Banquets and Barbecues

tl;dr: We’re splitting up Fractal into two separate apps: One to replace IRC, the other to replace Telegram.

This is an in-depth post on the thinking behind the split of the Fractal app, which was decided at the hackfest in Strasbourg last week. For more information about the hackfest, have a look at my other blog post.

1-1 woes

One of the biggest problems with Fractal at the moment is that 1-1 messaging is pretty terrible. Since the rooms in the sidebar are sorted by most recent activity, high-traffic public rooms (such as GNOME IRC channels) tend to drown out rooms with less traffic, such as 1-1s and small groups. This is problematic because the signal-to-noise ratio in 1-1 chats and small groups tends to be much higher than in high-traffic public rooms. This leaves the user constantly searching for the rooms they care about, while the rooms they don’t care about are always at the top.

1-1 chats are quickly drowned out by high-traffic public rooms in the sidebar

One way to solve this problem is having a favorites group for “important” rooms. This is a feature Fractal has had for a while, and it does solve some of the problems with a room list sorted purely by recent activity. However, it only works well for rooms that are important over long periods of time, and needs to be managed manually. 1-1 chats are often brief, and there can be many of them in parallel. Putting them in favorites doesn’t make sense in many cases, as it would balloon the size of the favorites group, and require lots of manual work when starting or ending a conversation.

The “obvious” solution would be doing what Riot does: Having a separate group of 1-1 rooms in the sidebar, and thereby keeping the 1-1 conversations in one consistent place. However, this creates more problems than it solves. In practice, it results in multiple groups of arbitrary length competing for real estate in the sidebar. If you have a lot of 1-1s, this means that you’ll be able to see very few rooms (even when most of the 1-1s are old and not relevant at the moment). In Riot, this group is capped at 10 visible rooms by default, but that’s still not great if you only need 2 of them at the moment. The category can be collapsed, but then you can’t see which 1-1s have new messages, and it also means lots of busywork collapsing/expanding the group. Clearly this isn’t an ideal solution, which is why we were very hesitant to go down this path.

Riot’s separate 1-1 category doesn’t really solve the problem, because old 1-1s take up a ton of vertical real estate when it’s expanded

A way out?

As we were discussing this issue over the past few months, I started looking more closely at the way people use different messaging tools. One thing I found puzzling is that despite the fact that Matrix theoretically supports the use cases covered by popular apps like Whatsapp and Telegram, few people are actually using it to replace those apps. Instead, they use it to replace IRC and Slack.

Why? My theory is that most chat rooms fall in one of three categories:
Private Chats, which include 1-1s and small groups; Team Chats, which are larger, but still private and invite-only; and Public Rooms, which are basically like IRC.

Team Chats and Public Rooms share many characteristics: Both have relatively high amounts of traffic, and there’s a lot of noise. The main difference is that Team Chats are private and the members rarely change (e.g. a company’s internal Slack), while Public Rooms can be joined by anyone at any time, and there is no expectation of privacy (e.g. #gnome-hackers on IRC).

However, Private Chats have relatively little in common with the other two categories: They are low-traffic, and have little or no noise. This may sound like a small difference, but I think it’s the reason why 1-1s suck in Fractal/Riot/IRC, and why people aren’t using Matrix to replace Telegram.

The Banquet and the Barbecue

I’ve come to the conclusion that one app can’t cover all the use cases that the Matrix protocol supports, and still provide competitive UX. If you design an app to deal with lots of high-traffic rooms (e.g. Riot as it is today), it will suck for 1-1s, so people will use something else for those. Similarly, Telegram is primarily designed for 1-1s and small groups, which is why it’s a terrible experience if you have many high-traffic groups.

If we want Matrix to succeed as more than an IRC/Slack replacement we need multiple apps, each focusing on a distinct use case. For messaging, I think the most important distinction to make is between what I call the Banquet and the Barbecue.

