Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Is Linus Torvalds a danger to free software?

I saw an article today about Linus Torvalds' opinion of GNOME 3.4, given upon upgrading his computer to the latest version of Fedora.  I've seen many people saying negative things about GNOME 3, and he's entitled to his opinion, but I would say that he should consider the possible effects of his opinion.

There are many precedents for this.  The lead developer, or maintainer, of the KDE DVD copying program, K9Copy, abandoned the project with a message which was very damaging.  He was abandoning the project, his message said, because he no longer had faith in Linux and Open Source.  Again, he is entitled to his opinion, but should have thought about how his comments could affect the faith of others in Linux and Open Source.

To be honest, Linus' comments are not a shock to me.  I remember that, shortly after the launch of GNOME 2, he made similar comments about problems he perceived with the desktop environment.  Actually, he attacked the user friendliness of GNOME, saying that the developers were treating users like idiots.  It's a provocative statement, given more weight by his position as the original author of the Linux kernel and the respect this has bestowed upon him from the wider open source community.  He followed his attack on GNOME with the revelation that he was switching to KDE: GNOME's rival for user interface presence.  It carried a heavy whiff of bias, and a possible hidden agenda to shape the future of the desktop experience on Linux.

Now, we are faced with another attack on GNOME.  I would question the wisdom of attacking the user interface that is used as a default in so many Linux distributions.  Bear in mind that GNOME 3 is something of a departure from the GNOME 2, and is also fairly new; as open source software, it will improve with the passage of time, as did GNOME 2, not to mention the previously heavily criticised KDE 4.  The problem is that Linus attacks subjects like this with heavily charged, emotive statements.  If they are attempts to drive users away from what is now something of a standard (to Debian and Fedora users, at any rate), then he should remember that telling users how they must interact with their computer and their data is a criticism levelled at the likes of Apple and Microsoft; free and open source software is all about choice.  If it is meant with the intention of provoking the GNOME developers, so that they improve their game, then it is also misguided.

The nature of open source means that software goes through a process of gradual improvement.  If you want to criticise GNOME 3, it should be for changing so suddenly, requiring users to adjust suddenly to a new desktop layout which was incomplete - criticisms which could also be aimed at the launch of KDE 4.  My own take on this is that such massive and rapid changes to the user interface ignore the requirements of users, and that is the same problem I have with the change from Mac OS 9 to OS X and the upcoming change from Windows 7 to Windows 8.  As a reaction to this issue, I use XFCE on Debian, but I would never suggest that this is the environment everyone should use.

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