halting problem :: Episode 2.2: Release Day

:: ~12 min read

The GNOME 2 release process meant re-evaluating everything that makes a desktop environment: from its design, to the design of all of its applications, to the release process, to the interaction of settings and preferences.

For all intents and purposes, the 2.0 release process of GNOME was a reboot of the project; as such, it was a highly introspective event that just so happened to result in a public release of a software platform used by a large number of people. The real result of this process was not in the bits and bytes that were compiled, or interpreted, into desktop components, panel applets, or applications; it was, instead, a set of design tenets, a project ethos, and a powerful marketing brand that exist to this day.

The GNOME community of developers, documenters, translators, and designers, was faced with the result of Sun’s user testing, and with the feedback on documentation, accessibility, and design, and had two choices: double down on what everyone was doing, and maintain the existing contributor and user bases; or adapt, take a gamble, and change—possibly even lose contributors, in the hope of gaining more users, and more contributors, down the road.

The community opted for the latter gamble.

The decision was not without internal strife.

This kind of decisions is fairly common in all projects that reached a certain critical mass, especially if they don’t have a central figure keeping everything together, and being the ultimate arbiter of taste and direction. Miguel de Icaza was already really busy with Ximian, and even if the Foundation created the release team in order to get a “steering committee” to make informed, executive decisions in case of conflicts, or decide who gets to release what and when, in order to minimise disruption over the chain of dependencies, this team was hardly an entity capable of deciding the direction of project.

If effectively nobody is in charge, the direction of the project becomes an emergent condition. People have a more or less vague sense of direction, and a more or less defined end goal, so they will move towards it. Maybe not all at the same time, and maybe not all on the same path; but the sum of all vectors is not zero. Or, at least, it’s not zero all the time.

Of course, there are people that put more effort in order to balance the equation, and those are the ones that we tend to recognise as “the leaders”, or, in modern tech vernacular, “the rock stars”.

Seth Nickell and Calum Benson clearly fit that description. Both worked on usability and design, and both worked on user testing—with Calum specifically working on the professional workstation user given his position at Sun. Seth was the GNOME Usability project lead, and alongside the rest of the usability team, co-authored the GNOME Human Interface Guidelines, or HIG. The HIG was both a statement of intent on the design direction of GNOME, as well as a checklist for developers to go through and ensure that all the GUI applications would fit into the desktop environment, by looking and behaving consistently. At the very basic core of the HIG sat a few principles:

  1. Design your application to let people achieve their goals
  2. Make your application accessible to everyone
  3. Keep the design simple, pretty, and consistent
  4. Keep the user in control, informed on what happens, and forgive them for any mistake

These four tenets tried to move the needle of the design for GNOME applications from the core audience of standard nerds to the world at large. In order to design your application, you need to understand the audience that you wish to target, and how to ensure you won’t get in their way; this also means you should never limit your audience to people that are as able bodied as you are, or coming from the same country or socio-economical background; your work should be simple and reliable, in the sense that it doesn’t do two similar things in two different ways; and that users should be treated with empathy, and never with contempt. Even if you didn’t have access to the rest of the document, which detailed how to deal with whitespace, or alignment, or the right widget for the right action, you could already start working on making an application capable of fitting in with the rest of GNOME.

Consistency and forgiveness in user interfaces also reflected changes in how those interfaces should be configured—or if they should be configured at all.

In 2002 Havoc Pennington wrote what is probably the most influential essay on how free and open source software user interface ought to be designed, called “Free software UI”. The essay was the response to the evergreen question: “can free and open source software methodology lead to the creation of a good user interface?”, posed by Matthew Paul Thomas, a designer and volunteer contributor at Mozilla.

Free and open source software design and usability suffer from various ailments, most notably:

  • there are too many developers and not enough designers
  • designers can’t really submit patches

In an attempt at fixing these two issues the GNOME project worked on establishing a design and usability team, with the help of companies to jump start the effort; the presence of respected designers in leadership positions also helped creating and fostering a culture where project maintainers would ask for design review and testing. We’re still a bit far from asking for design input instead of a design review, which usually comes with pushback now that the code is in place. Small steps, I guess.

The important part of the essay, though, is on the cost of preferences—namely that there’s no such thing as “just adding an option”.

Adding an option, on a technical level, requires adding code to handle all the potential states of the option; it requires handling failure cases; a user interface for setting and retrieving the option; it requires testing, and QA, for all the states. Each option can interact with other options, which means a combinatorial explosion of potential states, each with its own failure mode. Options are optimal for a certain class of users, because they provide the illusion of control; they are also optimal for a certain class of developers, because they tickle the instinct of making general solutions to solve classes of problems, instead of fixing the actual problem.

In the context of software released “as is”, without even the implied warranty of being fit for purpose, like most free and open source software is, it removes stress because it allows the maintainer from abdicating responsibility. It’s not my fault that you frobnicated the foobariser and all your family photos have become encoded versions of the GNU C library; you should have been holding a lit black candle in your left hand and a curved blade knife in your right hand if you didn’t want that to happen.