Slack is one of the most widely used apps covering the Banquet use case

The Banquet is a big, loud place. There are tons of people, and you don’t know many of them. Lots of things are happening all the time, and it’s hard to keep track of everything. This is what Matrix is currently mostly used for. Slack, IRC, and Discord are also all in this category.

iMessage is a good example of an app focused on the Barbecue use case

The Barbecue is at the other end of the spectrum: It’s a calm, private environment where friends, family, co-workers, and other acquaintances hang out. Conversations are mostly between 2 or 3 people, slow, and often very personal. Telegram, Whatsapp, iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and a myriad of other chat apps are optimized for this use case.

Fracturing Fractal

Now, what does this mean for Fractal? After a long discussion on Thursday, we decided to split up Fractal into two separate apps with different interfaces, each containing a subset of the user’s Matrix rooms.

Exactly how rooms will be split between the two apps is not 100% clear yet. 1-1s are clearly Barbecue, public rooms are clearly Banquet, but private groups could go either way. For these cases we may need a way to explicitly move rooms between apps. The distinction should probably be part of the Matrix spec, so the intent for a room to be a Barbecue or Banquet room could be set when creating a room, and persist across devices.

The two apps will share practically all the internals, and even large parts of the interface. However, the split will allow us to do some things differently in each app to optimize the interfaces for the different use cases. Some of the changes we’re considering are a bubble-style message view in the Barbecue app, and more room categories (such as low-priority) in the Banquet app’s sidebar.

For more details on the split have a look at the blog posts by Daniel, Eisha, Julian, and Adrien.

Messages and Discussions

How exactly the apps will be branded (and what will happen to the Fractal name we all love) is still being decided, but there is some consensus to move to GNOME-style generic names. The Barbecue app will almost certainly be called “Messages”. For the Banquet app there’s less agreement, but my current favorite is “Discussions”.

Early-stage mockups showing what the two different apps could look like

The Fractal brand will not go away though: We’re thinking of keeping it around as the name of the community project that develops both GNOME Matrix apps, and/or using it for the backend powering both apps.

There are lots of details to be figured out in this transition, both from a design and an implementation perspective, but I’m very excited about this new direction. If you’d like to join the effort, come talk to us on Matrix.

Note: I have no illusions that this change will magically get everyone to leave Whatsapp/Telegram/iMessage and move to Matrix. In the short term, the goal is simply to make Matrix 1-1s a good experience. That said, if we ever want Matrix to make inroads with the general public, I think a move in this direction is an important precondition.

Fractal Hackfest in Strasbourg

Last week we had an intense 4-day hackfest in Strasbourg to map out the future of Fractal, a native GNOME Matrix messaging app. The event was held at Epitech in Strasbourg’s old town, and organized by Alexandre Franke. Among the attendees were core Fractal contributors Daniel, Alexandre, Eisha, and Julian, as well as Dorota, Adrien, and Francois from Purism. Special thanks go to Matthew from the Matrix core team for joining us on the first two days.

Our main priorities for the hackfest were to plan the roadmap for the next months, decide on the tasks for our GSoC students (Eisha and Julian), and work on the design of some important missing features, like the room settings.

I personally attended the hackfest in both my role as designer on the Fractal project and as a Purism employee currently working on the apps for the Librem 5. One of the reasons why several members of the Librem 5 team attended the hackfest was that we will need a Matrix messaging app on the phone and wanted to explore a potential collaboration.

The hackfest was extremely productive, so much so that I’ll need multiple blog posts to report on all the things we worked on. Here’s a quick outline of some of the most important things that happened:

