square, and circular icons, which can be used as a basis for the structure of the icon if it makes sense for the metaphor (e.g. if the object is more or less square, use the square standard shape).

Protip: Great Artists Steal Reuse

There are lots of apps with icons in the GNOME style out there, and they’re all free software. If there’s something you like about another app’s icon you can get the source from GNOME Gitlab or Github, look at how a certain object is drawn, or just take (parts of) other icons and adapt them to your needs.

This is especially useful for common objects needed in many icons, e.g. pencils, books, or screens. The icon template in App Icon Preview comes with a few of these common objects on the canvas, which can be a good starting point for new icons.

Draw, Preview, Repeat!

Armed with this knowledge about the style and tooling, we can finally jump in and start drawing! In this case I re-did the sketch at a slightly larger size to get a better feel for it:

Book shelf sketch

Now let’s try vectorizing it. Since the overall shape is a tall rectangle, we can start with the tall rectangle standard shape. If we change the color to brown, and make the chin at the bottom thicker (by resizing the top layer vertically), we have the basic frame for the shelf.

After that we can add the actual shelves, by simply adding two slightly darker brown rectangles (the back of the shelf), and two wide rectangles at the top of these (the bottom of the horizontal shelf).

Changing the color of the chin is a bit tricky, because it has a horizontal gradient. It requires selecting the bottom rectangle with the gradient tool, clicking each gradient stop manually and changing it to brown by clicking one of the colors in the color palette at the bottom edge of the window.

If you use e.g. Brown 3 from the palette for the top surface, you can use the Brown 4 or 5 for the chin, and Brown 2 or 3 for the highlights in the corners.

Let’s see what this looks like in Icon Preview now:

Getting there, right? Now let’s add some books. Lucky for us, book spines can also be drawn as rectangles, so this shouldn’t be too hard. We don’t want too much detail, because we’re designing for 64px first and foremost. Something like 10 books per row should work.

100% rectangles :)

If we want to get fancy we can also round the top of the spine on some of the books by adding an ellipse of the same color, but it’s not really needed at this size.

Finished full-color icon in App Icon Preview

Looking good! I think we’re done with the full-color icon.

If at this point in the process you feel like the concept or metaphor isn’t working out (for example because it doesn’t look interesting enough, or because it’s too complicated to work at small sizes) you can always go back a few steps and try vectorizing a different one of your sketches. The nice thing about the simplicity of this style is that you can do this without losing weeks of work, making iteration on concepts much more feasible.

Symbolic

Now that the full-color icon is done, we can start thinking about the symbolic icon for our app. Ideally this is a simplified, one-color version of the app icon, designed for a 16×16 px canvas. It’s used in notifications and some other places in the Shell where a colorful icon would not be appropriate.

I won’t go into too much detail on this here since drawing good symbolics is a big topic, and this post is too long already. I might expand on this in a future post, but for now here are a few quick tips:

  • Alignment to the pixel grid is very important here if you don’t want the icon to end up a blurry mess
  • Stick to the original metaphor if at all possible, go for something else if not
  • Test in App Icon Preview to make sure the icon is actually recognizable at 16px
  • If possible leave the outermost 1px empty on all sides
  • Most strokes should be 2px, but they can be 1px in some cases
  • Don’t overthink it for the first version. This icon is a secondary thing, and it’s relatively little effort to fix/redo it later :)

Our bookshelf example looks tricky at first glance, because we have all these tiny books, and only 16 pixels to work with. However, if we simplify it enough it’s not too hard to get something decent. We can just use a two tall and two wide rectangles to draw the shelf, and three smaller rectangles as books on each shelf:

This one is literally just rectangles :)

And that’s it! We have a real app icon now, with everything that entails. If you want to have a look at the source for the icon we made in this tutorial, you can download the SVG here. It includes the final icon and some of the intermediate steps.

Color and Symbolic in App Icon Preview

Export

Now that we’re happy with the icon, we can press the “Export” button in App Icon Preview and save the final icon assets. The app will automatically optimize the SVGs for size, and if you have nightly builds of your app, you also get an automatically generated nightly icon without any extra work!Export Popover in App Icon Preview

Congratulations for making it all the way to the end! I hope you found this tutorial useful, and will go on to make great icons for your apps. If there’s anything you found unclear while following along, please let me know in the comments.

If you’re looking for more resources on the topic, check out the Icons and Artwork HIG page, the official guide on making GNOME App Icons, and the Icon Design Workflow wiki page.

Happy hacking :)

There is no “Linux” Platform (Part 1)

This is part 1 of a series of blog posts based on the talk Jordan Petridis and I gave at LAS 2019 in Barcelona. Read part 2 here.

