Timeline: The Greatest Show on Earth

Note: This post is part five of a series of thoughts on the relationship between Canonical and GNOME.

Every now and then, the inexorable passage of time is rudely interrupted, and the natural path of history is changed before our very eyes. It is incredibly rare, I grant you, and most often involves a weapon of some description, but it happens.

In our story, that “moment” is the week starting Monday October 6, 2008.

Those of you who invest in the stock market will probably double-take, and believe I’m referring to Black Week, the stock market crash of 2008. Thankfully, no.

By curious coincidence, one of the most defining weeks in the entire history of GNOME — and a turning point for Canonical’s relationship with the project — happened to take place during a week-long stock market catastrophe.

But there’s a little prehistory to cover before we get there…


May 30, 2005: My presentation about GNOME 3.0 at GUADEC, now infamous for the attempt to recast growing discussion about GNOME 3.0 as Project Topaz — Three Point Zero — in order to avoid thinking in terms of version numbers, and… 10×10. 🙂

December 23, 2006: Conversation about GNOME 3.0 continues, to the point that a clarification is required: “There are no plans for a GNOME 3.0 release at this time.”

January 15-20, 2007: linux.conf.au 2007 in Sydney. The hottest piece of hardware at the conference is the OLPC XO. The Collabora guys run full-screen video chats between their OLPCs and laptops! The conference bag, designed in late 2006, is smaller than a laptop bag, but — just quietly — the perfect fit for a 12″ laptop.

June 7, 2007: Clearly inspired by the low-cost OLPC, ASUS announces the EeePC 701 at COMPUTEX. It is immediately blessed as “revolutionary”. It ships in October 2007 and as every other vendor follows, the EeePC defines the “netbook” market. All 800 lca2007 attendees look at their conference bag with fresh eyes… and fetch their credit cards. 🙂

April 15, 2008: Having facilitated a successful GTK+ hackfest, the GNOME Foundation Board decides this is a highly productive use of funds, and asks for more hackfest ideas.

June 3, 2008: Nine months after the EeePC ships, Canonical announces the Ubuntu Netbook Remix user interface and custom distribution for OEMs. Mark Shuttleworth writes about the release and says, “directly or indirectly Canonical will help to bring that innovation to KDE and GNOME and hence to the wider Linux ecosystem.”

Permit me, for a moment, to effusively praise UNR. Although the design was not wildly different to other netbook user interfaces shipping at the time, the simple composition and execution were brilliant.

One standard GNOME Panel at the top of the screen. In the top left corner, a button to hide everything and show the full-screen launcher. Next to it was a window switching applet which made your windows look and work like tabs. Application windows were automagically maximised. Very little vertical space wasted.

From a GNOME perspective, the UI changes were tightly contained: Two new panel applets, a full-screen launcher, and a little daemon to do the windows maximisation.

I absolutely loved it back then (the screenshot below is from July 2008), and I still use some components of UNR on my laptops to this day!

Sadly, UNR was also Canonical’s first major upstream collaboration blunder.

None of the UNR components were proposed for inclusion in GNOME. No Canonical developer approached the GNOME community to say, “Hey, we built this cool netbook stuff, maybe it could form the basis of a new UI profile for GNOME!”

The UNR UX was built by Canonical in private, largely because it was commissioned by a third party. Most Open Source communities prefer that feature design be done “out in the open”. Bit of a problem there, but not insurmountable.

GNOME developers have a long history of dealing with corporate contributors and commercial realities such as this, so a quick explanation of the situation and a plan to transition to a community-developed model would most likely sort things out.

After all, the individual UNR components were small, simple, tightly defined and easily consumable. They weren’t libraries, they didn’t require API changes. Put together with standard GNOME components, they redefined the user experience… and beautifully so!

None of it happened.

June 11, 2008: Greg Kroah-Hartman gives a Google TechTalk during which he claims that “Canonical does not give back to the community”.

Late June, 2008: The “Desktop Experience” team is created within Canonical, with Ted Gould and Mirco Mueller as the first members. The changes are more official as of July 3.

July 7-12, 2008: GUADEC in Istanbul, Turkey. Federico Mena-Quintero introduces Document-centric GNOME to much excitement and interest. A seed is planted for the future…

Recognising the growing desire to renew the GNOME developer platform by accepting the first API/ABI break in 6 years, and to encourage long term planning for future changes, the release team announce that the regular March 2010 release would simply be blessed as GNOME 3.0. The news is famously revealed as GNOME 2.30 = GNOME 3.0.