  • We’re splitting the app into two separate apps (more on this in a future blog post)
  • A big refactor of the backend is happening soon to enable the split
  • We discussed having a system-level Matrix daemon, which different apps could use as a backend (e.g. the two different messaging apps and a calls app)
  • Matthew explained that room types will be simplified into 1-1, private groups and public groups in the future (which nicely complements our split). We discussed whether 1-1s should be immutable (they should :P)
  • Matthew explained how end-to-end encryption and calls work in Matrix, and how we could get them in Fractal
  • We came up with an initial design for multi-account (which basically consists of an account chooser at startup, and a separate window for each account)
  • We discussed a design for read receipts. Not quite done yet, but we’re on the right path, I think.
  • We talked about what it will take to make Fractal work on mobile. Not too big of a problem design-wise, but we’ll need Rust bindings for libhandy and emeus
  • Eisha will be investigating i18n, because we really want to make the app translatable (currently this is hard to do because we use Rust)
  • Julian will be working on a big message history UI refactor/redesign, as well as other UI stuff, such as user account settings
  • ┬áThere is a huge number of message types we don’t support yet and we discussed the design for most of them (including in-app viewers and a history of sent files)
  • With Matthew’s help, Daniel fixed the slow initial sync
  • Julian worked on a nicer UI for the GTK emoji chooser and Rust bindings for gspell
  • Alexandre landed the new, prettier default avatars
  • Quentin started packaging Fractal for macOS
  • We fought our way though the garbage fire that is the Join and History settings in Riot, and emerged with a design that isn’t terrible (thanks Dorota and Julian!)
Matthew explaining device verification for E2E chats

Thanks everyone for attending, Epitech and Alexandre for the venue, and Purism for sponsoring the hackfest! It was amazingly productive to have everyone in one place, and I look forward to seeing you all at GUADEC in July :)

 

Announcing the 2018 Fractal Hackfest

tl;dr: Fractal is a new Matrix app for GNOME. Come join our hackfest May 10-13th in Strasbourg!

For the past few months, I’ve been contributing to a new group messaging app called Fractal. Its aim is to be so good that we can maybe, eventually, finally replace IRC as the primary communication channel for GNOME development.

IRC is old

Though IRC has been around forever, it’s hardly a good user experience by today’s standards, and can be a significant hurdle to onboarding new contributors (especially non-technical ones). Some of the main issues are:

  • No easy way to use it from mobile
  • You can only receive messages while online
  • Sending images or files is only possible via URL

This has led to some free software projects going so far as to use proprietary services such as Slack. However, even then you’re stuck with an Electron app, which is slow and not integrated with the desktop at all.

Enter the Matrix

The Matrix protocol is a modern alternative to IRC. It provides features such as persistence, inline media, and multi-device syncing. Importantly for GNOME, it is also backwards-compatible to IRC using bridges, allowing us to use the fancy new Matrix features without being cut off from the rest of the community.

Over the past few years, some GNOME developers have started using Matrix, but the lack of a good native client has held back adoption.

Riot in Revolt
The Riot web app works, but it’s not exactly a clean, focused experience

And that’s where Fractal comes in: It’s a native Matrix client for GNOME, with an interface focused on the IRC use case (discussions in large, high-volume rooms). We want it to be a fast, native alternative to Slack that can compete on UX, and doesn’t require non-free network services.

Fractal

I started contributing in late October, when the app was still called Guillotine, and looked like this:

guillotine.png

I got involved after Daniel Garcia Moreno, the app’s primary developer, mentioned that he was looking for a designer to help out with his Matrix app on #gnome-design. We then started working on revamping the somewhat haphazardly designed interface, and making it look like a proper GNOME app.

Over the past few months the community has grown from just Daniel and I to over 120 people in our Matrix room, and a number of regular contributors. We’ve redesigned every part of the app (except for the room directory), and added a number of small but essential features, such as invites, room creation, and username autocomplete.

The app now looks like this (though the design is still evolving quite rapidly):

Though it’s still a bit rough, Fractal is already very usable as a day-to-day Matrix client. You can install the Flatpak from Flathub and try it yourself. Bug reports are always appreciated.

The Hackfest

So where do we go from here?

For the past months we’ve mainly been working on overhauling the interface, but we haven’t added many new features. As most of the foundational interface work is done now, we can start planning larger new initiatives.

That’s why next month (May 10th-13th) we’re going to have a Fractal Hackfest in Strasbourg. The core contributors will meet for the first time and discuss exciting new things, such as a better onboarding flow, a new responsive layout, and support for more Matrix features.

Among the people joining the hackfest will be Matthew from Matrix, and some of my coworkers from Purism. I think it’ll be a great opportunity for plotting future collaborations, so if you’re interested in

If you’re interested in joining the hackfest, add yourself to the hackfest wiki page or come talk to us in the Fractal Matrix room.