It has been an incredibly interesting week in free desktop-land, in that kind of “interesting like a soap opera” kind of way. I guess it’s not news that different participants have different recollections of the same series of events, but it is a bit sad to see it writ so large on a public stage.
Timing-wise, it’s quite co-incidental, but it’s enlightening (I think) to read Mark Shuttleworth’s latest “Internal competition is healthy, but depends on strong and mature leadership” alongside Mark Wilcox’s “What happened to Nokia?” of a month ago. I’m quite clearly going to side with latter-Mark on this one: internal competition is generally not healthy; in fact, in my experience, it can be of the most damaging things you can do to a group of people. That’s not to say that it’s always a bad thing – to a large extent, it works for the Linux kernel (who I think are a special case in this regard) – but in a community telling someone their contribution isn’t wanted is a hurtful thing. You can see the hurt if you read what Mark S. is saying, it’s both implicit and explicit. Internal competition isn’t a solution to this, though, of course – it’s the equivalent of taking the disagreement outside and settling it mano-a-mano, swapping one hurt for another. It’s a red meat solution, a particularly macho form of solving problems.
For me, from the outside, Gnome 3 has been an example of a particularly successful collaborative project. If you go to gnome3.org and “Try it out”, you’re not downloading a copy of Red Hat / Fedora there – it’s OpenSuse underneath, built on their rather wonderful Open Build Service. All of the design has gone on in public (Hylke’s list of designers was interesting), and as a long-term gnome-shell user (I’ve been using it regularly since Fedora 12 on my Netbook) it’s easy for me to appreciate just how much work has really gone into this system.
Of course, Gnome 3 is not going to be for everyone. That’s ok, there’s KDE (and others). This is another example of where competition isn’t really: sure, you can run the same apps in both desktop environments, but generally users of one are not going to be immensely happy in the other environment (particularly power users). They don’t compete head-to-head in that sense. In the same sense, I think that’s the same thing that happens with distros. Yes, Fedora 15 will almost certainly lose some users because of the default setup. The inclusion of Gnome 3 will irk some, the inclusion of systemd will irk others, and to a large extent it was always thus (pulseaudio, networkmanager, etc.). Again, there are other distros, the Debians, OpenSuses, and even Ubuntus of this world, and to a great extent they really don’t directly compete with each other. Sure, some people move from one to another like they’re changing underwear. I think this is why Fedora can afford to be an adventurous distro, why Debian can’t really afford to put out bad releases, etc. – each to their own.
So, how much competition is too much? Where does the line lay? I don’t think it’s easy to tell. What is clear is that the amount of drama on this issue way, way exceeds the amount it deserves. Owen Taylor has said that including “appindicators” in gnome-shell is still on the table – so in that sense, there is a bit of a fuss about nothing (of course it’s arguable, and hypothetical, that his opinion has changed on this subject).
What is really needed, though, is a much clearer vision of where the desktop ought to be going. Mark S. has said that the Gnome 3 “trajectory” is wrong and has already failed. So where should it go? Where is Unity trying to go? Mark S. has already given up on Gnome, but talks about having Unity and KDE co-ordinate closely via freedesktop.org.