In our community there is this idea that “Linux” is the third platform next to Windows and macOS. It’s closely connected to things like the “year of the Linux desktop”, and can be seen in the language around things like Flatpak, which bills itself as “The Future of Apps on Linux” and the Linux App Summit, which is “designed to accelerate the growth of the Linux application ecosystem”.

But what does that actually mean? What does a healthy app ecosystem look like? And why don’t we have one?

I think the core of the problem is actually the layer below that: Before we can have healthy ecosystems, we need healthy platforms to build them on.

What is a Platform?

The word “platform” is often used without a clear definition of what exactly that entails. If we look at other successful platforms there are a ton of different things enabling their success, which are easy to miss when you just look at the surface.

On the developer side you need an operating system developers can use to make apps. You also need a developer SDK and tooling which are integrated with the operating system. You need developer documentation, tutorials, etc. so people can learn how to develop for the platform. And of course once the apps are built there needs to be an app store to submit them to.

Developers can’t make great apps all by themselves, for that you also need designers. Designers need tools to mock up and prototype apps, platform UI patterns for things like layout and navigation, so every app doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel, and a visual design language so designers can make their app fit in with the rest of the system visually. You also need Human Interface Guidelines documenting all of the above, as well as tutorials and other educational resources to help people learn to design for the platform.

On the end user side you need a consumer OS with an integrated app store, where people can get the great apps developers make. The consumer OS can be the same as the developer OS, but doesn’t have to be (e.g. it isn’t for Android or iOS).  You also need a way for people to get help/support when they have problems with their system (whether that’s physical stores, a help website, or just easily google-able Stackoverflow questions).

That’s a lot of different things, but we can group them into four major pieces which are needed in order for something to be a real platform:

  • Operating System
  • Developer Platform
  • Design Language
  • App Store

So if we look at the free software world, where are the platforms?

Linux?

Linux is a kernel, which can be used to build OSes, which can be used to build platforms. Some people (e.g. Google with Android) have done so, but a kernel by itself doesn’t have any of the four things outlined above, and therefore is not a platform.

FreeDesktop.org?

What about “Desktop Linux”, which is what people usually mean when they say “Linux”? The problem is that this term doesn’t have a clear definition. You could take it to mean “FreeDesktop.org”, but that also doesn’t come close to being a platform. FreeDesktop is a set of standards that can be used to build platforms (and/or ensure some level of compatibility between different platforms). Endorsement of a single platform or set of technologies goes directly against FreeDesktop’s aims, and as such it should only be thought of as the common building blocks platforms might share.

Ubuntu?

What about distributions? Ubuntu is one of the most popular ones, and unlike others it has its own app store. It still isn’t a platform though, because it doesn’t have the most critical pieces: a developer SDK/technology stack, and a design language.

Other distributions are in a similar but worse position because they don’t have an app store.

GNOME?

GNOME is the most popular desktop stack, and it does have an SDK and design language. However, it only sort of has an app store (because GNOME people work on Flathub), and it doesn’t have an OS. Many distributions ship GNOME, but they are all different in various ways (more on this later), so they don’t provide a unified development target.

Elementary?

Despite being a relatively small project, elementary is attracting third party developers making apps specifically for their platform

Interestingly, the only project which currently has all the pieces is elementary. It has an OS, an SDK, a HIG, and an app store to submit apps to. The OS is largely Ubuntu and the technology stack largely GNOME, but it develops its own desktop and apps on top of that, and does the integration work to make it into a complete consumer product.

This begs the question, why is elementary the only one?

The Means of Distribution

The reasons for this are largely historical. In the early days, free software desktops were a bunch of independently developed components. They were not necessarily designed for each other, or well integrated. This meant in order to have a usable system, someone needed to curate these components and assemble them into an operating system: The first distributions were born.

Over the last decades this landscape has changed drastically, however. While GNOME 1 was a set of loosely coupled components, GNOME 2 was already much more cohesive and GNOME 3 is now essentially an integrated product. The shell, core apps, and underlying technologies are all designed with each other in mind, and provide a complete OS experience.

Desktops like GNOME have expanded their scope to cover most of the responsibilities of platforms, and are in effect platforms now, minus the OS part. They have a very clear vision of how the system should work, and app developers target them directly.

The elementary project has taken this development to its logical end point, and made its own vertically integrated OS and app store. This is why it’s the only “real” platform in the free software space at the moment.

GNOME has a relatively vibrant ecosystem of nice third party apps now, despite not being a complete platform (yet). This gives us a glimpse of the potential of this ecosystem.

