What does the user see?

Owen Taylor

March 11, 2011

As a long-time GNOME module maintainer and as a team lead within Red Hat, I often get people coming to me for advice about some technical issue or another. And no matter the issue, there’s one question that I’ll almost always end up asking at some point: “what does the user see?” Code, APIs, protocols are all just means to the end-user experience. Discussion of the future of GNOME should also start with what the user sees.

Mark argues [ http://www.markshuttleworth.com/archives/654 ] that GNOME should be a place where we have internal competition. But his idea of internal competition seems to be competition between different end-user experiences. His entrant into the competition is Unity, an environment with a user experience designed completely in isolation from GNOME. The other entrant would, I suppose, be the GNOME 3 desktop that GNOME has created.

This competition doesn’t make sense to me: what would be left of GNOME if Unity “won” that competition? Not even the libraries are left, because every decision that is made about what goes into library should be driven by that same question “what does the user see?” No widget should go into GTK+ unless it makes sense in a GNOME application. GNOME cannot cede the user experience and still work as a project.

The sort of internal competition I’d like to see within GNOME is competition of ideas. Competition of mockups and prototypes, and even entire applications. We know that we need better file management within the GNOME Activities Overview for 3.2. Is that organized as a timeline? Does it involve tagging? Is it best implemented with Zeitgeist? With Tracker? With both? Those are things that are still open, and the more people that are working on different designs and approaches, the better off the final result will be.

The basic constraint of any sort of internal competition within GNOME is that you have to be willing for some of your ideas to win and some of your ideas to lose. If you are starting out with the premise that you have complete final control over the user experience, then you aren’t working on GNOME, you are working on something else. So far, this seems to be the approach of Canonical. In the past, they took GNOME, modified it, and presented the modified result to their users. Now they are taking some GNOME libraries, building a new desktop on top of that, and presenting that to their users. But I’ve never seen Canonical make the leap and realize that they could actually dive in and make GNOME itself better.

Diving in means a commitment – it means fighting for your ideas at every step of the way, from the design level, to figuring out how the code pieces fit together, to the line-by-line details of the code. But the thing about open source is that the more you engage at this level with a project, the more you win. You become more in sync with the other contributors about end goals. You learn how to communicate with them better. And soon enough you no longer think of yourself as an outsider. You are just are another insider.

Make no mistake: I’m very sad to see further splintering of the Linux desktop. I think GNOME 3 is going to be amazing, but how much more amazing could it have been if the design and coding talent that is going into Unity could have been pooled with the work being done inside GNOME? An application developer can create an application that works both within GNOME and within Unity, but we’re adding extra barriers to the task of creating an application for Linux. That’s already far too hard.

No matter what happens, all desktops on Linux need to continue to work together to try and provide as much cross-desktop compatibility as possible. But we have to realize the limits of freedesktop.org specifications and standards. Many of the early successes of freedesktop.org were in places where there was broad user interface consensus. Drag-and-drop of text from one application to another made sense in all toolkits, so we made it work between toolkits. But if there isn’t consensus on the user experience, then the specification isn’t that useful.

For example, appindicators start off with the proposition any application should be able to create an icon with a drop-down menu and make it a permanent part of the desktop. (I’m simplifying somewhat – the original Status Notifier specification leaves the user experience quite unspecified, but that’s the way that Canonical was using the specification.) If you don’t have that user interface concept, it’s not clear how the spec helps. So that’s what made the Canonical proposal of libappindicator strange. They didn’t engage with GNOME to make the user interface idea part of future designs. They didn’t even propose changes to core GNOME components to support application indicators. They showed up with a library that would allow applications to display indicators in a modified GNOME desktop, and proposed that GNOME should bless it as a dependency.

(From the GNOME Shell side we were never considering whether appindicators were useful for their original designed purpose; we were considering whether they were a useful way to implement the fixed system icons we had in the GNOME Shell design. In the end, it seemed much simpler to just code the fixed system icons, and I think that decision has been supported in how things have turned out in practice. We’ve been able to create system icon drop-downs that match our mockups and use the full capabilities of the shell toolkit without having to figure out how to funnel everything over a D-Bus protocol.)

So, by all means, we should collaborate on standards, but we can’t just collaborate on standards for the sake of collaborating on standards. We have to start off from understanding what the user sees. Once we understand what the user sees, if there’s a place to make an application written for one environment work better in another environment, that’s a place where standardization is useful. Of course, the more that designers from different environments exchange ideas and go down similar user interface paths, the more opportunity there will be for standards.

Is collaboration on standards and on bits of infrastructure, and friendly exchange of UI ideas the way forward for GNOME and Unity? Are they completely separate desktops? Perhaps it’s the only feasible way forward at this point, but it certainly doesn’t make me happy. Mark: any time you want discuss how we can work together to create to a single great desktop, we’re still ready to talk. Design choices, technological choices, the channels and ways we communicate in GNOME, are all things we can reconsider. The only thing to me that’s untouchable is the central idea that GNOME is ultimately about the experience of our users.

3:30 pm

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