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Frustration, thy name is trying to work on two projects
Last Tuesday I gave a talk at the Cape LUG about what I saw for the future of GNOME-Ubuntu relations. I didn't paint a pretty picture. A full half of my talk consisted of me moaning about how crappy it is that minor differences between the two projects are repeatedly being blown out of all proportion, resulting in the current river of bad blood we find ourselves wading through. (The other half was filled with my customary suite of bad jokes and incoherent rambling.) Interestingly, Mark Shuttleworth was also in town and dropped by [1] to listen and respond to some of my points. This was certainly welcome because it helped me to understand some of the decisions Canonical has made recently. Besides, it was a nice gesture.

Perhaps some context for what follows is in order. I'm an Ubuntu person who spends most of his time working upstream in GNOME. I do this because I think my work can benefit the wider community as well as Ubuntu users (and, erm, because I enjoy working on GNOME). It can be a bit crappy sometimes, though.

For starters, some [2] people in the GNOME community moan about how Ubuntu doesn't pull its weight upstream. They then make it difficult for Ubuntu-y folks to contribute things upstream. People within the Ubuntu community, Canonical employees included, have tried to make significant contributions and have been knocked back on several occasions [3], in most cases not for any particularly good reason I would judge. I've even heard stories about Canonical having to upstream patches via a third party because a GNOME maintainer wouldn't accept (identical) patches from them! (I know; citation needed.) There is an anti-Ubuntu (or at least anti-Canonical [4]) sentiment in parts of the GNOME community.

Equally, there is a frustration with GNOME in some quarters of the Ubuntu community. Rather than joining in on the GNOME side of things and developing upstream, people see the processes and dynamics of GNOME as hurdles to doing what they want to do. It seems easier to go off and partially reinvent the wheel than to try working with people who don't share your exact vision of the free desktop [5]. Of course, there is no middle ground to be had, and the "irreconcilable differences" which prevent us from working together on one thing or another often lead to "completely different" approaches being taken, like Unity and GNOME Shell [6]. This way of doing things is often a gigantic waste of time and reinforces the opinion of some in GNOME that Ubuntu isn't a team player.

To round-off this sketchy analysis of a complicated situation, I should also mention Canonical's role in all of this. Canonical are a for-profit company and intend to make money from the Free desktop. On paper at least, I think most people in the GNOME (and Ubuntu) community are happy for people to make money from Free software. The method you use to make that money is subject to intense scrutiny, however. Free software companies are already at a disadvantage compared to proprietary software businesses when it comes to making money [7], and insisting that all of their attempts to generate revenue fit into some warm, fuzzy picture of a benevolent cooperative for whom profit is incidental is unreasonable [8]. Sorry folks, but it's the 21st century - even charities are getting cutthroat when it comes to fundraising, because they realise you can do more good by playing the capitalism game whilst remembering to stop short of the excesses of Big Business.

If you want the Free desktop to be successful, to gain significant market share, to compete with some of the biggest, most ruthless companies in existence, you're going to have to throw away some of your ideas about how this should work in an ideal world and start playing hard ball. I think this is what Canonical are trying to do. And yes, that involves exploiting [9] the community to some extent, and of course people are upset about that. I don't think Canonical are hell-bent on milking FOSS for all it's worth, but they do require some freedom to operate. Having said that, if Canonical want to push the view that a pragmatic, corporate approach to Open Source is the route to success, then they're going to have to do a lot better at not making people feel used. Things like splitting Banshee's Amazon referrals and insisting on copyright assignment cause bad feeling without bringing in much dough, I would imagine.

My point is that the bulk of this bickering is counter-productive and unnecessary. Open source desktops are hardly swimming in market share, and I doubt chronic infighting will remedy that situation. I don't care who started it, or who is in the wrong. From my point of view, the whole situation is depressing and demoralising. If it continues, chances are I won't want to work in either community. But the differences are reconcilable! GNOME can understand and facilitate Canonical's commercial goals and can be more accepting of Ubuntu people and their way of doing things; Canonical can benefit from the fruits of the Ubuntu and GNOME communities' labour in a more sensitive way; and Ubuntu contributors can resolve to work upstream more. All it will require is for some people to swallow their pride and/or make small compromises [10].

