In the last few years Ubuntu has emerged as the dominant force in the Linux Deskop field. The distribution is heavily associated with one name: Mark Shuttleworth is not only founder an current boss of Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, he has also been providing the financial resources without which Ubuntu in its current form would not exist. During the recent Gran Canaria Desktop Summit Andreas Proschofsky had the chance to conduct the following interview with Shuttleworth.
derStandard.at: In the interview we did last year you talked about increasing Canonicals involvement in improving the Linux desktop user experience, how successful was this?
Mark Shuttleworth: For our first year - I think - it's been successful. Internally in the company we created two new teams. One is a design team, which has about eight people now, and one is a dedicated upstream desktop technologies group that has five or six people right now, but both are growing. We delivered a couple of interesting things in Ubuntu 9.04, some of them are controversial, like the notification piece and the messaging menu. But I think in principle it's going well.
We are trying to do this work across both GNOME and KDE, so we have hired both GTK+ and Qt developers. So I hope we will deliver the same messaging menu and the notification system in Kubuntu 9.10, in the future we'll try to deliver everything at the same time across both platforms.
We participate - although at some distance - in the GNOME Shell stuff, our design team was part of the User Experience Hackfest that sort of laid out the principles for GNOME Shell. Although we don't have dedicated people working on it at the moment.
I've spent time visiting representatives of the PC industry these last two weeks and I showed them some of the design work we are doing and they were excited to see sort of a clear picture emerging around what the Linux desktop could deliver over the next two years. I think everybody is anxious to see the Linux desktop move beyond the technical audience and becoming something more consumer friendly.
derStandard.at: So what did you show them? GNOME Shell or other current developments?
Shuttleworth: No, this is work generated by a design team across the Desktop, across the Netbook and across Moblin. A lot of the stuff we do is very public, like the "100 papercuts" and the design stuff we are doing engaging with apps like F-Spot, Empathy, Pidgin, Thunderbird and others. But some of the work we do is confidential, work that we do with a partner, but when we release it it's going to be open source.
derStandard.at: Given the recent problems with X.org and the lack of proper release management wouldn't that be a good possibility to invest in?
Shuttleworth: There is the perception that anyone who's got money should throw money at a problem, but I've some experience with that and it's really not a good way for trying to solve problems. In case of release management, the people who have the most influence really are the developers. The Kernel has come around these problems and now has a really good release management, but this is because of a strong leadership.
So if the community has a problem with X the really should send that message to the developers. But they'll probably find, that the developers are just so excited about the changes they have made, that they may have lost track a little bit of how their code is landing in a distribution, how it's landing on peoples desktop. Developers generally are running the latest stuff from version control so they often don't know what the actual experience of their code is like in Ubuntu or Fedora.
derStandard.at: In retrospect: Could you have done something differently to ease the problems people experienced with X in Jaunty?
Shuttleworth: To be clear: There was only one substantial issue with X, which related to hardware from a particular vendor. And as soon as it was clear that there was a problem that vendor stepped up, they provided really good inside, we had access to engineering, there was a real shared desire to resolve that problems. It's also worth that the vendor in question - Intel - is hugely investing in X so it would be wrong to say Intel is causing all this problems cause actually what they do is all this amazing work to make X that much better.
derStandard.at: There is a Long-Term-Support (LTS) release coming up in April 2010, also GNOME 3.0 should be out around that time. Is next spring in this respect a really good time for a LTS release?
Shuttleworth: Well this a really interesting question. The heart of this question is: How do you deal with the situation where a distro makes a long term release and upstreams are on a different schedule. I think it's worth asking the question: "Is it valuable for upstreams to have a long term release made?" And no-one disagrees that this would be valuable, but when are you going to do that? Until now there's been no overarching force to say you do it now or then. I think, what we are about to see is the emergence of sort of a greater structure in the cadence of releases in the open source ecosystem.
derStandard.at: So that's the idea of a "Meta-Release-Cycle"?
Shuttleworth: Yes. Like a short-term release cycle and a long-term release cycle superimposed on one another. And the really big news here is that we've been having very good discussions with the Debian release team. So the Debian release team has indicated that they are very open - not about a release date but a freeze date. That freeze date would be the time where we sit around and look at all the major components and decide what the major versions would be that we collaborate around. There is no pressure that we have to agree on everything, but just actually having the conversation is useful for any upstreams who care about this information.
The LTS will be either 10.04 or 10.10 - based on the conversation that is going on right now between Debian and Ubuntu. So we've given up some control when our LTS will be, Debian's giving up some control but the shared result will be quite powerful, we'll be giving upstreams a reason to say "Let's not land all those crazy changes right now, if we want the Debian and Ubuntu major release go out well".
