You're Living in the Past, Dude!

by Bradley M. Kuhn

August 5, 2011

At the 2000 Usenix Technical Conference [ ] (which was the primary “generalist” conference for Free Software developers in those days), I met Miguel De Icaza for the third time in my life. In those days, he'd just started Helix Code (anyone else remember what Ximian used to be called?) and was still president of the GNOME Foundation. To give you some context: Bonobo was a centerpiece of new and active GNOME development then.

Out of curiosity and a little excitement about GNOME, I asked Miguel if he could show me how to get the GNOME 1.2 running on my laptop. Miguel agreed to help, quickly taking control of the keyboard and frantically typing and editing my sources.list.

Debian potato was the just-becoming-stable release in those days, and of course, I was still running potato (this was before my experiment with running things from testing began [ ]).

After a few minutes hacking on my keyboard, Miguel realized that I wasn't running woody, Debian's development release. Miguel looked at me, and said: You aren't running woody; I can't make GNOME run on this thing. There's nothing I can do for you. You're living in the past, dude!. (Those who know Miguel IRL can imagine easily how he'd sound saying this.)

So, I've told that story many times for the last eleven years. I usually tell it for laughs, as it seems an equal-opportunity humorous anecdote. It pokes some fun at Miguel, at me, at Debian for its release cycle, and also at GNOME (which has, since its inception, tried to never live in the past, dude).

Fact is, though, I rather like living in the past, at least with regard to my computer setup. By way of desktop GUIs, I used twm [  ] well into the late 1990s, and used fvwm [ ] well into the early 2000s. I switched to sawfish [ ] (then sawmill) during the relatively brief period when GNOME used it as its default window manager. When Metacity became the default, I never switched because I'd configured sawfish so heavily.

In fact, the only actual parts of GNOME 2 that I ever used on a daily basis have been (a) a small unobtrusive panel, (b) dbus (and its related services), and (c) the Network Manager applet. When GNOME 3 was released, I had no plans to switch to it, and frankly I still don't.

I'm not embarrassed that I consistently live in the past; it's sort of the point. GNOME 3 isn't for me; it's for people who want their desktop to operate in new and interesting ways. Indeed, it's (in many ways) for the people who are tempted to run OSX because its desktop is different than the usual, traditional, “desktop metaphor” experience that had been standard since the mid-1990s.

GNOME 3 just wasn't designed with old-school Unix hackers in mind. Those of us who don't believe a computer is any good until we see a command line aren't going to be the early adopters who embrace GNOME 3. For my part, I'll actually try to avoid it as long as possible, continue to run my little GNOME 2 panel and sawfish, until slowly, GNOME 3 will seep into my workflow the way the GNOME 2 panel and sawfish did when they were current, state-of-the-art GNOME technologies.

I hope that other old-school geeks will see this distinction: we're past the era when every Free Software project is targeted at us hackers specifically. Failing to notice this will cause us to ignore the deeper problem software freedom faces. GNOME Foundation's Executive Director (and my good friend), Karen Sandler [ ], pointed out in her OSCON keynote [ ] something that's bothered her and me for years: the majority computer at OSCON is Apple hardware running OSX. (In fact, I even noticed Simon Phipps [ ] has one now!) That's the world we're living in now. Users who actually know about “Open Source” are now regularly enticed to give up software freedom for shiny things.

Yes, as you just read, I can snicker as quickly as any old-school command-line geek (just as Linus Torvalds did earlier this week [ ]) at the pointlessness of wobbly windows, desktop cubes, and zoom effects. I could also easily give a treatise on how I can get work done faster, better, and smarter because I have the technology of years ago that makes every keystroke matter.

Notwithstanding that, I'd even love to have the same versatility with GNOME 3 that I have with sawfish. And, if it turns out GNOME 3's embedded Javascript engine will give me the same hackability I prefer with sawfish, I'll adopt GNOME 3 happily. But, no matter what, I'll always be living in the past, because like every other human, I hate changing anything, unless it's strictly necessary or it's my own creation and derivation. Humans are like that: no matter who you are, if it wasn't your idea, you're always slow to adopt something new and change old habits.

Nevertheless, there's actually nothing wrong with living in the past — I quite like it myself. However, I'd suggest that care be taken to not admonish those who make a go at creating the future. (At this risk of making a conclusion that sounds like a time travel joke,) don't forget that their future will eventually become that very past where I and others would prefer to live.


Copyright 2011