Friday, March 11, 2011

GNOME wars!

Recently a controversy has broken out within the GNU/Linux community concerning friction between the GNOME project, the creator of the eponymous component of GNU/Linux that provides the user interface, and Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu operating system.

The issue is that the Canonical people, having started out by building their operating system around the GNOME desktop environment, have been gradually moving away from the official version to a version that more matches their needs, based upon code they've written themselves. This has been going on for some time now, with netbook versions of Ubuntu already jettisoning major components of GNOME in favor of a revamped front-end that will eventually also become the primary front-end for the desktop version of Ubuntu.

Needless to say, there's been a lot of heat about this, but I have to say I think the development is good. If you doubt this, you should look at the results: For many of us, Ubuntu is easily the best desktop operating system out there at the moment, having as much, if not more, functionality than Windows or Mac OS X, yet having a user interface that's close to Mac OS X in ease of use, and way ahead of Windows. The system is solid, reliable, and people who use it love it.

How did the Canonical people produce such a thing, without the massive resources of a company like Apple and Microsoft? Well, they built upon a system that already existed. They recognized, from the beginning, that the system they were building upon didn't quite match what they were trying to achieve, so they devoted resources to improving it. And because of the way these systems are licensed, they were able to do this without having to stop and ask permission every step of the way.

And that's an important point, because if they had to ask permission, they wouldn't have gotten it. The GNOME developers have their own view of what a user interface should be, but it's not quite the same vision that Canonical has for Ubuntu. Much of this is a due to the agendas of the people developing it: GNOME is, right now, primarily a project funded by RedHat and Novell, both of which are companies interested in building operating systems to act as servers. They want user interfaces a system administrator will find friendly.

This isn't to suggest GNOME isn't friendly, it is and the GNOME community has done a great job. But obviously Canonical, who are keen to produce an operating system that will work for everyone, even people who find Windows difficult to use, wants it to go in a slightly different direction.

Feelings are hurt and people are arguing that these types of argument are damaging for the free software and open source communities. I disagree. I think what's happened is a demonstration of the strength of the open source development model, and a vindication for free software. Had Canonical been reliant on GNOME, Ubuntu would be stagnant. Canonical and the GNOME people are free to write code, publish it, and make use of the best of each other's ideas, and that's why Ubuntu is the excellent system it is today.

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