Vincent Untz, Federico Mena-Quintero and Owen Taylor approach the Foundation Board to suggest hosting a GNOME user experience hackfest.

July 30, 2008: Ted Gould blogs about putting a menu at the top right of the screen (replacing the big “off” button in Ubuntu’s panel), with IM presence, user switching and session management items in it. Work on a modified fast-user-switch-applet (FUSA) had already started privately in early July.

August 27, 2008: The modified FUSA package arrives in the Ubuntu development release, Intrepid.

September 10, 2008: Mark Shuttleworth announces the formation of the Canonical design and user experience team, saying:

We focus most of our effort on integration. Our competitors turn that into “Canonical doesn’t contribute” but it’s more accurate to say we measure our contribution in the effectiveness with which we get the latest stable work of upstream, with security maintenance, to the widest possible audience for testing and love. To my mind, that’s a huge contribution.

Increasingly, though, Canonical is in a position to drive real change in the software that is part of Ubuntu. If we just showed up with pictures and prototypes and asked people to shape their projects differently, I can’t imagine that being well received! So we are also hiring a team who will work on X, OpenGL, Gtk, Qt, GNOME and KDE, with a view to doing some of the heavy lifting required to turn those desktop experience ideas into reality.

Mark’s post does not go unnoticed. Although the GNOME community is understandably wary, it is widely regarded as an indication that Canonical would build their capacity to contribute upstream, particularly due to the reference to Greg K-H’s criticism that “Canonical doesn’t contribute”. The GNOME dudes employed by Canonical are as excited by the prospect as everyone else.

The very first commenter asks if Canonical would learn from the mistakes of the past, and opt to work closely with upstream projects. Mark responds, concluding with:

One can’t be an effective core contributor in hundreds of projects, so in a real sense it is “us and upstream”, as you describe it. The question is whether we can build a productive relationship, not whether we can be totally absorbed.

The commenter is… not totally convinced by Mark’s answer. He gets no response.

September 17, 2008: Greg Kroah-Hartman launches what can only be described as an ambush on Canonical during his keynote at the Linux Plumbers Conference. An entire hour is dedicated to support his conclusion that:

Canonical does not contribute to Linux plumbing. Companies who rely on Linux must contribute, or they are at the whim of others. Developers who are not allowed to contribute to Linux should change jobs.

This time, Matt Zimmerman replies, noting that while Ubuntu has lots of users, it simply does not have a lot of developers working on the kernel, let alone contributing upstream! He concludes:

To present his commentary in this way is indefensible.  LPC is promoted as a productive community event aimed at solving problems, and Greg has used his voice as a speaker to promote a much less honorable agenda.

(My view: Greg was wrong to present his concerns the way he did. His expectations were incredibly high for a four-year-old company with no kernel engineers. Yes, it would have been nice if Canonical contributed more, but if they don’t have the capacity to do so? One aspect of Greg’s criticism that was 100% spot-on was his implied concern about the free-rider problem.)

Update: So if you think these posts are just about me being anti-Canonical, know that in this section, I have been too fair… worse, I ought to know that Canonical had kernel engineers in 2008, because it did before I left in mid-2006! Thanks to Greg K-H for pulling me up in the comments.

That said, the kernel engineers were doing pretty much the same what Canonical was doing with GNOME prior to the DX team: Pulling together a kernel for each release, fixing bugs, minor integration work, etc. Greg’s expectation that Canonical contribute by way of major module maintenance and new code does not align with the company strategy, for better or worse.

September 18, 2008: Ted Gould blogs about the ongoing modified FUSA work in Right side status.

September 24, 2008: GNOME 2.24 ships. The new development series and module proposal period begins. Even though there are some technical barriers to contributing the modified FUSA directly, no attempt is made to bring those changes to the GNOME community in any form.

Had Canonical’s FUSA work been done upstream from the beginning, Ubuntu may not have had to swallow the GDM version skew it required. Ubuntu didn’t adopt the “new” GDM until Ubuntu 9.10.

(I half remember other issues delaying adoption of the new GDM as well, perhaps things like LTSP, but couldn’t find any documentation to jog my memory.)

October 1, 2008: Based on the announcement of the Canonical Desktop Experience Team, Vincent Untz reaches out to Mark Shuttleworth to invite Canonical to participate directly in GNOME 3.0 development.