1 In a Darth Vader mask. Really. There are photos somewhere.
2 I would like to draw your attention to my careful use of the word "some" throughout this post.
3 I'm thinking of things like Zeitgeist, app indicators (which are a Free Desktop standard!) and so on.
4 I fully understand that Ubuntu and Canonical aren't the same thing, and that there are tensions between them. They often get tarred with the same brush upstream, though.
5 The decision to switch to Unity instead of GNOME Shell is symptomatic of this. I asked Mark about that decision and he said that attempts were made to get Canonical design people working with GNOME design people etc. etc. and no agreement could be reached. Despite this fundamental disagreement between the two camps, Unity and GNOME Shell are doing a great job of looking and feeling almost identical to one another.
6 Sorry to harp on about it, but GNOME Shell and Unity are extremely similar, to the point where hardly any of the differences offer tangible benefits to the end user. Helpfully, they're just different enough to cause massive problems for documentation and support people though. Working together on one new shell would have been possible on purely technical grounds.
7 By this, I mean that factors like the code being open mean that it can be more difficult to get users to pay up; revenue streams other than the obvious, directly selling the software, must be found. Of course, Free software has plenty of advantages in terms of reduced development costs, community contribution and the like.
8 To pick an example at random:
"I thought you understood the spirit of Free Software, but you're just another normal company that is first going after money."
9 An ugly word, but I think it's the right one. You're making money by taking other peoples' work and packaging it up, without offering them any reward for that work (monetary reward, at least).
10 I will be swallowing some of my pride by working on documentation for Unity and assigning the copyright to Canonical.

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Do you have a citation for the submitted patches "story." Can you point to the specific patches in question in the GNOME bugzilla?


Re: Cituation request.

Hi Jef,

No, unfortunately I don't (which is why I flagged it up as needing a citation). Feel free to take it with a pinch of salt; I don't see any reason why the person who related it to me would have made something like that up, but without being able to look directly at the situation it's impossible to conclude anything.

app indicator + zeitgeist

I have no influence, and contribute less than anyone in GNOME. But I do have a eye for bad taste. And about you point [3] App indicators are bad taste. And yes i'm only picking out a minor point, much of your article is very reasonable and points out the rocky path ahead :)

But... about [3].

Some of the design stuff in app indicators is worthy of GUI hall of shame. I mean, objects that fade when the equivalent of your mental attention (the pointer) hovers it. It's like turning to person starting a conversation, and then they disappear. It's so odd. Secondly the very well thought out keyboard activated on screen icons in gnome, has been replaced with app indicators. Before pressing volume/light controls was a onscreen transparent icon (huge) that was _centered_ on the screen. Now it's in the top right corner using about <5% of screenspace on some laptops. I've seen users miss 'app indicator' notify. When user presses a button themselves, there is no reason to hide it(!) in a corner, show that the intended action occurred - clearly.

I would have understood if all the work went into merging the window list and notifications. But no, instead we invent a third way to interact with applications. Great! It shows lack of understanding the mental concepts the existing desktop attempts to provide. It can't be a surprise that there has been resistance in gnome to add more features to the notification area. Read up on early gnome2.x

Zeitgeist is much more interesting. However, it's also very much research, both UI and tech because it has to run at all times, and not suck power and memory, and still gobble through huge amount of data. That's hard to get right.

Given the later architectural changes done in tracker to better support the goals of concepts of zeitgeist, _and_ that the only app using it at that time was an ill conceived 'journal', that in reality was more like a 'zeitgeist' debugger than an actual use case. It was the right thing to reject zeitgeist as a of the library foundation framework. It lacked user goals to accomplish and it showed.
I still think that finding the correct 'item' is hugely important, and tracker is big part of this.