Distributions, on the other hand, have not really changed since the 90s. They still do integration work on desktop components, package system and applications, set defaults, and make UX decisions. They still operate as if they’re making a product from independent components, even though the actual product work is happening at the desktop layer now.

This disconnect has led to tensions in many areas, which affect both the quality of the system user experience, and the health of the app ecosystem.

What’s interesting about this situation is that desktop developers are now in the same situation app developers have always been in. Unlike desktops, apps have always been complete products. Because of this they have always suffered from the fragmentation and disconnect between developers and users introduced by distribution packaging.

Grievances with the distribution model, which affect both app and desktop developers, include:

  • Release schedule: Developers don’t have control over the pace at which people get updates to their software. For apps this can mean people still get old versions of software with issues that were fixed upstream years ago. For desktops it’s even worse, because it means app developers don’t know what version of the platform to target, especially since this can vary wildly (some distributions release every 6 months, others every 2+ years).
  • Packaging errors: Distribution packaging is prone to errors because individual packagers are overloaded (often maintaining dozens or hundreds of packages), and don’t know the software as well as the developers.
  • Overriding upstream decisions: When distributions disagree with upstream decisions, they sometimes keep old version of software, or apply downstream patches that override the author’s intentions. This is very frustrating if you’re an app developer, because users never experience your app as you intended it to be. However, similar to the release schedule issue, it’s even worse when it happens to the core system, because it fragments the platform for app developers.
  • Distro Theming: App developers test with the platform stylesheet and icons, so when distributions change these it can break applications in highly visible ways (invisible widgets, unreadable text, wrong icon metaphors). This is especially bad for third party apps, which get little or no testing from the downstream stylesheet developers. This blog post explains the issue in more detail.

The Wrong Incentives

The reason for a lot of these issues is the incentives on the distribution side. Distributions are shipping software directly to end users, so it’s very tempting to solve any issues they find downstream and just ship them directly. But because the distributions don’t actually develop the software this leads to a number of other problems:

  • Perpetual rebasing: Any change that isn’t upstreamed needs to be rebased on every future version of the upstream software.
  • Incoherent user experience: Downstream solutions to UX problems are often simplistic and don’t fix the entire issue, because they don’t have the development resources for a proper fix. This leads to awkward half-redesigns, which aren’t as polished or thought-through as the original design.
  • Ecosystem fragmentation: Every downstream change adds yet another variable app developers need to test for. The more distributions do it, the worse it gets.

The Endless OS shell is a great example of this. They started out with vanilla GNOME Shell, but then added ever more downstream patches in order to address issues found in in-house usability tests. This means that they end up having to do huge rebases every release, which is a lot of work. At the same time, the issues that prompted the changes do not get fixed upstream (Endless have recently changed their strategy and are working upstream much more now, so hopefully this will get better in the future).

This situation is clearly bad for everyone involved: Distributions spend a ton of resources rebasing their patches forever, app developers don’t have a clear target, and end users get a sub-par experience.

So, what could we do to improve this? We’ll discuss that in part 2 of this series :)

GNOME Shell Hackfest 2019

This October I attended the GNOME Shell Hackfest 2019 in the Netherlands. It was originally just planned as a small hackfest for core Shell developers, but then us designers decided to crash the party and it became a pretty big thing. In the end we were about 15 people from lots of different companies, including Red Hat, Endless, Purism, and Canonical. The venue was the Revspace hackerspace in Leidschendam, which is somewhere between the Hague and Leiden.

The venue was very cool, with plenty of hackerspace-y gadgets and a room with couches and a whiteboard, which was perfect for the design team’s planning sessions.

Excitement on the first day

Allan, Jakub, and I were primarily there to make progress on some long-standing issues with GNOME Shell, such as new user onboarding, the app grid, and the spatial model of the Shell. We’ve wanted to address many of these things for a long time (in fact, some of them were already discussed at the London hackfest 2 years ago). In the weeks leading up to the hackfest we had already been working on this (together with Sam Hewitt who couldn’t make it to the hackfest unfortunately), preparing a number of concepts to be worked out in more detail.

Jakub and Allan hard at work

At the hackfest we made these concepts more concrete, worked on mockups and prototypes, and discussed them with Shell developers. It’s still early days for all of this, but we’re very excited about sharing it more widely soon.

Jakub presenting some exciting prototypes to the Shell developers

We also worked on a number of other things, such as the new lock screen design, which Georges has started to implement, prettier Shell dialogs, and some changes to the system status menu.

Dinner on the final day

Thanks to Carlos Garnacho and Hans de Goede for organizing, Revspace for hosting us, and the GNOME Foundation for sponsoring my travel and accommodation!