Last week, Tobias Bernard published a thought-provoking article, There is no “Linux” Platform (Part 1), based on a talk at LAS 2019. (Unfortunately I couldn’t make it to LAS, and I haven’t found the time to watch a recording of the talk, so I’m going solely from the blog post here.) The article makes some interesting observations, and I found a fair few things to agree with. But I want to offer a counterpoint to this paragraph of the final section, “The Wrong Incentives”:
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).
If we’re looking at the code shipping in Endless OS today, then yes, our desktop is vanilla GNOME Shell with a few hundred patches on top, and yes, as a result, rebasing onto new GNOME releases is a lot of work. But the starting point for Endless OS was not “what’s wrong with GNOME?” but “what would the ideal desktop look like for a new category of users?”.
When Endless began, the goal was to create a new desktop computing product, targeting new computer users in communities which were under-served by existing platforms and products. The company conducted extensive field research, and designed a desktop user interface for those users. Prototypes were made using various different components, including Openbox, but ultimately the decision was made to base the desktop on GNOME, because GNOME provided a collection of components closest to the desired user experience. The key point here is that basing the Endless desktop on GNOME was an implementation detail, made because the GNOME stack is a robust, feature-rich and flexible base for a desktop.
Over time, the strategy shifted away from being based solely around first-party hardware, towards distributing our software to a broader set of users using standard desktop and laptop hardware. Around the same time, Endless made the switch from first- and third-party apps packaged as a combination of Debian packages and an in-house system towards using Flatpak for apps, and contributed towards the establishment of Flathub. Part of the motivation for this switch was to get Endless out of the business of packaging other people’s applications, and instead to enable app developers to directly target desktop Linux distributions including, but not limited to, Endless OS.
A side-effect of this change is that our user experience has become somewhat less consistent because we have chosen not to theme apps distributed through Flathub, with the exception of minimize/maximize window controls and a different UI font; and, of course, Flathub offers apps built with many different toolkits. This is still a net positive: our users have access to many more applications than they would have done if we had continued distributing everything ourselves.
As the prototypal Endless OS user moved closer to the prototypal GNOME user, we have focused more on finding ways to converge with the GNOME user experience. In some cases, we’ve simply removed functionality which we don’t think is necessary for our current crop of users. For example, Endless OS used to target users whose display was a pre-digital TV screen, with a 720×480 resolution. I think persuading the upstream maintainers of GNOME applications to support this resolution would have been a hard sell in 2014, let alone in 2019!
Some other changes we’ve made can and have been simply be proposed upstream as they are, but the bulk of our downstream functionality forms a different product to GNOME, which we feel is still valuable to our users. We are keen to both improve GNOME, and reduce the significant maintenance burden which Tobias rightly refers to, so we’re incrementally working out which functionality could make sense in both Endless and GNOME in some form, working out what that form could be, and implementing it. This is a big project because engaging constructively with the GNOME community involves more thought and nuance than opening a hundred code-dump merge requests and sailing away into the sunset.
If you are building a product whose starting point is “GNOME, but better”, then I encourage you to seriously consider whether you can work upstream first. I don’t think this is a groundbreaking idea in our community! However, that was not the starting point for Endless OS, and even today, we are aiming for a slightly different product to GNOME.
Back out to the big picture that is the subject of Tobias’ article: I agree that desktop fragmentation is a problem for app developers. Flatpak and Flathub are, in my opinion, a major improvement on the status quo: app developers can target a common environment, and have a reasonable expectation of their apps working on all manner of distributions, while we as distro maintainers need not pretend that we know best how to package a Java IDE. As the maintainer of a niche app written using esoteric tools, Flathub allowed me – for the first time since I wrote the first version in 2008 – to distribute a fully-functional, easy-to-install application directly to users without burdening distribution developers with the chore of packaging bleeding-edge versions of Haskell libraries. It gave me a big incentive to spend some of my (now very limited) free time on some improvements to the app that I had been putting off until I had a way to get them to users (including myself on Endless OS) in a timely manner.
On the other hand, we shouldn’t underestimate the value of GNOME – and distros like Debian – being a great base for products that look very different to GNOME itself: it enables experimentation, exploration, and reaching a broader base of users than GNOME alone could do, while pooling the bulk of our resources. (On a personal level, I owe pretty much my entire career in free software to products based on Debian and the GNOME stack!)
Some caveats: I joined Endless in mid-2016, midway through the story above, so I am relying on my past and current colleagues’ recollections of the early days of the company. Although today I am our Director of Platform, I am still just one person in the team! We’re not a hive mind, and I’m sure you’ll find different opinions on some of these points if you ask around.