GNOME and Novell: The FUD Stops Here

As a result of some confusion (and sadly, some very active, ugly and offensive muck-raking) in various sections of the community recently, I thought it might be interesting to do a review of GNOME’s relationship with Novell and some of the people involved in that relationship.

Due to my position as a director of the GNOME Foundation, it’s important to point out that this post represents my personal views, not those of the Foundation.

Novell and the GNOME Foundation

Novell is a member of the GNOME Foundation Advisory Board, along with most of the other companies that play a role in the GNOME community (see the ‘sponsors’ section on the front page of the GNOME Foundation website).

Like the GNOME Foundation itself, the GNOME Foundation Advisory Board does not define the technical goals of the project. Additionally, it does not have an executive role in the operation of the Foundation.

As it says on the box, the Advisory Board exists purely to serve an advisory function to keep the GNOME Foundation directors in touch with our corporate (be they commercial or non-profit) contributors.

The GNOME Foundation seeks to be a conduit between the commercial interests in GNOME and the broader community, and the Advisory Board plays a crucial role in this mission.

Membership of the Advisory Board involves an annual financial contribution to the GNOME Foundation of USD$10,000 for companies of Novell’s size.

Aside from sponsorship of GNOME events such as GUADEC, Novell’s (and previously, Ximian’s) financial contribution has not changed since they were a founding member of the GNOME Foundation.

The only positive irregularity in their financial contribution was in 2003-2004 when Novell sponsored an experimental set of GNOME “desktop integration” bounties run by the GNOME Foundation. For the conspiracy theorists out there, do note that this was before OOXML and before Novell’s relationship with Microsoft. 🙂

There are no Novell employees among the 2007 team of GNOME Foundation directors, and no Novell employees standing for the 2008 term.

Novell representatives have been absent without regrets for every GNOME Foundation Advisory Board conference call held this year, though JP Rosevar (desktop team lead at Novell) did participate in the face-to-face Advisory Board meeting at GUADEC.

The GNOME Foundation greatly appreciates Novell’s financial contributions in the form of Advisory Board fees and sponsorship of events, and enjoys Novell’s participation in the Advisory Board when they are active… I’m sure a Novell representative will be present at next Friday’s Advisory Board conference call!

Juuuuuuust to make sure this point is totally clear, I’ll reiterate that Novell’s financial contribution does not provide them with any technical or organisational influence over the GNOME Foundation or the GNOME community in general. Got it? Good. Let’s move on! 🙂

Novell contributions to GNOME

Novell continues to contribute to the GNOME project in many ways, including maintainership of software like Evolution and the Control Center, contributions to Network Manager, making OpenOffice.org integrate nicely with GNOME, all of the Mono-based applications such as Tomboy, F-Spot, Banshee and Beagle, bug fixing and performance work, and plenty of other stuff. They’re active upstream, quietly doing “the usual work” all the time.

Sadly, many of the bright lights of the Novell desktop team — such as Jon, Rob, Joe and others — have moved on to other companies, often to positions that don’t involve GNOME development.

This is a huge loss to our community, and I do think that their feelings of disenfranchisement among their “home” community have directly contributed to this.

It seems to be that if you work for Novell, no matter what role or opinion you hold or how irrelevant you are to the strategic choices of the company, you’re going to suffer a lot of crap for them anyway. I think that’s a terribly unfortunate state of affairs for the FLOSS community, but I understand why it happens.

Like any company/community relationship, there are ups and downs. But in general, the GNOME community has a long-standing positive relationship with contributors within Novell, and we love working with them. They hack on a whole bunch of cool things and make GNOME better in the process. Whatever our disagreements, we agree on the core values and vision of GNOME: Software Freedom is not just for geeks!

Miguel and GNOME

Miguel does not play an active role in the GNOME community, and hasn’t done so for quite some time now. He was a director of the Foundation for the last time in 2005.

Miguel is still a member of the GNOME Foundation, as our members have the option to continue their membership regardless of their current activity in the project.

