GNOME's Next Step

Tuesday Dec 4th 2012 by Bruce Byfield
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OK, GNOME has listened -- once. But that is only the beginning of the recovery process it needs to go through.

The GNOME project took an important step when Matthias Clasen announced that it would support a set of extensions that would re-create the GNOME 2 desktop. Many observers, including me, Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols and Katherine Noyes immediately interpreted the news as proof that GNOME was turning itself around and finally starting to listen to users.

What was important was not just the news, but its tone. After two years of GNOME promoting GNOME 3 at the expense of GNOME 2, Clasen offered a more conciliatory tone:

And while we certainly hope that many users will find the new ways comfortable and refreshing after a short learning phase, we should not fault people who prefer the old way. After all, these features were a selling point of GNOME 2 for ten years!

Suddenly, someone from the project seemed to understand what users had been complaining about.

However, commenters on these stories seemed less convinced. Having switched to Linux Mint's re-creations of GNOME 2, Cinnamon or Mate, most are in no hurry to return to GNOME. Many are waiting to see just how much GNOME will change.

Whether these commenters represent a majority of potential GNOME users is impossible to know. You can certainly find others who praise GNOME 3, especially on GNOME-centered sites, and their numbers seem to be slowly growing.

But the numbers don't matter much. Skepticism about GNOME is voiced whenever the project is mentioned, and, at times, seems to have lowered morale within the project itself.

In other words, as I have said before, GNOME has a marketing problem as much as a developmental one. It is not enough, as Xan Lopez and Juan Jose Sanchez suggested in their presentation "A Bright Future for GNOME" for the project to expand into mobile devices and perhaps look for pre-installation deals.

Instead, if GNOME hopes to re-gain its former position, the project would probably do better to consider full-fledged crisis management.

Specifically, GNOME needs to renew its efforts at communication, rather than leaving sub-projects to promote themselves. It needs to communicate both its cultural and technical strengths, and as it moves forward, to demonstrate that it can manage changes in a way that users can accept.

By doing these things, it could rebrand itself, moving away from its current image as an out-of-touch group of elitists and focusing on aspects that make it an attractive choice among desktop environments.

Creating the Channel

In theory, GNOME has a marketing team. In practice, traffic to the marketing mailing list remains light, although the marketing list recently had what is supposed to be the first of bi-weekly conference calls. With such minimal activity, many chances to promote GNOME are simply missed.

For example, a few weeks ago, GNOME completely failed to communicate its perspective on the dropping of fallback mode. In the absence of any other view, the news was framed as proof of the project's disregard for users.

Similarly, Clasen's announcement was left to the media to pick up, leaving the emphasis on users' skepticism about the decision to dominate Internet discussions.

Even worse, without any official communications, GNOME leaves external relations to individual responses. These efforts are usually responses to media coverage that one person perceives as negative. Often, they are full of naive cynicism about journalism, such as the belief that writers try to be controversial in order to increase page hits. At times, they are personal attacks, questioning the journalism's professional ethics.

I realize that for me to mention such things sounds self-serving. But my point is not self-defense -- only the very obvious one that a project that needs to communicate externally can only cripple itself by alienating the gatekeepers who pass their messages along to the public.

Just as importantly, in the absence of more official responses, these private responses are easily mistaken for the project's own. The result? An even worse impression of GNOME in the public.

For both these reasons, GNOME needs an official, active communications team -- and needs it now. Without one, crisis management is at best more difficult, and probably impossible.

Promoting What's Already There

GNOME's image also suffers because the project fails to emphasize its cultural and technical strengths.

For instance, at the same time that GNOME 3 has been condemned by many users, the GNOME Outreach Program for Women has been so successfully revived in the last couple of years that it is now being extended to other projects. Yet this success story has received only spotty marketing efforts from the larger GNOME organization, relying instead on its own efforts for publicity.

The situation is no different on the technical level. GNOME Shell extensions were in development for almost two years before Clasen's announcement -- in fact, I wrote about how they could re-create GNOME 2 eleven weeks earlier.