More than that, though: what you definitely don’t want is having preferences to “fix” your application. If you have a bug, don’t add an option to work around it. If somebody is relying on a bug for their workflow, then: too bad. Adding a preference to work around a bug introduces another bug because now you encoded a failure state directly into the behaviour of your code, and you cannot ever change it.

Finally, settings should never leave you in an error state. You should never have a user break their system just because they put invalid data in a text field; or toggled the wrong checkbox; or clicked the wrong button. Recovering is good, but never putting the user in the condition of putting bad values in the system is the best approach because it is more resilient.

From a process standpoint, the development cycle of GNOME 1, and the release process of GNOME 2.0, led to a complete overhaul of how the project should be shepherded into releasing new versions. Releasing GNOME 2.0 led to many compromises: features were not complete, known bugs ended up in the release notes, and some of the underlying API provided by the development platform were not really tested enough before freezing them for all time. It is hard to decide when to shout “pencils down” when everyone is doing their own thing in their own corner of the world. It’s even harder when you have a feedback loop between a development platform that provides API for the rest of the platform, and needs validation for the changes while they can still be made; and applications that need the development platform to sit still for five minutes so that they can be ported to the new goodness.

GNOME was the first major free software project to switch away from a feature-based development cycle and towards a time-based one, thanks to the efforts of Jeff Waugh on behalf of the release team; the whole 2.0 development cycle was schedule driven, with constant reminders of the various milestones and freeze dates. Before the final 2.0 release, a full plan for the development cycle was proposed to the community of maintainers; the short version of the plan was:

The key elements of the long-term plan: a stable branch that is extremely locked-down, an unstable branch that is always compilable and dogfood-quality, and time-based releases at 6 month intervals.

Given that the 2.0 release happened at the end of June, that would put the 2.2 release in December, which would have been problematic. Instead, it was decided to have a slightly longer development cycle, to catch all the stragglers that couldn’t make the cut for 2.0, and release 2.2 in February, followed by the 2.4 release in September. This period of adjustment led to the now familiar release cadence of a March and a September releases every year. Time based releases and freezing the features, API, translatable strings—and code, around the point-zero release date—ensured that only features working to the satisfaction of the maintainers, designers, and translators would end up in the hand of the users. Or, at least, that was the general plan.

It’s important to note that all of these changes in the way GNOME as a community saw itself, and the project they were contributing to, are probably the biggest event in the history of the project itself—and, possibly, in the history of free and open source software. The decision to focus on usability, accessibility, and design, shaped the way people contributing and using GNOME think about GNOME; it even changed the perception of GNOME for people not using it, for good or ill. GNOME’s brand was solidified into one of care about design principles, and that perception continues to this day. If something user visible changes in GNOME it is assumed that design, usability, or accessibility had something to do with it—even when it really didn’t; it is assumed that designers sat together, did user studies, finalized a design, and then, in one of the less charitable versions, lobbed it over the wall to module maintainers for its implementation with no regard for objections.

That version of reality is so far removed from ours it might as well have superheroes flying around battling monsters from other dimensions; and, yet, the GNOME brand is so established that people will take it as an article of faith.

For all that, though, GNOME 2 did have usability studies conducted on it prior to release; the Human Interface Guidelines were written in response to those studies, and to established knowledge in the interaction design literature and community; the changes in the system settings and the menu structures were done after witnessing users struggle with the equivalent bits of GNOME 1. The unnecessary settings that littered the desktop as a way to escape making decisions, or as a way to provide some sort of intellectual challenge to the developers were removed because, in the end, settings are not the goal for a desktop environment that’s just supposed to launch applications and provide an environment for those applications to exist.

This was peak GNOME brand.

On June 27, 2002, GNOME 2.0 was released. The GNOME community worked days and nights for more than a year after releasing 1.4, and for more than two years after releasing 1.2. New components were created, projects were ported, documentation was written, screenshots were taken, text was translated.

Finally, the larger community of Linux users and enthusiasts would be able to witness the result of all this amazing work, and their reaction was: thanks, I hate it.

Well, no, that’s not really true.

Yes, a lot of people hated it—and they made damn well sure you knew that they hated it. Mailing lists, bug trackers, articles and comments on news websites were full of people angrily demanding their five clocks back; or their heavily nested menu structure; or their millisecond-precision animation settings; or their “Miscellanous” group of settings in a “Miscellaneous” tab of the control centre.

A lot of people simply sat in front of GNOME 2, and managed to get their work done, before turning off the machine and going home.

A few people, though, saw something new; the potential of the changes, and of the focus of the project. They saw beyond the removed configuration options; the missing features left for a future cycle; the bugs caused by the massive changes in the underlying development platform.

Those few people were the next generation of contributors to GNOME; new developers, sure, but also new designers; new documentation writers; new translators; new artists; new maintainers. They were inspired by the newly refocused direction of project, by its ethos, to the point of deciding to contribute to it. GNOME needed to be ready for them.

Next week the magic and shine of the release starts wearing off, and we’re back to flames and long discussions on features, media stacks, inclusion of applications in the release, and what happens when Novell decides to go on a shopping spree, in the episode titled “Honeymoon phase”.

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