The GNOME 3 Meltdown: Page 2

Is there hope for GNOME 3 in the face of a largely negative user response?
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The moderator's response was understandable, but I have referred to the thread because in a few hundred words, it encapsulates the standard responses that ordinary users are all too often likely to get when they venture a criticism to developers: indifference, deflection, accusations of ingratitude, and, finally, a refusal to discuss.

Such attitudes are very human. Free software developers like those in GNOME work long hours, often volunteering or putting in unpaid over-time, on projects like GNOME 3 that take years to complete. Under these circumstances, expecting patience with criticisms -- especially sarcastically worded ones -- from outsiders is too much to ask for most people.

All the same, a commercial company might have attempted to respond to the original complaint before dismissing it, or taken it as a symptom of larger problems. If nothing else, fear of bad publicity would have tempered the responses, and prevented anyone from answering in kind.

By contrast, in GNOME and some other free software projects, nothing creates any sense of obligation toward users, especially unsatisfied ones. Since users and developers are no longer synonymous, ignoring users and acting on pique becomes much easier. Instead of being colleagues or partners, users can easily become aliens to many developers -- and troublesome ones, at that, who are best ignored.

Just how extreme this attitude has become can be seen in the approach to usability in GNOME 3. To the uninitiated, usability might seem to imply polling users. Yet, if you look at how GNOME answered the FAQ "how do you know it's better?" contacting users was literally the last thing on developer's minds.

Instead, the design was shaped by "an extensive literature review" and personal expertise, followed by testing among the same people who were designing the interface. Only at the end was "a small usability study" done. And since that study was done nearly two years after development and four months before general release, rather than at the start of development, what were the odds that any major changes would result from it? Unsurprisingly, the study simply "confirmed the viability of the GNOME Shell design."

To all appearances, usability was a top-down experience in GNOME 3, with developers relying on the expertise of both themselves and others, and paying only token attention to users -- rather like a government development project that holds public hearings to rubber stamp what has already been decided.

Under the circumstances, the fact that GNOME 3 become the development equivalent of a nuclear meltdown is hardly surprising. Expecting anyone to change their workflow because strangers tell them to do so is simply unrealistic. The only surprising thing would have been if users had been generally satisfied when they were barely consulted.

A False Sense of Entitlement

However, if developers are faulted for working in isolation for end-users, then end-users must share some of the blame as well. If GNOME development is isolationist and elitist, it is equally true that users often have their own brand of arrogance.

Today, free software is more popular than ever, but that does not mean that most users have a clear sense of the purposes and traditions behind the software they are using. Although they are looking for an alternative to Windows, the alternative they have in mind is most often a technical one -- or perhaps one of price.

Generally, new users have no sense of the principles of free software, or of the norms within the community. They have no sense of the idealism or dedication that drives free software developers because they have little contact with it.

Consequently, they not only overlook all that developers do, but they retain the attitudes that they had to their old operating systems. To an earlier generation, free software developers and users were partners in building a better, freer alternative. But many of the new generation of users do not see themselves as partners, but as consumers at arm's length from the development process.

Overlooking the fact that they have not paid for their software, they continue to act as though they have, becoming indignant and impatient over every problem and every delay in fixing it.

The first post in the discussion thread already quoted is an example. "Gnome Shell is like hemorrhoids," it begins in the subject line "If one has it, one wants to get rid of it as soon as possible." The post goes on to compare GNOME 3 to the Soviet Union, as well as to Windows ME and Vista -- two notoriously bad Windows releases -- and to refer to it as "crap." There is little constructive to the post, and not the slightest sign that the writer thinks that such comments are high-handed.

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Tags: Linux, Gnome, KDE, Torvalds

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