The same is true of many of the features of GNOME 3, even if the overall experience isn't to everyone's liking. GNOME's automatic handling of virtual workspaces, for instance, could be a way to encourage more people to use them -- especially if it included a way to change to manual management. The same should be said for its work in making notifications less obtrusive, and its treatment of chat as a different window from most of those on the desktop. Yet, outside of release notes, such features are rarely mentioned.

Even more tellingly, the GNOME project has failed to distinguish between the GNOME Shell, the interface introduced in GNOME 3 and the underlying technology.

When people attack GNOME 3, they are generally referring to the GNOME Shell. Attacks on GNOME's utility or application are much rarer. In fact, GNOME 3, Ubuntu's Unity, and Linux Mint's Cinnamon and Mate all share the same GNOME infrastructure.

Figures are unavailable, but that probably means that while many dislike GNOME Shell, GNOME technology is probably used by more people than anything else.

Clearly, the problem is not that GNOME is doing nothing worthwhile. It simply isn't letting people know when it does.

Proving the Ability to Listen

The main message that GNOME needs to communicate is that it can listen to users and their concerns. After eighteen months of complaints about GNOME 3 with very little in the way of any response, many users believe just the opposite.

A large part of the problem is organizational. Mailing lists for localization or specific apps like the Epiphany browser are intended for user comment, but there appears to be no place for public discussion of GNOME's general design. Aside from bug reports, the same is true for testing. Although, as an upstream project, GNOME might be said to receive feedback from distributions, for the average user, communication with GNOME is difficult enough that its reputation for being unapproachable is understandable.

As for its ambassador program, presumably intended for grassroots support, it appears to have fallen inactive, with the last post to its mailing list over a year old. Yet without easily visible means for users to communicate, any claim that GNOME listens to them is doomed to be unbelievable from the start.

Besides refurbishing the means to communicate with users, GNOME also needs to show that it can manage change effectively in the future. After all, one of the main complaints about GNOME 3 is that it was too much change too quickly.

GNOME could show improved change management by adopting a number of development principles. Nobody seriously expects a free software project not to make changes, but how those changes are introduced can have significant effect on how they are received.

GNOME 3, for example, might have been better received if it had included from the start an effective fallback mode. Similarly, a menu and virtual workspace pager might have been offered as options for those who preferred to avoid the overview and to manage their desktops for themselves.

But the real concern for users is how change is managed in the future. No one expects or wants a desktop environment to be unchanging, but neither do they care for radical changes that interfere with how they work.

Faced with a similar reaction, KDE responded by rethinking how change is introduced. Its more radical changes are now introduced in side-projects and allowed to mature before being introduced into the main desktop environment. If GNOME goes ahead with suggestions for interfaces for phones and tablets, it might consider equivalent practices to ease future changes.

The Chance for Better Communication

If GNOME took crisis management seriously, it might consider an apology -- not for the GNOME Shell as such, but for how it was introduced without preparing users for radical change, or allowing features to mature. But such a statement is probably too much to expect of anybody, especially people who have worked hard and had their efforts so heavily criticized.

Still, the steps suggested here might be enough, if only the project can make consistent and sincere efforts to implement them. Some already seem to have started happening after Lopez and Sanchez's presentation, although it can be hard for outsiders to be sure.

The greatest mistake would be for the project to approach the need for change from a purely technical viewpoint. Aside from the difficulty today of innovating on the desktop, developers often feel uneasy about marketing, and the temptation to ignore the need for it must be strong. Far easier to assume that users don't know what they want and dismiss complaints out of hand for not being expressed the way that a developer would.

With luck, GNOME will avoid such mistakes, and regain something of its former position. For all its troubles, too much of the free desktop is still depending on its underlying code and applications.

Clasen's announcement has bought GNOME some time and perhaps some temporarily relaxation of criticism. But that is all. Now, the project needs to demonstrate that it has learned something, and won't make the same mistakes again -- a process that could take months, or even years.

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