GNOME needs to go to the Moon

GNOME seems to be in trouble; but KDE may show a way out

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Even as the prospect of a another new Windows blunder and some new OEM deals have some wondering if this might be the time people start paying attention to the Linux desktop, disruptions within Linux desktop development communities may be threatening the future of the Linux desktop.

One week ago, German GTK+ developer Benjamin Otte, after announcing he would not be attending this week's GUADEC conference, wrote a highly cited blog entry listing the problems he perceives within the GNOME community.

And there were many.

From an understaffed project to the staff that's there being mostly Red Hat employees, Otte raised some concerns that struck a huge nerve within the Linux community.

"For anecdotal numbers: GTK has 1 person working full-time on it (me). Glib doesn’t even have that. I think evolution is in a similar situation (a complete email client)," Otte wrote.

Otte also cited a lack of goals for the GNOME project.

"In 2005], the GNOME project had essentially achieved [what it set out to do: a working Free desktop environment. Since then, nobody has managed to set new goals for the project. In fact, these days GNOME describes itself as a 'community that makes great software,' which is as nondescript as you can get for software development," Otte stated.

There are other problems for GNOME in Otte's view: a reduction in commercial sponsorship, few important applications ported to GNOME 3, and a general migration away from the desktop to tablets and smartphones.

Meanwhile, over in KDE-land, one of the biggest commercial sponsors of the Qt library, Nokia, may be finally performing the operation many thought was inevitable from the day CEO Stephen Elop announced Nokia would be partnering with Microsoft for smartphone platforms: the amputation of its Qt assets Nokia picked up when is bought Trolltech.

My colleague Andy Patrizo makes some good points about these rumors, indicating that if Nokia drops Qt, it will be the right move for all.

"I think this is long overdue and have argued this for quite some time. I see no synergy between the two. Trolltech belonged in the hands of a cross-platform developer company, not a platform owner," Patrizo opined.

The rumors about firing all Qt developers and selling off the assets do, indeed, suck, but for all that, I don't think that ultimately this will be more than a minor setback for the overall KDE Project. Qt, as project leader Aaron Seigo has drilled into my skull five ways to Sunday, is bigger than Nokia, and KDE is bigger than Qt.

KDE on the desktop appears to have settled into a nice bit of equilibrium and--unlike the state of GNOME that Otte observed--the KDE team seems to have set new goals for itself, in the form of projects like the Vivaldi tablet.

And this, more than any of the other problems that Otte cited, is the biggest problem for GNOME: no true goals. Everything else is just a symptom.

A lot of people in the community have fingered GNOME 3 as the biggest problem, but I would argue that while GNOME 3 is definitely a problem, it's not the core issue. GNOME 3 is the way it is because there were few goals defined by the community at large. "Make it better," alas, is not a goal. What goals were in place seemed to be held close to the vest of core GNOME developers, which caused friction within the GNOME community, as documented by Ubuntu Community Manager Jono Bacon this week.

Bacon focuses on the people side of the problem, which makes sense, since he's in the business of working with people. I don't disagree with his thoughts, but I believe that a lot of the personality and communications issues he cites would be cleared up if the GNOME team had a goal to work towards.

President Kennedy had the idea, when he gave the country something to focus on: sending humans to the Moon. It was outrageously huge and ambitious--and the U.S. pulled it off anyway. It was quite literally reaching for the stars.

And while I am no sociologist, I have to wonder how much worse the turbulent Sixties in America might have been if the public hadn't had something as loft as a manned Moon mission on which to focus and remind us that there was something better to strive for.

This is what GNOME needs. It had it once, Ott points out: GNOME built that free desktop environment. But now it needs something else. It needs the crazy idea, the Moon shot.

Get that, and the community will galvanize itself into a force to be reckoned with once more.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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