Yes i'm harsh, but it seems that just because somebody spent valulable time on a project, it's by definition a valuable addition to gnome. Well, it isn't. We have to be able to say 'no'. If it's too hard to 'add' features after installing the desktop, fix that instead of breaking it for the majority by forcing stuff as default.

Re: app indicator + zeitgeist

The Indicators were mostly not accepted because Canonical refused to write a patch for GNOME Shell as well. Canonical only provided a GNOME 2.x patch.
Of course GNOME didn't accept a patch that developed a new technology for an aging DE when at the same time the technology wasn't even made compatible with Shell/3.x.

Re: app indicator + zeitgeist

With comments like "worthy of GUI hall of shame" it seems like you've made up your mind and you're not willing to listen to another person's perspective.

Personally I really like it that the Ubuntu notifications fade when I move my mouse over them. Sometimes I want to read whatever is underneath them. I don't want them taking my attention away from what I'm doing. For me, this was an excellent design decision.

Of course I don't know if you would ever take this perspective into account. Maybe you would, maybe not. Since you think it's literally shameful, I get the impression you'd not. But I'd be very happy to be wrong.

I was pretty heavily involved in the design of app indicators. As far as I know, there is nothing in them that fades, in any situation. And far from “add[ing] more features to the notification area”, they have replaced the notification area entirely with something that deliberately has fewer features. So, what are you talking about?

Re: What? (Anonymous) Expand

Re: app indicator + zeitgeist

I don't see how you compare Zeitgeist and Tracker.
A metadata storage and a logger are not the same. And if any attempts to solve user stories of the other side then it is attempting to become a kitchen sink of data.
We learned our lesson and currently we are doing lots of zeitgeist work with upstream projects. Rhythmbox, Banshee, totem and gedit are shipping plugins and soft dependencies. Also we have some patches for GNOME shell that got reviewed ans hoping to get merged upstream for 3.2
Describing Zeitgeist as research is fair but then how is tracker not research. We have more community deployment and usage. Docky, Dockbar, Synapse, Tomboy, AWN, Cardapio. All these projects might not be upstream gnome but pretty well spread.

This suggestion that GNOME makes it difficult for Ubuntu to contribute has been doing the rounds, but the evidence that is offered has never convinced me. Let's break it down:

* Libappindicator: totally at odds with GNOME's direction, and the attempt to have it included in GNOME was half-hearted. It was developed in house with no GNOME consultation and then dropped from a great height.

* Zeitgeist: does this even qualify as a Ubuntu project? Even it if does, its lack of acceptance into GNOME isn't the big deal that some people make it out to be: it's quite common not to be accepted first time round, and we've repeatedly encouraged Zeitgeist to apply again and to work towards technical integration with GNOME modules.

* Refused patches: I'll wait to see if any evidence turns up. I'd be surprised though: GNOME is usually crying out for patches.

* Design schism: I've been involved in GNOME design for a while and I've never seen a serious attempt by Canonical designers to participate or to influence what we're doing. Maybe this great divergence happened before my time, but everyone I've asked about it is baffled by such statements. Are there any public records of attempts by Canonical designers to change GNOME's direction? (That's an honest question: I've never seen any.)

I'm not saying it's easy to contribute to GNOME. Collaboration is never easy: it takes time and effort. But the idea that GNOME offers particular resistance to Ubuntu seems groundless (feel free to prove me wrong though). We *want* more contributions, after all, and those contributions that do come from Ubuntu/Canonical are welcomed with open arms.


Zeitgeist is not and never was an Ubuntu project and Zeitgeist wasn't even completely rejected. The integration of Zeitgeist into GNOME Shell was postponed. THAT'S ALL, dear PhilBull. In fact Zeitgeist is already partially integrated into GNOME 3.0. For now it's only in Totem (the movie player). Better integration will follow in GNOME 3.2.