The GNOME User Experience Hackfest 2008

October 6-10, 2008: A small group of GNOME technical and design leaders meet prior to the annual Boston Summit, to fundamentally re-imagine the GNOME user experience. It is arranged and led by Owen Taylor, Federico Mena-Quintero and Vincent Untz.

Key GNOME designers and developers are invited, including volunteers and employees of most contributing organisations. A couple of people decide to invite themselves. There is only one non-designer, non-developer, non-GNOME-participant, company CEO present.

I will point out the peculiar circumstance of Red Hat’s desktop team. They just wound up the failed Online Desktop initiative. Remember Mugshot and Big Board?

They were Red Hat designed and developed projects, with some intent to be relevant to GNOME, but… even documented and developed on GNOME infrastructure, they… well, just weren’t.

By October 2008, the Red Hat desktop team had realised that their approach to planting the seeds of open innovation was not working. Closed ideation and design didn’t lead to community adoption. Such an ambitious project needed broad buy-in from the beginning.

Besides, GNOME clearly needed love, and was particularly receptive thanks to Vincent Untz’s leadership on GNOME 3.0. The Red Hat desktop team decided to refocus, spend time on GNOME itself, and hopefully by doing so, encourage other stakeholders.

Everyone has ideas. No one arrives with a fully conceived plan, intending to impose their singular vision on GNOME. The open, group-defined agenda doesn’t suit such a dastardly plan, anyway.

The first two days are dedicated to “idea generation”, general discussion, and mind-expanding presentations. The rest of the week is dedicated to polishing the ideas, and turning them into something useful to GNOME. Vincent Untz writes on the final day:

So, since Wednesday, we’re working on the three topics that emerged during the first day: desktop shell, access to documents, and adding effects/animation to the desktop experience.

The output is fantastic. Each group produces a wiki page describing their discussions, all of which are detailed, thoughtful, and met with excitement:

It is understood that Red Hat will contribute developers to the effort. Other stakeholder companies are encouraged to invest resources.

Reports & Reactions

Neil Patel posts mockups of the desktop shell to the wiki page which describes the design.

Vincent Untz reports at length on the desktop shell sessions, saying:

I’m convinced that we should start prototyping those ideas so we can play with them, and see what feels good and what feels wrong. It will need testing. We will make errors. And maybe it’s a dead-end. But many people really liked this and I believe we reached consensus during the hackfest that we wanted to see this in action.

Federico Mena-Quintero writes about the file management sessions, concluding with a note that Seif Lotfy had been working on a journal in Mayanna, a maintained fork of the abandoned Gimmie project… “Seif and I have been talking about how to proceed.” By the end of October, the GNOME Journal project is born. Today it is known as Zeitgeist. 🙂

Jon McCann is excited about the outcome, and gives credit to Ted Gould and “the Ubuntu folks” for ideas such as showing presence, user switching and session termination actions in a panel menu (the modified FUSA applet work). He posts some of the sketches he drew during the hackfest.

Mark Shuttleworth writes, “The GNOME user experience hackfest in Boston was a great way to spend the worst week in Wall St history!”

Though there wasn’t a lot of hacking, there was a LOT of discussion, and we covered a lot of ground. There were at least 7 Canonical folks there, so it was a bit of a mini-sprint and a nice opportunity to meet the team at the same time. We had great participation from a number of organisations and free spirits, there’s a widespread desire to see GNOME stay on the forefront of usability.

He concludes by emphasising the file management discussions, “At the end of the day, bling is less transformational than a fundamental shift in content management. Kudos to the folks who are driving this!”

After the Show

October 29, 2008: Early private development begins on libindicate, a client library and applet for displaying persistent notifications in the form of a menu. No freedesktop.org specification exists for doing this in a cross-desktop manner.

October 30, 2008: On the cusp of the Ubuntu 8.10 release, Mark Shuttleworth blogs about user switching, presence and session termination in the new FUSA menu. He says:

This work was discussed at UDS in Prague with a number of members of the GNOME community. I was also very glad to see that there’s a lot of support for a tighter, simpler panel at the GNOME hackfest, an idea that we’ve championed.

In Jaunty, we’ll likely do some more work on the GNOME panel, building on the GNOME user experience discussions. There was a lot of discussion about locking down the panel more tightly, which we may pursue.

