halting problem :: History of GNOME / Episode 1.3: Land of the bonobos

:: ~11 min read

With the GNOME 1.0 release, and the initial endorsement of the project by Linux distributors like Red Hat and Debian, it was only a matter of time before a commercial ecosystem would start to coalesce around the GNOME project. The first effort was led by Red Hat, with its Red Hat Advanced Development laboratories. Soon, others would follow.

Two companies, in particular, shaped the early landscape of GNOME: Ximian and Eazel.

Ximian was announced alongside GNOME 1.0, at the Linux Expo 1999, by none other than the project creator and lead, Miguel de Icaza, and his friend and GNOME contributor, Nat Friedman; it was meant to be a company that would work on GNOME, and provide support for it, in a model similar to the Red Hat one, but with a more focused approach than a whole Linux distribution. Initially, the name of the company was “International GNOME Support”, before being renamed Helix Code first, and Ximian in 2001, when it proved impossible to secure a trademark on Helix Code. For the benefit of clarity, I’ll use “Ximian” throughout this episode, even if we’re going to cover events that transpired while the company name was still called “Helix Code”.

Ximian’s initial effort was mostly spent towards raising capital to hire developers to work on GNOME and its applications, using the extant community as a ready made talent pool, like many other companies did, and still do to this day.

Ximian focused on:

  • providing GNOME as a commercially supported independent platform on top of existing Unix-like operating systems
  • jump-starting an application ecosystem that would target GNOME and focused on enterprise-oriented platforms

The results of these two areas of focus were Red Carpet and Ximian GNOME, for the former; and Evolution, for the latter.

Red Carpet was a way to distribute software developed at its own pace, on top of different Linux and Unix-like operating systems. Whether you were running Red Hat Linux, SuSE, Debian, Mandrake, or Solaris; whether your platform was Intel-based or PPC-based; whether you had a fully supported OS or you were simply an enthusiast and early adopter; you’d be able to download a utility that checked the version of a known list of components on your system; downloaded the latest version of those components and their dependencies from the Ximian server; installed the packages that would fit with your system; and kept them up to date every time a new version was released upstream. All of this was managed through a user-friendly interface, definitely nicer than the alternatives provided at the time by any other distribution, with clear indications of software sources; out of date packages; and suggested updates.

Through Red Carpet, Ximian created Ximian GNOME, a software distribution channel that delegated the maintenance of the desktop environment and selected applications, to an entity outside of the one that provided the core OS, and allowed to keep GNOME updated at the pace of upstream development, minus the time for QA.

Of course, this whole approach relied on the desktop being fully separate from the core OS, something that was possible only back in the early days of Linux as a competitive workstation operating system; additionally, it wasn’t something devoid of risks. Linux installations have always leaned towards heavy customisation post-installation, with the combinatorial explosion of packages available for every user and system administator to install on top of a base system, and without a clear separation of namespaces between the core OS, the graphical environment, and the user applications. Bolting a whole new desktop environment on top of a fluid base system could be problematic at best, and it made upgrading the base system, the desktop environment, and the applications an interesting challenge—with “interesting” defined as “we’re all going to die”. Red Carpet did allow, though, for keeping a stable base underneath a fast moving target like GNOME, assuming that you only cared about upgrading GNOME.

Another advantage of Red Carpet was the ability to provide a standard upgrade path for a fleet of systems, which is what made it attractive for system administrators.

Outside of Red Carpet, Ximian was working on Evolution, an email client and groupware platform for enterprise environment.

Email clients for Linux, like text editors and IRC clients, are a dime a dozen, but mostly terminal-based, and a poor fit in an enterprise environment, as they would not integrate with groupware services, like calendars, events, or shared address books. Sure, you could script your way out of most anything, if you were playing at being a BOFH, but Carol in Human Resources would not be able to get away with not receiving her email because Charlie made an error writing a procmail rule, and sent all the notifications halfway to Siberia.

Groupware suites are pretty much a requirement in corporate environments, and since contracts with those corporations can make or break a company, having a client capable of not only providing the same features, but also integrating with existing infrastructure is a fundamentally interesting proposition.

While Ximian tried to break into the commercial space through the tried and tested route of support contracts and enterprise software, Eazel chose a different, and somewhat risker route.

Eazel was a case of building a company around an idea 10 years too early; the idea in question being: providing remote storage for files and application, complete with browsing remote volumes and folders from your file manager as if they were on local storage. All of this would happen on the nascent Linux desktop, which meant creating a fair amount of the necessary infrastructure and shaping the design and user interaction at the same time.

Eazel was founded by many former Apple employees, including Andy Hertzfeld and Darin Hadler, who were the technical leads of the original Macintosh team; and Susan Kare, the designer of the Macintosh icons and typefaces.

The main entry point for users of Eazel services was a new file manager, called Nautilus, coupled to a virtual file system abstraction that would be designed specifically for graphical user interfaces, to avoid blocking the UI while file operations on resources with large latency, like a network volume, were in progress. Given that fuzzy licensing situation around KDE and Qt, Eazel decided to work with the GNOME community, and took the remarkable step of developing Nautilus in the open.

