The GNOME 3 Meltdown

Is there hope for GNOME 3 in the face of a largely negative user response?
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"I want my sane interfaces back," Linus Torvalds wrote on Google+ a couple of weeks ago. "I have yet to meet anybody who likes the unholy mess that is gnome-3."

The founder of the Linux kernel wasn't the first to disparage the new design of GNOME. Nor does his expertise lie in desktop design. But his position in free and open source software is such that his rejection of GNOME 3 has brought endless choruses of agreement -- and few opposing views.

Suddenly, many are saying loudly what they have been whispering for several months: GNOME 3 is a desktop that (to put it mildly), they don't want. For instance, for others in the same thread in which Torvalds held forth, GNOME 3 is "completely unusable," "a mess" a piece of "brokenness" that "finally pushed me over the edge" and "a killer of GNOME." You can find similar views wherever Torvalds' comments are mentioned, and no more than perhaps one comment in four that protests that GNOME 3 is not that bad when you learn it, or can be tweaked until it is tolerable. Only isolated comments show any enthusiasm for it.

In other words, a user's revolt has broken out that's very similar to the one that greeted KDE 4.0 in January 2011.

The parallel is not exact. Unlike KDE 4.0, GNOME 3 was not intended as a developer's release, so the reception cannot be blamed on distributions getting ahead of the developers in their eagerness to have an advantage over rivals. If anything, the reverse is true -- four months after GNOME 3's release, only Fedora has shipped with it by default, and other major distributions are debating alternative.

Still, the similarities are close enough so that the GNOME 3 revolt should have been predicted (in fact, I did predict something of the sort before the general release, an foresight that gives me no particular pleasure). In both cases, radical new desktops were introduced with few explanations, and reactions to beta releases indicated what was likely to happen.

But if anyone within GNOME foresaw what was likely to happen, they apparently thought that a marketing site and a clumsy slogan ("Made of Easy") for the new desktop would take care of the problem.

They didn't, though. Instead, in a situation that invites comparisons with Barbara Tuchman's classic The March of Folly, which explores why governments make decisions against their own best interests, GNOME reprised KDE actions of three years earlier in a release that showed an almost complete separation between the priorities of developers and users.

The Great Divorce

A decade ago, the idea that developers and users of free software could have different interests would have been unimaginable. Developers were users, which was often cited as one of the advantages of free software.

Today, that equation is no longer true. Although many projects are learning to consider technical writers, marketers, and evangelists as much contributors as developers -- at least, in theory -- the active project members in projects that are as important as GNOME are seriously outnumbered by end-users who make no contribution and who rarely have any connection to the project beyond using it.

One of the signs of this change is that complaints are less likely to be met with an invitation to submit a patch. However, that does not mean that relations between developers and users are smoother.

If anything, relations between developers and users are worse than they have ever been. Although software development in free software now resembles commercial development more than ever, the sense of obligation to users is much weaker in free software. The developers are used to being accountable only to themselves, and tend to respond hostilely to any criticism -- all the more so, naturally enough, when it is hostile.

These changes are particularly obvious in GNOME. For example, a couple of months ago, a user posted some rude comments about GNOME 3. The first response was a suggestion to "just use something else," the second a joke, and the third an admonition that "being upset is no excuse to flame a mailing list and trivialize thousands of hours of work by people." The thread never got past the fourth response, which was from the moderator, shutting down the discussion on the grounds of impoliteness.

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Tags: Linux, Gnome, KDE, Torvalds

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