Ubuntu 8.10 ships later that day. At the time of release, both the System menu and FUSA menu display the session termination items. Had this work been done upstream…

October 31, 2008: Owen Taylor tells desktop-devel-list that the first code for the new “gnome-shell” has landed in Subversion:

OK, a little bit of code for gnome-shell now has hit SVN. It doesn’t do anything that interesting yet …. it’s just about caught up to gnome-0.9 or so: a gray rectangle with a clock.

The new project has a wiki page, IRC channel, mailing list and code repo. It’s a thing!

November 10, 2008: A DBus protocol is conceived for communication between the libindicate client library and the applet which displays the menus. It is not based on a freedesktop.org specification.

November 20, 2008: Private development begins on Notify OSD (codename: alsdorf), a replacement for notification-daemon which displays notification “bubbles” based on an unpublished Canonical design specification.

November 24, 2008: The GNOME 2.26 module proposal period closes.

December 5, 2008: Early private development begins on what will ultimately become the messaging and “me” menus, based on libindicate.

December 8-12, 2008: Ubuntu Developer Summit in Mountain View. The notification changes are discussed simply as a matter of integrating the DX team’s work. KDE doesn’t support the (Galago!) freedesktop.org notification spec, which will require more work.

December 11, 2008: Ted Gould writes about showing persistent notifications, without the clutter of notification icons. It is written in the form of an introduction to a new idea:

I think that a reasonable approach is to consolidate them into what I’m coining as a “messaging indicator.” The goal of the messaging indicator is provide a simple and clean way for messaging apps to provide the notification to the user that other people are trying to talk them while not having to put something in the notification area.

Here we’re seeing a IM message coming in. The notification disappears into the messaging icon and the message can be found underneath that icon. Nothing complex, but it allows the user to know that all of their messages are a single tidy place and there is only one graphic required on the panel for all messaging.

Sounds… familiar. 🙂

December 22, 2008: Mark Shuttleworth shares a flash demo of “proposals Canonical’s user experience design and desktop experience engineering teams” introduced at the Ubuntu Developer Summit: Notifications, indicators and alerts, saying:

Experiments are just that – experiments. They may succeed and they may fail. We should judge them carefully, after we have data. We are putting new ideas into the free desktop without ego.

The best ideas, and the best code, will ultimately form part of the digital free software commons and be shared by GNOME, KDE and every distribution.

So, for those folks who were upset that we might ship something other than a GNOME or KDE default, I would ask for your patience and support – we want to contribute new ideas and new code, and that means having some delta which can be used as a basis for discussions about the future direction of upstream.

None of this work is ever contributed upstream.


Since at least July 2010, Mark has made a number of claims about the User Experience Hackfest. They are all roughly of this form:

We had described the work we wanted to do (cleaning up the panel, turning panel icons into menus) to the Gnome Shell designers at the 2008 UX hackfest. McCann denies knowledge today, but it was a clear decision on our part to talk about this work with him at the time, it was reported to me that the conversation had happened, and that we’d received the assurance that such work would be “a valued contribution to the shell”.

My answer to this is very simple: It doesn’t matter in the slightest whether or not this discussion happened. As Mark has said while making similar accusations: code talks.

Lots of people come to FLOSS projects and excitedly promise to work on something. The promise is irrelevant. Good communication? Sure. But ultimately, what really matters is whether or not they deliver. I know this intimately because I have been on the giving and receiving end of it.

Only three Canonical-related modules have ever been proposed for inclusion in a GNOME release: evolution-couchdb (for 2.30), simple-scan (3.0) and libappindicator (3.0). Only one of those was related to panel menus — the libappindicator client library, proposed in February 2010, 16 months after Mark’s “commitment” — and it didn’t even include the relevant user interface components!

Each of the chunks of work we’ve taken on: notifications, indicators, the menus, and all the rest, could be valuable to GNOME and has been done with the intent that it be useful to GNOME. Our feeling is that base politics are playing a bigger role in the final decisions than they should, and we’re disgusted that that be the case.

Base politics? Disgusted? None of these things, in a useful form, were ever proposed for inclusion in GNOME. The facts simply do not support Mark’s extraordinary accusations.

Disclosure: I enjoyed working for Canonical from 2004-2006, and although I have occasionally been accused of shilling for Ubuntu since then, I suspect few at Canonical would regard me as their #1 fan at the moment. I haven’t been involved in GNOME for quite some time, and generally try to avoid thinking about it very often.

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