LWN recently posted
on the GNOME Foundation's plea for support to help it get
through a difficult year. Some of the comments on that news questioned the
role of the foundation and its executive director. In response, the
Foundation offered to make a board member - Luis Villa - available for an
interview. Luis quickly answered our questions, despite being in the
middle of final exams at the time; some people, it seems, will do anything
to get out of studying. The result is an interesting view into the state
of the GNOME project and where it is heading.
LWN: Could you tell us about your involvement with GNOME and the board?
Luis Villa: I've been involved with GNOME since I was Ximian's QA
guy for the
Evolution 1.0 release, which was 2001 but now feels like a million
years ago. I was first elected to the board in 2003, and have served
several terms since then. I took off a couple terms because of law
school, but I was re-elected in early 2008 with a promise to focus
specifically on legal issues. Since then I've also played grumpy old
man from time to time, since I'm the only current board member who was
actively involved in the 2.0 release.
What does the GNOME board do?
We're the face and leadership of the GNOME Foundation, the
organization which backs the GNOME community. The board's primarily
roles mirror the roles of the Foundation - support and stewardship.
On the support side, we take a look at what our community and
corporate partners are working on, and try to match people, projects,
and resources. The biggest part of that, historically, has been
getting everyone together at GUADEC. In the past few years we've been
trying to expand that - we've done more events and hackfests; we've
helped out with marketing; we've started giving grants for certain
kinds of hacking (primarily a11y [accessibility]); and we've tried to make resources
available to spur work on GNOME Mobile and other subprojects.
On the stewardship side, the Foundation owns the GNOME trademark,
controls GNOME funds, and generally manages other resources
(technically we own several servers, for example, though in practice
they all live in other people's colos.) And technically most GNOME
teams (like the release team) report to the board, though in practice
we have a very, very light hand on the tiller.
One thing we don't do, very explicitly, is technical leadership. That
comes from the community.
With all this under the Foundation's purview, the board ends up making
a number of small decisions that matter to GNOME, and in practice, we
do a lot of the work of the Foundation as well.
The GNOME Foundation recently posted a budget and announced that, if
funding is not found from somewhere, the foundation would have to cut
either the executive director position or the activities budget. In
your opinion, how dire is the budget forecast, and how did this
situation come to be?
I think 'dire' is a stretch, because so far our fundraising base
hasn't declined, it just hasn't increased as much as we expected. So
we can get back to our previous stable state fairly quickly if we have
to by cutting only 'new' expenses. That said, we like those new
expenses - we think they make GNOME stronger. So we'd like to keep them
if at all possible.
How it came to be is fairly straightforward. After we cut our last
director's salary from the budget, we ran a large surplus for several
years. It was hard for us as an essentially all-volunteer organization
to actually spend this money - organizing events and doing coordination
is really time-consuming, and frankly isn't something that we (as
hackers) are terribly great at even if it were our full-time job. At
the same time, we felt there was a need there for more events,
resources, etc., and there seemed to be a willingness on the part of
our corporate partners to invest even more if we could give them a way
to do it.
So last year the board felt that it was time to expand. We grew our
investments in things like hackfests. We also decided to hire a new ED
who could help us do more for our developer community and for our
users, and help us grow financially. We knew that this extra salary
and extra spending would put us in the red for a few years. But we
thought that this was a classic 'spend money to make money' situation-
we thought the investment in events and in Stormy would allow us to
reach more sponsors and would bring more value to our existing
Our timing, obviously, couldn't have been worse - we hired Stormy in
July, just as the recession began to break. So the investment hasn't
paid off like we thought it would. We have increased the number of
sponsors we've got, and many of our existing sponsors have increased
their level of investment, so it hasn't been all bad, but definitely
not enough. And obviously under the economic circumstances it isn't
going to get any easier. Hence the message to our membership you
Stormy has been the executive director since last July. Can you
summarize what she has done for the Foundation since then? Why does
the Foundation need an executive director?
As I suggested in the last question, we need an ED because we think we
can do more for the community than just host a handful of servers and
run GUADEC. A good ED can do things themselves that help us grow; a
great ED can be the organizer who motivates and organizes a lot of
other people to get involved and help out.
We're seeing lots of the former and some of the latter already with
Stormy, and I fully expect to see more of it. I won't bore your
readers with the full list, but among other things she's helped us
expand our fundraising, helped organize events (inc. GUADEC and
hackfests), improved communications with our advisory board, helped
restart our marketing group, dealt with some legal questions, helped
broker a deal to upgrade our bugzilla, and worked on a plan to hire a
sysadmin. So I think our initial decision to make this investment and
take the risk was the right one. Of course, whether it makes sense
long-term is still an open question - we will have to balance our
Some commenters on LWN have suggested Stormy's first responsibility
should be to raise enough money to pay for her own existence. Does the
GNOME board see things that way?
First? Right now, unfortunately yes. Only? Absolutely not. Obviously a
large part of her job is, and always has been, fundraising. Her
priorities and bonus structure have reflected that from day one, and
under the circumstances we've obviously urged her to focus even more
on it. But if all Stormy does is fundraise, unless she is
*spectacularly* successful, she'll still be a net drag on our
resources and we won't be getting anything else out of her time and
abilities. In other words, we'd be happy to go from our previous
surplus to break even (so that financially, Stormy is a net 'negative'
for the budget) if it means we get to benefit from Stormy's efforts in
In the past, you've expressed concerns that a poorly-handled GNOME 3
initiative could encounter the same difficulties as KDE 4. How do you
feel about where the GNOME 3 effort is going?