Phil, you better get your facts straight. For examples look at the sponsors list on http://mhr3.blogspot.com/2011/02/my-work-zeitgeist-hackfest-2011.html
You'll see the GNOME Foundation and 3 others but no Canonical.

(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
Just want to try to clarify things about Zeitgeist, since that's an example we hear often and as a release team member, I think it's a bad example for your point: GNOME did no reject Zeitgeist.

When gnome-activity-journal was proposed, it was rejected because, from a user experience point of view, it was not integrating correctly in the desktop. It should not be a separate application, but part of the whole shell. Since gnome-activity-journal was not accepted, Zeitgeist itself was of no use at that time (nothing else using it), so Zeitgeist was not considered. This is because we usually don't accept technologies themselves; instead we wait to have an application using the technologies.

See http://mail.gnome.org/archives/devel-announce-list/2010-June/msg00001.html for the announcement. I'm not sure why the Zeitgeist example is coming again and again, and that could be because GNOME mis-communicated on this. I'd be happy to hear any thoughts about this.

Let me point out here that Canonical is doing the right thing with Zeitgeist by integrating it directly in Unity, and that's what the GNOME community asked to the people working on gnome-activity-journal since the beginning!

Oh, and I wouldn't use Zeitgeist as an example of something from Canonical rejected since it's not a Canonical (or Ubuntu) project ;-)

Thanks for the clarification Vincent. I suppose I was more interested in the fact that some people *perceived* that part of the reason Zeitgeist was rejected was because it was Ubuntu-y (using Launchpad etc.) There must be a reason for this, whether it is justified or not.

(As I've explained in a couple of comments above, I meant to use Zeitgeist as an example of something from the "Ubuntu community", whatever that is, and didn't mean to imply that it was an official Ubuntu or Canonical project.)

If you want any patch reviewed by me, you'll have to pay. Up front. I'm not gonna apply your patches. I think $1000/line of code changed is roughly ok. I'm sure that's cheaper long term than keeping custom patches.
Because, as you so eloquently put it, I'm going to throw away some of my ideas about how this should work in an ideal world and start playing hard ball.

Or, we can do as we always did, and be nice to each other. But then we need to behave in a respectful way and avoid a behavior that would be described as ruthless.

your upstream

Thanks for the gross caricature of my argument. Clearly that's not what I'm saying. The idea is for both parties to make a few "concessions" (or "changes to established practise", however you want to describe it) in order to create a situation where everyone can operate, the hope being that this will make *all involved* stronger/happier in the long term. I don't mean "playing hardball" with each other - I mean adopting a more realistic (i.e. aggressive) attitude to the market, and resisting that attitude less within the community.

The suggestion is that "doing as we always did" may not be conducive to increasing the Free desktop's share of the market, and that some peoples' idea of what "ruthless" means should be softened. Is hosting, and then taking a cut, from a service in direct competition to one of your own services really "ruthless" (or "immoral", as I've seen some people suggest)?

How come no one is talking about Mark Shuttleworth in Darth Vader costuming? What the hell? Pics or it didn't happen, Phil.

This past weekend I was actually thinking about the contributor agreement. I'm sure we'll get to talk about it some in Toronto, but I've had a change of heart about it.

Are you contributing to Unity docs yet? If so, is there a branch somewhere?

-- Jim C

Hey, HEY! There are pictures somewhere. No conspiracy here. He drove to the venue it, apparently. Scary.

We should definitely talk about this more in Toronto - I still think the agreement is a bad idea, but I see that failing to make some concessions could severely damage the Ubuntu documentation team. We can help more users by remaining relevant.

I'm not contributing to Unity yet, but we should have a meeting about this. I think an Ubuntu Docs meeting may be in the works, so that would be a good time to discuss it.

All that aside, it'll be good to see you in Toronto! I owe you a few beers, I believe...

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