GNOME Answers Criticisms

Tuesday Aug 28th 2012 by Bruce Byfield
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Key personnel in the GNOME Project respond to the Linux desktop's highly vocal critics.

Since GNOME 3 was released in April 2011, the criticism has often been harsh (and, yes, I contributed to it myself). Seventeen months later, it shows few signs of ending, and Linux Mint has released Cinnamon and Mate, two popular re-creations of GNOME 2, as an alternative. Yet aside from the occasional comment from individuals, the GNOME Project itself has refrained from answering.

That is, until now.

The other week, my article "GNOME: Seven Possible Recovery Strategies" was condemned on the GNOME Marketing List. The resulting conversation ended with GNOME project members writing a group response about how they viewed what was being said about GNOME 3.

The result isn't as official as an announcement by the GNOME Official. But the impromptu committee that crafted the answer included Karen Sandler, the Executive Director of the GNOME Foundation and Allan Day, the designer who was instrumental in creating the GNOME Shell, and continues to shape its development.

Other members of the committee include GNOME developer Juanjo Marin and Sri Ramkrishna and Emily Gonyer, both of whom are active in GNOME marketing.

So, while not quite official, their collective answers are as official as we are likely to get. If nothing else, they are thorough.

Anyone who's interested has heard the complaints many times. For that reason, for once I will mostly confine myself to editing for clarity, and allow these voices from GNOME to speak for themselves as they talk about the general and specific complaints about GNOME 3, and where GNOME is heading in the next few years.

Why have complaints been so vocal about the GNOME 3 release series?

People who complain are often more vocal, and many of their complaints are about particular parts of GNOME 3. We have studied all of the complaints, and have tried to take them into consideration in the new iterations of GNOME 3. You'll see that a number of the complaints in early 3.0 days were addressed in 3.2 and 3.4, for example.

Looking back, could anything have been done to prevent the complaints?

Any time you undertake such a major change in something people care about, there will be complaints. Perhaps some of the complaints could have been avoided if we'd been able to introduce the extensions framework earlier [which allows plug-in to add features to the GNOME Shell land change its behavior].

Has the reception of GNOME 3 affected the project's approach to development?

The transition to a major new version of GNOME is not easy. GNOME 3 won the Product of the Year in Linux Journal Readers' Choice Awards 2011, so the reception hasn't been all bad.

GNOME 3 certainly still has some rough edges that need to be smoothed out. However, even the early releases of GNOME 3 offer a better user experience for many users, and expect most of them will be very happy with GNOME 3.

More specifically, we have implemented some improvements in GNOME 3. For example, we have a feature-based development process, and have already seen far more new features in the 3.x series than in 2.x. Additionally, GNOME 3 was a big shift for the project, but it was one-off -- we don't expect to be making those kinds of changes for a long, long time to come.

What do you think of projects like Mate and Cinnamon, which keep the GNOME 2 structure alive or else re-create it on top of GNOME 3? Is the popularity of Linux Mint, which developed both, a reaction to GNOME 3?

We're glad that you mentioned Linux Mint, as it's a good example of the high quality of GNOME 3 technologies. Rather than rejecting GNOME 3, as we understand they initially considered doing, after a close evaluation the Linux Mint Developers decided to build Cinnamon with it. So it's actually a validation of GNOME 3 technologies. Mate is more a maintenance effort of the GNOME 2 code base.

To what extent is GNOME in trouble, as some developers recently suggested?

You are probably referring to the one developer who wrote one blog post which has got a lot of attention (even though many of the claims that were made in that post have been shown to be incorrect). There have actually been many posts from different perspectives, and many have been positive about where GNOME is going).

In many respects, GNOME is far healthier than it was during the end of the GNOME 2 period. Compared with back then, there is a huge amount of work being done, much greater technical progress, and a massive amount more energy in the community. From the perspective of our own community growth and enthusiasm, GNOME 3 has been a great success.

Is part of the current perception of GNOME due to a lack of marketing?

Marketing GNOME 3 has been challenging, in part because GNOME continues to be a community project. Because we are a community project we have limited resources, which sometimes results in less than ideal results.

Because of the complaints, the strengths of GNOME 3 are sometimes ignored. What are those strengths? What features do users like?

The integrated chat functionality is particularly popular -- people love it that you can hold a conversation without needing to change windows. Another feature that people really like is the ability to launch applications using search.

Apart from specific features, we know that many of our users really value the way that GNOME 3 feels, and how it has been constructed as an integrated, consistent experience. That is an area where we feel that it has surpassed GNOME 2.

How would you respond to the complaints about GNOME 3? For instance, what would you say about the comment that GNOME 3 set out to solve imaginary problems like "clutter"?

User experience researchers have established that there are major usability issues associated with user interfaces that simultaneously expose large numbers of controls to users. The design of GNOME 3 is a response to that research, and aims to provide an experience that is easier to use than GNOME 2.

