Properly handled, this decision could have been at least a minor marketing triumph for the project. Ever since the start of the GNOME 3 release series, some users have complained that GNOME ignored users and that its developers cared more about their own vision of the desktop than users' needs.
Yet here was a case where GNOME was making a decision that benefited users as much as developers. Without any exaggeration whatsoever, the project might have announced the decision as an improvement of the user experience.
The project might then have suggested that users nostalgic for GNOME 2 check out GNOME Shell Extensions, perhaps providing a list of a half dozen or so extensions needed to re-create -- so far as that is possible --GNOME 2 on top of GNOME 3.
But from the GNOME project itself? Nothing. No news release was issued about this moderately important piece of news. The Marketing team, if any of its members were aware of the stakes, never discussed the possibilities on its mailing list, much less did anything.
Instead, the final decision surfaced in a posting to the release mailing list -- a perfectly reasonable choice for a purely technical decision, but one that removed all control of a potentially important marketing message.
Meanwhile, what were GNOME's leaders talking about? Most were not talking about the project's image problem at all. And those who were discussing it were mostly complaining about the problem and offering excuses for it.
Karen Sandler, GNOME's executive director, expressed the "disappointments" of recent reporting about GNOME. In particular, she was responding to Linus Torvalds' latest comments about KDE and GNOME.
Then she pleaded that "it really takes time to get things right" and, citing the fact that GNOME 2 also took time to be accepted, added that "this is how that happens in a true free software community run project -- through slow incremental improvements that may only be acknowledged as afterthoughts."
Federico Mena-Quintero expressed similar sentiments in his blog, but more aggressively. According to Mena-Quintero, developments in GNOME have been fiercely attacked since the project's earliest days.
Although he acknowledged that many of the attacks on GNOME have been from ordinary people, Mena-Quintero particularly blames "yellow journalists" -- poorly informed writers who give the most sensationalist interpretation to every development.
Calling them "hater bloggers with a job," Mena-Quintero went on to say, "They pick up the latest flamewar, however minor, and make a big deal out of it. They summarize blog posts and quote things with not enough context . . . . They predict the decline and fall of a software project because there is a flamewar going on. They build an ongoing, not entirely consistent, self-serving narrative of the soap opera that they want free software to be."
The point is not whether such comments are justified. The point is that they are poorly timed. At a time when GNOME had the opportunity to deliver positive news, the chance to counter the usual criticism with something concrete, it missed the opportunity -- so thoroughly that I can only assume that GNOME's leaders were not even aware that there was an opportunity.
By default, the stories became another center for the same old discussions by users annoyed by GNOME 3: suggestions about what other desktop environments to try, criticisms of GNOME's design philosophy and comprehensive dissections of the problems with recent GNOME releases.
None of the comments were in any way new. However, they probably became that much truer in many people's minds because of the repetition -- all the more so because no one from GNOME offered any opposing views.
Of course, adding a GNOME perspective would not have entirely eliminated such comments. But at the very least, GNOME's input might have focused the discussion on fallback mode rather than on general grievances.
Just as importantly, input from GNOME would have provided an alternative viewpoint. But the total absence of comment only makes the often-repeated criticisms seem truer. From the perspective of GNOME members, it is harder to imagine a worse outcome.