I think both GNOME 3 and KDE 4 are showing a fair amount of promise
these days. For either desktop to actually make an impact on the
broader world, we have to be able to give a compelling answer to the
user question of 'why should I use this?' 'New' and 'shiny' aren't
good answers for that anymore. And it can't be a scattering of little
tweaks to the old model. That was all Vista had, so it sank. KDE 4.0,
frankly, did not have a good answer to that question - there was a lot
there for developers, and a scattering of new things for users, but
there was no single, compelling story for users. Every single version
of OSX, in contrast, has had at least one and often three big,
compelling new 'why should I use this?' features as well as all the
I think GNOME 3 ran the same risk as KDE 4 when we were
focusing on gtk 3 as the driver behind GNOME 3. But we're focusing now
on what users are going to see - on the new Shell, and on Zeitgeist. I
don't think either of those are perfect, by any stretch, but I think
they have at least the potential to offer a really compelling answer
to the question of 'why should I use this?' The KDE team, by the way,
is moving in that direction as well - I think their social
desktop work, for example, has the potential to offer a very compelling story
If I were them, once that is mature and well-integrated I'd go ahead
and call that KDE 5. Whether GNOME or KDE, that kind of user-focused,
problem-solving feature is way more important than what version of the
toolkit you build on.
The recent discussion of the one-slider GNOME volume control has
brought back charges that the GNOME project values simplicity over
giving control to the user. Is that your view of the GNOME project?
Why do you think GNOME continues to have that reputation?
As you can imagine, having been deeply involved since the first time
this came up (around GNOME 1.9x), I'm pretty sick of this question. ;)
The short answer is that, since we are Free Software, all of our users
have access to the ultimate configuration tool - GCC. :) And we've made
it easier to maintain those kinds of 'options' since we've switched to
The long, and more serious answer is, well, long. There are a couple
aspects of our philosophy that cause this problem:
(1) One aspect of our philosophy is that we always prefer to fix
underlying problems instead of papering them over in the UI. As
someone put it c. 2001, 'many options in a lot of our tools are really
a switch that means 'work around this bug.'' Our philosophy is that
you should fix the bug instead of adding the option. As a result, some
of our software, particularly when it is very new, can be a real pain
if it turns out you were relying on those bugs or on workarounds for
Network Manager was like that for a long time - it worked
on the majority of hardware and use cases, but certainly not all of
it, so people kept screaming for new options. But the developers stuck
with it, introducing new features only when they were sure they could
do it as automagically as possible, and fixing bugs at lower levels
instead of hacking around them at the UI level.
And the entire Linux platform - for GNOME users and for non-GNOME
users - is better now because we've forced wireless drivers to fix
their bugs instead of providing workarounds in the UI. As a result,
we've now got a tool that is reliable for virtually everyone and
simple to use. Still not perfect, but I think comparable in
ease-of-use and power with anything on any OS. I think the volume
control will eventually be the same way, though admittedly it seems
rough enough that I'm not sure I would have shipped it quite yet if it
were my call.
(2) Another aspect of our philosophy is that options have a cost. For
developers, they have a cost in QA; they have a cost in debugging;
they have a cost in maintenance. Everyone who has done QA in free
software has piles of stories about the horrors of debugging something
because all the options weren't set just right. So we think that
overall we make more software, and better software, by focusing in
this way. More importantly, for users, options have a cognitive cost.
It takes time and mental effort to figure these things out; time and
effort that could be better spent doing the things you use a computer
for - working on projects; talking with your friends; or whatever. You
or I, who are experts and have used Linux as part of our day job every
day for over a decade now, don't notice this cost. But for people who
view Linux as a means to an end - getting their other work done - these
costs are present every time they try to mess with the system. Again,
why does my girlfriend want to see 8 volume switches when she goes to
play her music? She just wants one, just like she just wanted her
networking to work - and now it does.
(3) Finally, we believe that you can't make software that pleases
everyone. You can make software that pleases experts, but most of the
time non-experts hate that software. (Office, for example, was like
this for a long time.) We're unabashedly trying to make software that
works well for average users and not experts. We hope, obviously, that
experts will use it, like it, and help us make it even better. (For
example, you could help us work on a better plugin infrastructure so
that we could move more options into plugins, like Firefox does ;) But
if you like spending hours tweaking things so that you feel like you
have more 'control', then yeah - it might be better for everyone if we
just agree to disagree.
Obviously, I think these are all reasonable and important parts of our
software philosophy; I think it means we make better software. If
everyone understood them, we would still have some disagreements, but
the disagreements would be made on more substantive grounds, with
better understanding of the tradeoffs involved. We'd really want to
see people criticize us on solid grounds - like, did we switch to the
new volume control too early? how can we enable experts in ways that
don't have big costs? - rather than on what we think of as fairly
unreasonable grounds like 'I want my switches back.' For those who do
want to understand this philosophy better, I'd recommend reading
chapter five of the
37 Signals book 'Getting Real' - I don't agree with
all of it, but that's the best reference I can think of for how we
feel about features.
Is there anything else you'd like to tell LWN's readers?
Support LWN, because it rocks - it does the most substantive reporting
on Linux that there is.
Past that... I'm sure I'll think of something about an hour after the
article goes up ;)
Your hour starts now :). Thanks to Luis for taking the time to answer our
questions in such depth.
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