We think this is an important way to show our appreciation for past contributors, and keep them around to encourage their return or enjoy the benefit of their wisdom should they choose to bestow it. A good example of this would be Alan Cox smacking me around at every opportunity. 🙂

Interestingly, Miguel was actually the President of the GNOME Foundation until only a few weeks ago, but we have been asking him for years to send a resignation letter, and recently nailed down a plan to finally get his resignation and appoint the President and Vice-President from the directors. As of the last Foundation Board meeting, that process is complete.

It’s important to point out that during this time, the Foundation Chairman was capably performing the role of President, and Miguel was not participating or interacting in GNOME Foundation activities or administration at all.

Despite his inactivity in the project, Miguel is often the source of some controversy among GNOME contributors. My reading of the project suggests that few of Miguel’s opinions are shared by the majority of active GNOME contributors, particularly those regarding Mono, OOXML, Moonlight and the Novell/Microsoft relationship.

Update: Note that I’m sure Miguel regards his work on Mono and the excellent GNOME bindings for it as a contribution to GNOME — certainly the platform has resulted in a bunch of great GNOME-based applications. However, as a result of the walls of controversy between GNOME and Mono (which I cover in more detail below), I’m not sure a broad majority of the project would see Miguel’s work on Mono in this light. This is just my reading of the community though, and I know there is a good base of Mono fans among GNOME developers. I’m really trying to be sensitive to both sides of the issue here, but I might have annoyed both audiences in the process. Sorry. 🙂

In some cases, Miguel is seen as an oddity or object of amusement, who has lost pretty much all of his influence among GNOME contributors, new or old. Indeed, as far back as 2002, Miguel did not receive enough support in the GNOME Foundation election to be among the top five vote recipients.

(I’m sorry if this seems blunt, but I think it clearly demonstrates Miguel’s long-term waning influence on the GNOME project in the face of FUD and misinformation about his intent and involvement. Miguel shouldn’t be held responsible for GNOME, and GNOME shouldn’t be held responsible for Miguel.)

But there is something that will never change among GNOME developers: Miguel is still highly respected for founding GNOME, and his massive early contributions. He had the vision and energy to create a truly Free desktop environment under trying circumstances, and although he is no longer involved, and popular opinion about him has changed, he will always have our utmost appreciation and respect for creating the project we love: GNOME.

Talking with Nat

I sat down with Nat Friedman at GUADEC in order to talk about a few things that were on my mind regarding Novell and GNOME. I had a very clear three-point agenda that I wanted to go through:

  1. The relationship and agreement with Microsoft.
  2. Novell’s approach to feature development and ‘code dumping’.
  3. GNOME and Mono.

We didn’t end up talking about the first two points, because Nat was extremely focused on the Mono issue, and whichever way I tried to lead him through my thought narrative, it would quickly come back to Mono.

I don’t really fault him for this: It was clearly his number one concern.

One of the things he described was the “bunker mentality” of some of the GNOME hackers in Novell — the controversy about Mono and the constant questioning of their motives was having a huge impact on their passion for contributing to the project.

Other members of the team, even those not working on Mono related stuff, were feeling the same thing. They felt as if they were constantly under attack, and quite legitimately so.

I imagine some folks outside the GNOME project won’t feel too much sympathy here, but those Novell hackers are our friends and team-mates, no matter what our disagreements might be with their management!

We didn’t get to talk about the other stuff (and I’d love to catch up again to do so, I haven’t seen him for ages), but I thought Nat’s concerns about how Novell’s hackers feel was an important perspective to include in this document.

Sometimes, it’s easy for us all to forget that there are people behind the email addresses, behind the nicks, and behind the company names.

GNOME and Mono

I’ve mentioned this a little bit here, but I’m going to leave the bulk of my commentary about GNOME and Mono for another post.

Questions?

The comments are open, and I’ll happily answer any questions about GNOME, the GNOME Foundation, and our relationship with Novell. Perhaps some Novell folks will contribute some other perspectives too.

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