So you could say, why would upstreams care about Debian and Ubuntu, and I think the most important thing is for us to try to get even more distributions in that meta-cycle. What I believe is going to emerge as a sort-of a "best practices" in the open source community that projects will have a short-term-release -cycle, like an agile iteration cycle, which could be three months, it could be four months, it could be six months. And than they'll have a longer cycle which will be two years. If we solve that, we solve the general part of your question.
derStandard.at: But getting back to the specific case...
Shuttleworth: Look we have good conversations with upstream. As soon as we know where we stand with Debian we can sit down with those upstreams, and say "Hey, we are doing this release date, we are having this shared freeze date, what's you advice? Is your advice to us ship the older version, or is your advice to us that you will do some extra-work to ship the newer version?". I think this is really not a decision just for us, but for the upstreams.
There is always going to be someone who says "You are going to do a 5-year supported release, so please add GNOME 3.0, the very cool latest, shiniest thing". But probably the same people will say "Have GNOME Shell there as an option, but don't make it a default".
derStandard.at: Would you prefer to have GNOME 3.0 delayed?
Shuttleworth: No not at all. The GNOME 3.0 work should happen at the schedule it's supposed to happen, I don't think we want to influence that. The more important thing for me is to be able to have a good conversation and take a smart decision about what we ship in the LTS. It's not in the developers interest if we ship something to 10 Million users that is not ready yet, it's their reputation, their brand that gets effected if we do.
derStandard.at: What's your take on the proposed changes for GNOME 3.0, especially the GNOME Shell.
Shuttleworth: The first thing is that is very exciting to see the willingness to make a break with the past. You have to be open to new things in order to really innovate. What GNOME proofed is that inside the Open Source Ecosystem you can have short iterations and deliver innovation piece-by-piece in a very manageable, stable fashion. What KDE4 proofed is that you can also sit down and have really interesting conceptual changes that get introduced as big shifts. Hopefully GNOME3 brings those two lessons together. And so we see classy work done as a big release and classy improvements and iterations.
Right now it would be premature to judge GNOME Shell. I was there when GNOME Shell was being designed at the Hackfest in Boston and I think the thinking, the spirit there was a good one. I think when people start actually using it, a lot of things will become clearer as when they were when it was just markers on a whiteboard.
So my own feeling is, that this is important work, it's great to see and I think it will end up being really super for GNOME, but I think it will change quite a bit from where it is now and where it is when people finally say "This is great stuff".
derStandard.at: Is there something you think that is missing in the vision for GNOME3?
Shuttleworth: Well initially there was a lot of discussions about something that was much less visual which is how files are organized and I even blogged about it. I think actually that could be a bigger improvement in the every-day user experience of the GNOME desktop. I've been part of an increasing amount of Usability work at Canonical and I've been stunned to see that generally people don't get files and folders. They just don't get it, it's sort of broken for everybody. It's particularly broken on the Linux desktop, because every application has its own idea of where its going to put your files. Critically where this happens is if you have content that you are working on in one application and you want to access it from another application. So if something comes in as an attachment to an E-Mail and you save it and then want to open it in another application - it breaks people. It's amazing how bad that is. And we talked about this, but the community didn't pick up on this. It's certainly not as "sexy" as the visual stuff, but I think it is actually more important. Not to say that GNOME Shell isn't important, but there would have been a real opportunity. And if I look where users get stuck, it's not on window management, it's not on launching applications, it's on "Where is my stuff?".
derStandard.at: But isn't that a problem that nobody has found a proper solution for, including Windows and Mac?
Shuttleworth: Right. It's this unsexy problem but if we get it right, it could really change the way people feel about the Linux desktop, cause people would just always have what they are looking for.
derStandard.at: How important are a good look, a nice theme for the Linux desktop?
Shuttleworth: Well first impressions count, so it's quite important. But it's been a difficult thing to engage with. In that upstream desktop technologies group, one of the engineers is an expert in theming technology. And so we are driving some improvements here, what's possible to theme, what's possible to bring in the visual experience of the applications, which is an area which is widely neglected.
derStandard.at: Same question, next year: Is there going to be a new theme for the next Ubuntu release?
Shuttleworth: Well I think it's better to stick with what you have until you have a clear vision on where you want to go, right? I know I've unfortunately said this before, so my credibility is wearing thin, we're starting to get into a position where I have more confidence in that we are able to do that and it will be an important part of future Ubuntu releases.
derStandard.at: But you're not going to stick to any release numbers?
Shuttleworth: We'll definitely have a new theme by the next LTS.
(Andreas Proschofsky [@suka_hiroaki on Twitter], derStandard.at, 12.07.2009)