Eazel started working their way upstream with the GNOME community around the late 1999/early months of 2000, thanks to Maciej Stachowiak, an early hire and a GNOME developer who worked on Guile, as well as various GNOME applications and components. Of course, the first thing the core GNOME developers did when approached by Eazel was to port their code from its early C++ incarnation to C, to fit in with the rest of the platform. The interesting thing that happened was that Eazel developers complied with that request, and stuck with the project.

At the time, GNOME’s file manager was a GUI layer around Miguel de Icaza’s Midnight Commander, a Norton Commander clone; MC was mostly used as a terminal application, even if it could integrate with different GUI toolkits, like Tk and GTK when running under X11. The accretion of various GUI led to cruft accumulating as well, and some of the design requirements for a responsive UI in a desktop environment poorly fit in with how a terminal UI would work. Additionally, maintenance was, as it’s wont, mostly volunteer-based. Federico Mena spent time, while working at the RHAD labs, on the GNOME integration, and that was the closest thing to somebody being paid to work on the MC code base. As the work on Nautilus progressed both from Eazel and the GNOME community, the scale slowly tipped in favour of the more integrated, desktop-oriented file manager with paid maintenance.

Of course, what we call Nautilus (or “Files”) today was a very different beast than what it was when Eazel introduced it to the GNOME community in February 2000. Folder views could have annotations, you could add emblems on files and folders, set custom icons, and even custom backgrounds. The file view was a canvas, with the ability to zoom in and out the grid of icons, or even stretch the icons and change their sizes, as well as their position. You could have live preview of files directly inside Nautilus without opening a different application, and thanks to the work done at Red Hat by Christopher Blizzard on integrating the Mozilla web rendering engine with GTK, Nautilus could also browse the web, or more likely your company’s intranet, or WebDAV shares.

While working on Nautilus, Eazel also provided functionality to the core GNOME platform; mainly, the GNOME VFS library was made available outside of Nautilus as a way to perform file operations outside of the simple POSIX API, and other applications quickly started using it to access remote volumes, or to integrate functionality like copying and moving files; libeel, a library for custom widgets used in Nautilus; and librsvg, a library for rendering SVG files, mostly graphical assets used by Nautilus for its icons, saw adoption on the GNOME stack.

Despite the differences in the originating companies, both Nautilus and Evolution shared a common design philosophy: componentisation. Not just plugins and extension modules, but whole components for integrating functionality into, and from, those applications.

The “object model environment” that begat the GNOME project’s acronym, and was simmering in the background, started getting into full swing between GNOME 1.0 and 1.2, with complex applications exposing components for other applications to reuse and re-arrange, as well as taking components themselves and adding new functionality without necessarily adding new dependencies.

Instead of raw CORBA, Eazel and Ximian worked on OAF, the object activation framework, a way to enumerate, activate, and watch components on a system; and Bonobo, a library that made it easy to write GUI components for GNOME applications to use, reducing the CORBA boilerplate.

The idea was that applications would mostly be “shells” that instantiated components, either provided by themselves or by other projects, and build their UI out of them. Things like menus and actions associated with those menus could be described in XML, everyone’s favourite markup language, and exposed as part of the component. GNOME and its applications would be a collection of libraries and small processes, combined and recombined as the users needed them.

Of course, the first real application of this design was to embed the Minesweeper game into Gnumeric, the spreadsheet applications, because why wouldn’t you?

The effort didn’t stop there, though; Evolution was, in fact, a shell with email client, calendar, and address book components. Nautilus used Bonobo to componentise functionality outside the file management view, like the web rendering, or the audio playback and music album view.

This was the heyday of the component era of GNOME, and while its promises of shiny new functionality were attractive to both platform and application developers, the end result was by and large one of untapped potential. Componentisation requires a large initial effort in designing the architecture of an application, and it’s really hard to introduce after the fact without laying waste to working code. As an initial roadblock it poorly fits with the “scratch your own itch” approach of free and open source software. Additionally it requires not just a higher level of discipline in the component design and engineering, it also depends on comprehensive and extensive documentation, something that has always been the Achille’s Heel of many an open source project.

In practice, the componentisation started and stopped around the same time as GNOME 2 was being developed, and for a long while in the history of the project it was the proverbial dead albatross stuck around the neck of the platform.

For GNOME developers in mid-2000, though, this was a worthy goal to pursue, so they worked hard on stabilising the platform while applications iterated over it.

The project’s efforts moved in two prongs: minor releases for the 1.x platform, and planning towards the 2.0 release

GNOME 1.2 was released as a minor improvement over the existing 1.0 platform in May 2000, and a similar 1.4 minor release was planned for mid-2001; meanwhile, the effort of integrating the functionality spun off in libraries like Bonobo and OAF, gnome-vfs and librsvg, into the core platform was well underway.


Ximian and Eazel helped shape GNOME’s future not just by creating products based on the GNOME desktop and platform, or by hiring GNOME developers; they also contributed to establish two very important parts of the GNOME community, that exist to this day: GUADEC, the GNOME conference; and the GNOME Foundation.

Next week we’re going to witness the birth of both GUADEC and the Foundation, and we’ll take a small detour to look at the tools used by the GNOME project to host their code and track the bugs contained in said code, in “Founding the Foundation”.

References

history of gnome gnome podcast

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  2. , In which I announce my podcast on the history of the GNOME project
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