Ubuntu Linux and GNOME: The Disputes continue

There's disorganization and disputes in Linux desktop circles.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Linux is the supercomputer operating system of choice; thanks to Android, Linux is becoming the most popular smartphone operating system of them all;and Linux continues to make gains in the server market. But, when it comes to the desktop, no matter how you measure it, Linux has never how more than a tiny share of the desktop market. Why? Well, I can give you lots of reasons, but one that Mark Shuttleworth founder of Canonical, the company behind the popular Ubuntu Linux distribution, has pointed out that there's a lot of disorganization and disorder in Linux desktop developer circles.

The specific problem that started the current discussions roiling the Linux desktop waters was explored by Dave Neary, a member and former director of the GNOME, in a commentary on how Canonical and Ubuntu people claimed that "We offered our help to GNOME, and they didn't want it."

The technical problem behind the dispute is that GNOME rejected the Ubuntu Ayatana system status indicators. These indicators, and their messaging application programming interfaces (APIs) would be used on the Linux desktop to convey such information as "Whether you are connected, what the time is, whether you are online, whether your battery will last long enough for you to finish your work, whether you have messages," etc. etc.

I think we can all agree that this is useful information for desktop users. The devil, as usual, was in the hard work details of getting it to work. The GNOME release team rejected Ayatana because it wouldn't integrate in the forthcoming GNOME 3.0 shell, GNOME didn't need it in any case, and that the developers didn't follow up on it. From how Neary tells the story, "the discussion petered out [and there was] no feedback .., from the GNOME Shell team." This was "hardly ideal."

Further work on the Ubuntu and GNOME technical dispute by Neary revealed, that Ayanta, under the name, StatusNotifier spec, had been worked on by KDE developers and that GNOME developers had reviewed the spec. Never-the-less, Neary states that "It is disingenuous to call StatusNotifier a cross-desktop standard. Hosting a document on the freedesktop.org wiki does not a cross-desktop standard make."

He's right as far that goes. FreeDesktop was meant to facilitate development work on low-level interoperability between Unix and Linux desktops. For the last few years though the FreeDestkop 'organization' has done little though to further its mission.

Neary went on to state that Mark [Shuttleworth] wants GNOME to have "strong, mature technical leadership." Neary then stated that "My understanding of GNOME is this: GNOME does not have technical leadership - it hasn't had clear technical leadership since, as I understand it, the creation of the GNOME Foundation (at which point, by design, the board was given a mandate to build and define GNOME, and then soon afterwards removed that mandate from itself). The foundation does not now dictate any vision or direction for GNOME."

Neary continued, "It can be argued that this is something which should be changed. That change will be effected by people involved in the foundation and the project. It is not enough for Mark to tell the project that "you need leadership", or Jono Bacon [the Ubuntu community leader] telling foundation members (as he told me in 2007) that they should step up to the plate."

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Shuttleworth on GNOME

To Neary's comments, Shuttleworth replied, "The reason I care is, to state the obvious, a well-functioning GNOME is important to Ubuntu and Canonical. And I don't think we're there. Alternatively, a well-functioning FreeDesktop.org is important, and we're not there either.

I agree. GNOME appears to have become an organization without any organization, and FreeDesktop has grown dusty with disuse. Look at Neary's own words: GNOME doesn't have technical leadership. What!? How can a group working something as technical as a major revision of a Linux desktop not have technology leadership!?

Shuttleworth's response is "Perhaps a more accurate summation would be 'Gnome is not self-consistent, or deterministic, so it can often come to two quite contradictory conclusions at the same time.'"

Shuttleworth then proceeds to go into a detailed discussion of the various viewpoints from GNOME developers on GNOME; Unity, Ubuntu's new GNOME-based desktop; and what happened with the app indicators.

He concluded, "There are good faith efforts being made to bridge divides all over the show, for which I'm grateful and to which we're contributing. My comments here are to address what I see as convenient papering over, which will not stand the test of time. It's important - to me, to the members of the community working on Unity and Ubuntu (and there are substantial communities in both) that simplistic accusations against us are not left to stand unchallenged. The goal - for everyone, I think - is great free software. I know we're committed to that, and doing what we think is needed to achieve it."

That's all well and good, but I have something to add: GNOME needs a grown-up organization. It needs responsible technical leadership and clear lines of authority. Almost of all the Canonical and GNOME issues, both the technical ones and the resulting bad-feelings, could have been handled much better if GNOME had a clearly defined management structure.

In addition, the FreeDesktop.org needs revitalized. GNOME, KDE, and all the other Linux desktops are, and, to a lesser extent Ubuntu's Unity are once more heading in different directions. On top of that, the smartphone and tablet interfaces, such as Android 2.x and 3.x and webOS, are spinning off in their own directions as well. If this trend continues, mere disagreements about something as relatively minor as status indicators won' matter a bit, because independent software vendors (ISV)s will simply ignore the Linux desktop.

In particular, without leadership and co-ordination with the other Linux desktop players via FreeDesktop or some other such group, I fear GNOME, will become like such obscure Linux desktops as AfterStep, Enlightenment, and FVWM: appreciated by a few enthusiasts, but otherwise ignored.

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