One of the design aims for GNOME 3 is to highlight primary functionality, but also to ensure that our software has depth. As you use the system more, you will find that there are actually quite a lot of powerful extras that you can learn.

That GNOME 3 over-relied on usability theory?

The design of GNOME 3 has, first and foremost, been informed by experience. Its architects are many of the same people who brought us GNOME 2 (which was also ill-received when it first debuted). Extensive usability research was performed in preparation for GNOME 3, and we have several contributors who have significant experience in user testing.

Testing of GNOME 3 is ongoing, both within the community and outside it. Far more ideas have been discarded than [most people] realize since development began. It's also worth remembering that GNOME 3 has evolved significantly since its inception. This evolution is the result of us listening to feedback and making changes when things don't work so well or need refinement.

That GNOME 3 restricts the possible work flows, and its acceptance depends on whether your work flow is one it permits?

GNOME 3 is not the same as GNOME 2, and it may require people to adjust their work flows in some cases.

At the same time, GNOME 3 is also designed to be flexible and to allow a variety of work flows. An example is the number of ways you can switch windows: Alt+Tab, via the dash, the window selection in the Activities Overview, or, in some cases via notifications and the message tray.

Likewise, there is a huge amount of flexibility in how pole choose to work with content. In this area, we have actually increased the number of options available to users, with the introduction of GNOME Online Accounts, which gives users quick and easy access to content stored in the cloud. Another example of flexibility is the use of side-by-side windows, which lets you snap two windows to fill two halves of the screen.

That GNOME 3 works better on mobile devices than workstations or laptops?

The primary targets for GNOME 3 are laptops and workstations. If you look at the design of GNOME 3, you will actually see a lot of optimization for these types of traditional devices. It's fair to say that GNOME 3 is far more keyboard-centric than GNOME 2 ever was.

At the same time, there are new kinds of devices emerging, and we do intend for GNOME 3 to be compatible with them. Our initial targets in this area are so-called hybrid devices, which include a detachable keyboard and touchpad.

That GNOME 3 ignores what the majority of users want?

People who love GNOME 3 aren't as motivated to speak out, and their voices aren't as loud, but they do exist in significant numbers. We know this because we are often contacted by them, and because we encounter them in the course of our work.

We continue to listen to feedback and to develop GNOME 3 with the majority in mind. The experience is under constant refinement, and there are new pieces of the complete picture that are under development. We are confident that it will become increasingly compelling as our plans come to fruition.

That offering fallback mode, a stripped down version of GNOME 2 for those who lack hard acceleration, GNOME 3 makes some users second-class citizens?

While fallback users don't benefit from all the development work that goes into GNOME 3, they still get updates to our applications, system settings, and other components. Furthermore, improvements to the state of free and open source graphics drivers mean that fewer people will be dependent on fallback mode, and will be able to use the full GNOME 3 experience.

Are there any other criticisms of GNOME that you think are in need of correcting?

One of the biggest misconceptions about GNOME right now is that we don't listen to feedback from our users. In fact, those of us in the GNOME community spend a lot of time reading people’s opinions about GNOME 3 and responding to bug reports. There's been a lot of effort to respond to issues when they have been brought up, as you can see if you read our release notes. GNOME 3 has also changed a lot during its development, and those modifications have been largely thanks to the feedback we have received.

What do you think will happen to GNOME in the next five years?

We are working hard to refine the experience that we introduced with GNOME 3.0 to create a new suite of core applications, and to create a better framework for third party application developers.

We are optimistic that GNOME 3 will become an increasingly compelling product in the next couple of years, and are hopeful that we will attract more users, contributors, and partners. We're also excited about a new generation of contributors who have been joining our community. Our outreach efforts have been more successful, and we are exceptionally lucky to have some incredibly talented new contributors working with us. In five years, we hope that it will be them who are running GNOME.

These are exciting times for our project, and we are looking forward to what the future holds. Our community is full of energy, and there are quite a few new applications being developed right now, including a Calendar, Music application, a Clocks application, and a new Photo manager. We also have big plans for the future, and are embarking into new territory.

We can't wait to see how these new developments will work out, and what we will achieve next.

A Tale of Two User Revolts

Thinking over these responses, I can't help comparing these answers to those given by KDE members in response to the hostile initial reception of KDE 4.0 four years ago. The KDE members' comments echoed those given by GNOME members above, but they also included a recognition that a disconnect had occurred between developers and users, and discussed how to prevent a recurrence.

By comparison, these answers indicate that the GNOME leadership sees no major problems with GNOME 3, and expect that it to gradually gain acceptance as people get used to it and as features are added. Nor do leaders see any major problems with the project -- in fact, they suggest that GNOME is thriving, and problems are minimal.

KDE's and GNOME's situations are probably not strictly comparable. Yet I wonder:

Despite its user revolt, KDE was able to keep many of its users. Four years later, much of the criticism against it has died down. But will GNOME manage a similar evolution in response, as its leaders apparently expect? Perhaps in these responses, the first outline of an answer is revealed.

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