Over the years Ubuntu has become the dominant desktop distribution in the Linux universe. It's most recent release - Ubuntu 10.04 "Lucid Lynx" - has been praised for it's ease of use and it's strong focus on the end user. On the other hand some concerns were raised that Ubuntu is ever more diverting from GNOME, it's upstream desktop source.
During the recent GNOME conference GUADEC derStandard.at had the chance to sit down with Jono Bacon, Ubuntu Community Manager and author of the O'Reilly-book "The Art of Community". Given the setting the discussion on the relationship between GNOME and Ubuntu unsurprisingly formed a central topic. The interview was conducted by Andreas Proschofsky.
derStandard.at: Looking back at Lucid, are you happy with how the release turned out to be?
Jono Bacon: Personally I'm really happy, Lucid is a really great release. With every release we try to invest more and more in building a really strong user experience and it felt for me that with Lucid a lot of this has been coming together. There are always things to be fixed - we are developers so we look at the defects as opposed to the things that work after all - but generally we're pretty happy.
derStandard.at: Is it fair to say that aesthetics played an important role for Lucid?
Jono Bacon: Sure. I think aesthetics and usability play an always increasing role, we live in a world where good design gets more and more important. So we've got a pretty large and comprehensive design team who is working hard to make Ubuntu an incredibly simple environment, and part of that is to make it look good.
derStandard.at: One of the most controversial decisions with Lucid was changing the window buttons from the right to the left side, in retrospect: Should you have handled that differently?
Jono Bacon: Around that time there was a lot of visual change, we released two new themes, we changed the branding of the project, and got a new logo. My team was responsible for announcing the good work that the design team had done and the one thing we didn't plan for was the controversy surrounding the window button movement. So we could have done better there.
Basically we got two types of criticism: One that provided really good arguments against that decision but then there were also those that felt a primarily emotional response, which didn't like the move because it's different - and that's to be expected for every big User Interface change. But the interesting thing is though it caused quite some discussion when we were still developing Lucid, since we released it there hasn't been much discussion of it.
derStandard.at: Lot's of the work Ubuntu has been doing recently - app indicators, Messaging Menu, MeMenu - hasn't really been done upstream and is only used in Ubuntu. Are you going separate ways?
Jono Bacon: Actually that's all upstream work, it's just that Ayatana is the upstream. So the code's completely open source, the bug tracking is open, people can hack on it. For the app indicators we also had a lot of community involvement, it was based on a Freedesktop.org spec, worked on with consultancy from KDE, we invited GNOME developers to participate in the Freedesktop discussion and proposed them to the GNOME community for inclusion, but it's not up to us, if they take it or not. It's kind of similar how other distros have done it in the past, like Novell when they developed their own main menu with Slab, they felt it added value to their distro.
derStandard.at: But Novell was heavily criticized for that.
Jono Bacon: They were, but honestly - and this is just me speaking for myself and not for Canonical - we need to get away from the constraint that everything needs to happen in a specific set of projects. As long as a project is free and open source and it adds value to the user experience than it should be a first class citizen. So it shouldn't matter where it's hosted, what version control system it uses, the whole purpose of a Linux distribution is to pull together the best technology.
derStandard.at: Still with GNOME focused on 3.0 you are actually working on a whole different user experience at the moment.
Jono Bacon: Kind of. I'd say yes and no. Sure the applets in the top right corner are different, but we're still using the rest of GNOME, we still have Nautilus, we still have the application menu, we still ship all the current GNOME infrastructure. I don't think of it as shipping a completely different user experience but as improving on some parts that weren't working so well. As far as Canonical is concerned: If GNOME wants to take that work and ship it that would be awesome.
Historically a lot of the work has been done in upstream GNOME but that's changing. A lot of distros are doing their own development now, they are not just doing packaging and distribution anymore. Look for example at the Ubuntu One Music Store: That would've never happened a few years ago, as distros were not in the business of building services, but now they are becoming their own upstream.
Still there are tons of ways where we could improve in working with other projects, don't forget that we haven't been doing that for very long. We've been packaging and building a distro for quite some time but we are very new at building upstream software.
derStandard.at: As you've mentioned the virtues of having variety when we talked earlier: Where does variety end and the fork starts?
Jono Bacon: Let me make that clear: Canonical and Ubuntu have no plans to fork GNOME. One of the nice things with open source is that you can fork but forking is something that you really don't want to do and so only do it in very, very rare situations.
With all the stuff we are doing, fundamentally we're swapping things in and out, for instance with notify-osd replacing the GNOME notification-daemon. To me the analogy is like buying a car and putting a different set of wheels on it - so it's still a car.
So sure it's a delicate situation but it's the same with Red Hat building GNOME Shell which is a completely different user experience to GNOME.
derStandard.at: Are you going to ship GNOME Shell and if yes: When?
Jono Bacon: That's not yet decided, we are going to discuss that at our next Ubuntu Developer Summit in October.
derStandard.at: GNOME Shell has been around since one and a half years and quite early been declared as the future for GNOME, so: Why not contribute to it instead of working on improving the old stack?
Jono Bacon: Part of it is the fact that the design team that we've got working on Ubuntu has a different set of ideas. So besides the mobile space - where we are building a new User Experience with Unity - the focus for Ubuntu is GNOME with these additions.
derStandard.at: With Unity you are working on a different user experience for netbooks, why putting so much interest in the netbook space?
Jono Bacon: It's a real market, it's where distributions make money. For netbook manufacturers Linux is really interesting as it's all about keeping the prices low. Therefore a free operating system that had some custom engineering and good hardware enablement is really attractive to them.
derStandard.at: The netbook edition of Ubuntu is going to use Chromium with Maverick, is the desktop edition to follow these steps?
Jono Bacon: I'm not the one making this decision, that's the responsibility of the desktop team, but let's just say it wouldn't surprise me if we'd switch to Chromium - it is a great browser.
derStandard.at: You're constantly fighting against the narrow space constraints a Live-CD provides, do you plan to move to USB-images?
Jono Bacon: USB is really compelling especially as a lot of machines don't come with CD-drives anymore, but we haven't talked for a while about adjusting the delivery mechanism, so right now there are no plans. A long time ago we talked about using DVD-images, but after some research it was clear that still a lot of people don't have access to DVD burners. Also one thing you shouldn't forget: With every release we're giving out hundreds of thousands of free CDs - which is a really good way to get people over to Open Source - and USB keyrings would be way more expensive.
(Andreas Proschofsky, derStandard.at, 08.08.10)