CLUG, the Cape Linux User Group, meets twice a month at the University of Cape Town to discuss the latest news impacting the Linux world. Recently I was lucky enough to attend a presentation given on a topic which is currently being heatedly discussed amongst people in the know.
Context: Linux? Ubuntu? GNOME!?
Linux is an open source operating system similar to more well known offerings such as Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s Mac OS X. Each of these offers a unique experience which can be largely attributed to each ones representation of the desktop environment (the graphical metaphor used by each operating system to represent a physical desk). For most users of commercial operating systems, like Windows and OS X there is no option given when it comes to the desktop environment; there is no choice in the matter and you use what you get. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the beauty of Linux is that this is not the case. In fact, almost the opposite can be said to be true for Linux as you are normally overwhelmed for choice. This has often been a stumbling block in the past for Linux’s commercial adoption, but recently with the help of Canonical (a company started by Mark Shuttleworth), a new flavour of Linux called Ubuntu has become extremely popular.
They have done this by making many choices for users that would previously have had to be made by the users themselves. This is not to say that the customisability and power of Linux has been removed from Ubuntu, but rather the whole experience has been made far more approachable for the regular user, whilst still giving the expert flexibility and choice. Since having recently moved to Mac OS X myself, I can say that both offer an equally compelling experience for all spectrums of users, regardless of computer literacy.
One of the major decisions that Ubuntu takes on the users behalf, is which desktop environment to present. As far as I am aware, this has historically been GNOME (arguably Linux’s most popular desktop environment next to KDE), but recently, Ubuntu have begun to build their own desktop environment based on GNOME called Unity, which is becoming Ubuntu’s de facto desktop environment. The current netbook edition of Ubuntu (10.10) already uses Unity by default and the upcoming release of Ubuntu’s flagship desktop edition (11.04) will use it too, completing the transition away from GNOME to Unity. Canonical’s decision to develop Unity rather than putting effort into improving GNOME has been viewed as controversial and seems to be driving a wedge between the two communities, causing uncooperative behavior where previously there was a collective effort towards a single vision. This decision and the ramifications thereof is the topic of contention to be discussed at this particular CLUG meetup.
Our story begins this fateful evening …
… down in the seminar room of UCT’s Chemical Engineering Building, where a projector screen makes its slow ascent into its resting position behind speaker Phil Bull. There is a palpable anticipation in the air as we await the final few stragglers. During this time we settle into comfortable seating, some of us descending into a world consisting of the content being served up by our smartphones, whilst others talk of the evening ahead. Although it has not yet begun, plans are already being made to further discuss the presentation over food and beer later in the evening. Just then an attendee rocks up in a Darth Vader mask and takes a seat. I begin to wonder to myself if this is acceptable attire for CLUG members. No one pays attention to the new arrival so I guess it is safe to assume that anything goes. I start to feel quite at home as the geekiness of the moment starts to envelop me and it is at this point that I’m glad to have discovered such a group.
The talk begins and Phil Bull, an astrophysics PhD student from the University of Cambridge, introduces himself. The topic for tonight is the widening rift between the GNOME and Unity communities. It is discussed from Phil’s unique perspective as an open source community member who contributes to both projects in the form of much needed documentation. From his vantage point, Phil can see the worrying extent to which the communities are becoming fractured, and just how hard this is going to make it for developers to maintain applications that work on both platforms.
Personally he is finding it more difficult to sustain his level of contributions to both projects as the two communities’ ideologies continue to diverge, and he seems to be coming to the sad conclusion that working on both will not be sustainable in the future. The tone of his presentation paints a seemingly bleak future for Linux and the end user experience that it offers, not to mention the difficulties facing developers and other contributors looking to build on the good work done by others. It’s fascinating to see that the open source world is plagued by similar issues to those found in the commercial equivalent.
Phil’s talk ends with a well deserved round of applause. He comes across as an amicable person who is extremely passionate about what he does, and he has a genuine concern about the well being of all parties involved in this latest open source conflict.
It is time for questions and although his presentation was unbiased and non-inflammatory, Phil still jokingly warns us that he is not here to entice a flame war. The questions posed to Phil are challenging indeed, but one of the most interesting to me is to find out which path he will choose considering he made it clear that he can’t work on both projects. His decision - GNOME. Sorry Canonical, but you seem to have lost a good man due to what sounds like a spiteful insistence to split the efforts of the community. Another challenging question arrives in the form of a request to further justify Canonical’s reasoning for their actions. Some in the crowd are unsatisfied with Phil’s earlier explanation given during his presentation, feeling it didn’t fully explain Canonical’s seemingly aggressive move.
Ubuntu, I am your father
“I think I would be better able to provide satisfactory answers to that question” quips a voice punctuated by heavy breathing from the Darth Vader mask, which is removed to reveal none other than Mark Shuttleworth! My timing in attending a CLUG session could not have been better as excitement is now at fever pitch … or perhaps that’s just me and this is just a day in the life of a CLUG member, as everyone seems to look suitably unimpressed. At least the mask-wearing enigma now makes sense to me. Not wanting to sway the direction of Phil’s talk with his presence, Shuttleworth donned the mask in order to hear the thoughts of the community.
Shuttleworth’s mind operates on a level far more advanced than mine and combined with my lack of background knowledge on the subject I find it difficult to keep up, however, his answers are well explained and eloquently expressed, allowing me to keep abreast of the debate. I am instantly convinced by his arguments and happily forgive him and Canonical of any potential wrongdoing, but of course the rest of the crowd was not going to let him off that lightly and further challenging questions are flung his way. Shuttleworth doesn’t miss a beat in answering any of them, and the impression I get from his answers is that they are all personal and not just a representation of his company’s position. He is questioned on many diverse topics: the legal implications of the software licences that Canonical employs (which seem to deprive contributors of their right to own the intellectual property created by their contributions); his opinion on the split in the community and why it came about; Canonicals apparent lack of giving back to the community they are only too happy to take from; and many others.
From my position as a completely neutral observer overlooking the discussion, I notice the dichotomy that exists between Shuttleworth and his contemporaries. The personalities in the room could not be more polar in nature. Although his peers are equally impassioned and intelligent, Shuttleworth comes across as a powerhouse, full of confidence and conviction in what he is doing.
As the debate rages I reflect on how incredibly smart and enthusiastic this room of people are. Here I am, having fumbled my way into a seminar room at the tip of Africa, which consists of one of the most influential people in open source, battling it out against his equally bright and passionate grassroots contemporaries. Although there are conflicting opinions and seemingly unresolvable arguments, I feel safe in the knowledge that open source can only become stronger with people of this calibre involved in its creation and direction.
Although I may not have fully comprehended the entire debate, it was undoubtedly fascinating. If you are looking for a far more coherent explanation of Phil’s frustrations, check out his own blog post on the matter. There are also some fiery comments to his post that are worth a read to see the debate in action. Further commentary on Phil’s presentation can be found in the CLUG mailing list archives (Feb, Mar) where the discussion also continues. If your appetite is still not satiated, a Google search for GNOME Shell vs. Unity should do the trick.
I would highly recommend attending a CLUG event if you happen to live in Cape Town or are just visiting. The members are friendly and the topics extremely interesting.