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Frustration, thy name is trying to work on two projects
philbull
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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Re: Cituation request.

"Raising tensions" is rather the point, I'm afraid (although I wouldn't have phrased it in that way myself). I want to see people address this issue, because there *is* an issue. My aim was to encourage discussion by pointing out that there could be failings in *both* communities which contribute to the current situation. Making sure that one "side" is aware of the others' point of view, of the *perceived* problems, is important I feel, whether there is any truth in the claimed existence of the problems or not. Because the perception is what people are acting on.

I know there are plenty of stories where collaboration is working properly. Over half of the GNOME documentation team is made up of Ubuntu people working directly upstream, and GNOME members work closely with the Ubuntu docs team. But that's not what people see, because no-one is interested in making a big fuss about it. People make a fuss about things like the Banshee referrals and Zeitgeist, and it's *these* issues that influence relations between the communities most, not the majority of cases where everything works as intended. The "minor differences between the two projects [that] are repeatedly being blown out of all proportion" need to be tackled, whether 99% of all other interactions run smoothly or not. And to tackle those issues you need to look at the FUD as much as the evidence.

Re: Cituation request.

I cannot stress how very very wrong I think you are in your choice of actions in how to move towards a resolution of this conflict. If the problem is fundamentally miscommunication, what you are doing is not helpful. Miscommunication can only be addressed with an an increase specificity...not general statements...not rumors...not stories. If you think there are specific cases where patches were punitively punished because they were brought forward by a Canonical employee..then be specific. Don't spread rumors. Be specific so the behaviour can be addressed.

You can't address "stories". You can't address "rumors." If you want to address specific bad behaviour or a culture of bad behaviour you have to bring up specific examples where you felt decisions were made for the wrong reasons. You've given the accused group absolutely nothing to work with as a basis for self examination of the processes they are using.

-jef

Re: Cituation request.

I think you're missing my point. What if you can't be more specific? What if you think you're a victim of bias but you can't provide concrete evidence? A lack of hard evidence isn't the same as there not being an issue.

For example, say I was a member of a minority group and go for a job interview. I don't get the job, but I was well-qualified for it. It's possible that I didn't get it because someone more suitable turned up. But it's also possible that I was discriminated against because I belong to a minority. A lack of evidence means that I can't prosecute the employer for discrimination (or accept that I wasn't the best candidate for the job), but it doesn't establish what the *actual* reason for me not getting the job was. And it doesn't change how I feel.

With my post I wanted to contrast the perceptions of the situation that both groups have, so that it's clear that there's more than one side to the story. This involves acknowledging (what could be) rumours, because they may be shaping the opinions of one of the groups. The other group needs to understand that.

Conflict can be addressed by building trust and encouraging forgiveness of past indiscretions (real or perceived). If you can get people to a point where they *always assume good will*, then rumours lose their credibility and small indiscretions fail to turn into big issues. Addressing issues on a case-by-case basis may not achieve this, especially when one party has insufficient evidence to definitively prove their point. They may instead feel that they failed to achieve justice on a technicality (whether they were right or not). This happens all the time - see, for example, the responses of various groups to the (multiple) UK governmental inquiries into the Iraq war. There will always be people who dispute whether justice was achieved.

Re: Cituation request.

In this case you _can_ be specific. You just decided not to hold yourself to the necessasry standard. When people tell you "stories" about patch submissions gone wrong...respectfully demand that they point to the patches in question and the public discussion archived in the gnome bugzilla around those patches.

Stop broadening out the discussion to hypotheticals which simply don't apply. This isn't a closed door job interview. GNOME patches are submitted into a process that is publicly archived. There _is_ a public record, you just have to have the guts to require the people who tell you "stories" to point to it.

-jef

Re: Cituation request.

I've asked the person who told me this story to point me to the bug report. They haven't gotten back to me yet, but I'll let you know if/when they do.

You still haven't acknowledged my point that this may be a wider sociological issue than something that can necessarily be tackled on a specific, case-by-case basis.

Re: Cituation request.

That is correct. I haven't acknowledged it because I don't think there is any merit to it for what we are talking about here... cultural bias against a single corporate entity inside what is already a multi-entity decision making process. The established process is open and transparent. Vague allegations have been made and those need to be supported with specificity or else no forward process can be made.

Compare and contrast how the geek feminist movement is directly challenging a culture of bias by calling out bad behaviour amongst males in the geek culture. They aren't telling vague stories...they aren't spreading rumors. They have decided to call out bad behaviour on a case by case basis and get it addressed. By pointing out specific cases the draw attention to the larger problem of cultural bias for the rest of us so we can begin to modify our own behaviour in subtle ways.

I am forthrightly and immensely skeptical at the very concept that it takes more courage for any particular Canonical employee to step up and make a direct allegation about the GNOME development culture than it takes one of the women in the larger ecosystem of the geek community to stand up and point out sexist exclusionary behaviour at conferences and in other places. If the long standing culture gender bias can be addressed with direct confrontation on a case-by-case basis.. then surely bias against the employees of a single for-profit corporate entity can muster up the courage to do similarly in the context of the GNOME project culture.

Feel free to look through the available guidance for corporate entities that exists to address institutionalized cultures of discrimination in a corporate setting. I am not suggesting anything out of step with guidance that I can find.

-jef

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