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GUADEC a Galicia

Flaunting some Olympic-caliber procrastination, I’d now like to provide a brief recap of my visit to A Coruña, Spain for GUADEC 2012, at the end of July.  GUADEC is an annual conference for GNOME developers and users; I definitely fall into the latter category, but I was somehow lucky enough to still con the GNOME Foundation into providing travel assistance so I could be there and give a talk about font development and font repair.  But more about that in a separate post.

For starters, if you don’t feel like reading any further, I’d have to say that the conference was great by any measure.  As a journalist, I spend a lot of time in touch with open source developers but I’m hardly “in” any projects—and certainly not any large & organized ones like GNOME.  So it’s always both eye-opening and entertaining to get to spend a lot of time around developers who are there to develop, and who believe in what they are doing.  In GNOME’s case, this happens to be the 15th anniversary of the project, so they’ve been “doing” for quite a long time.

The program by the sea

I arrived early, on Monday evening, because I needed to keep a regular writing and editing schedule for my work with LWN, which publishes on Wednesday evenings.  I’ve attempted to go to events where I’m en route on a Tuesday, and it just doesn’t work.  The first half of the week, there were no talks, but there were plenty of GNOME people around: there were Foundation meetings, hackathons, and various other cabals, many situated at the local Igalia offices.  The sessions themselves lasted from Thursday through Sunday—and by that, I almost mean literally.  They started early and they ran late.  Which it turns out is perfectly practical, since restaurants in the area don’t even open until 8:30pm.  I have no idea what else you would do between 6:00pm and then, although the hotel (which was situated under a cliff in the mountains) did have an espresso bar (1 euro; I have no idea what that is in regular money, but it certainly beats instant coffee).

Over the course of the session days, I went to every talk I could get to, barring the two morning sessions I had to skip in order to file paperwork reporting that I had a camera lens stolen from my checked luggage on the flight in (in case you were wondering, it was on American, with the final leg handled by their oneworld partner Iberian, and both have been precisely as helpful as you would expect a giant faceless corporation to be. Meaning they appear to be making no effort to even investigate, and they only contact you via emails with no-reply-accepted return addresses.  So kids, if you’re going to pursue a career in crime, it sounds like baggage theft is the way to go—no risk of getting caught.  But I digress….).

Anyway, there were a lot of talks about new, weird, and unexpected projects, including Colin Walters’ OSTree (which is akin to a mashup of Git, OBS, overlayfs, and a package manager), SkelTrack (which is a framework for identifying the person in a Kinect-style depth image), and Dawati (which is a usability testing tool that records webcam video and desktop screencasts, then combines them into one video stream for analysis).  There were also lots of talks about new and improved GNOME components like Boxes, Folks, and GOA, and a large swath of design and interaction talks—nine or ten of which seemed to be given by Allan Day.  Seriously; I’m pretty sure there was one slot where he was giving two talks at the same time, in different rooms.

One build to rule them all!  Or, not

The other interesting bit was the repeated discussions surrounding the “GNOME OS” concept.  This is something that has come up many times before and is often either mischaracterized or is conflated with other, unrelated concerns.  The gist of it is that GNOME is currently 100% dependent on downstream distributions for delivering its software to users.  That is to say, whenever there is a GNOME Release … nobody downloads it.  Or installs it.  And that’s because they can’t, because they depend on their distro’s package management system for their GNOME environment (and which it would be a bad idea to break).  Trouble is, this means virtually no one tests GNOME releases, and the project gets no bug reports for ~six months (at which point the release hits downstream distros).  Plus, what bug reports they do get are always difficult to triage, since the distributions (essentially Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian, and openSUSE) all make their own adjustments and roll their own packages).  So GNOME is harder to debug, and thus is harder to maintain.

The proposed solution is to roll up each new release with an installable, runnable OS image.  So a GNOME release would be a bootable ISO image that someone—though not everyone—can install and try out, perhaps even use, rather than a set of meta-packages that will gradually trickle down to the neighborhood package repository.  Another side effect of this scheme would be that tablet and gadget makers could take the base image and use it as a “known platform” to build an embedded project on, which GNOME would like.  Though new, this binary, ROM-like release would not be the only way to get GNOME; distributions and source-compilation-fetishists would still be getting, building, and distributing ye olde traditional GNOME packages, too.

What this concept is not is GNOME wanting to cast off the chains of the distributions, give the finger to BSD, and try to maintain its own Linux distribution.  It should be clear that that would not work anyway (given the cost and personnel required), but people seem to think that about it anyway.  Partly this is speakers’ fault; in the first GUADEC talk that brought up the idea the Igalia speaker actually said “distribution” multiple times; if you were in the audience you would think he meant running a distro, too.  So some clearer messaging would help a ton here.  Perhaps even calling it GNOME ISO or GNOME Live, rather than GNOME OS.

The confusion is also partly due to unhappy users getting the proposal conflated with other criticisms about how GNOME is developed.  In recent years, a fair number of people feel like GNOME module maintainers at Red Hat are trying to encroach onto other parts of the OS stack—such as the init process—and are adding hard dependencies on either Linux-only subsystems or on Red Hat products.  This is pretty visible with Ubuntu, for example, which uses almost all of the GNOME stack, except for GNOME Shell.  But historically GNOME has not mandated things like the init system or the compositor/window manager, so replacing the Shell with Unity would be No Big Whoop.  If such components were to become hard requirements, however, that would further separate Ubuntu from the vanilla GNOME platform—and it would do so essentially by a module maintainer’s fiat.  That, naturally, aggravates people, and when they’re aggravated, they aggravate GNOME people in response, ad infinitum.

However::: I’m not going to discuss that, because that is not at all what the GNOME OS proposal is about.  As I said above.  That is an unrelated set of development and technical-goal-setting issues that GNOME, Ubuntu, and Red Hat need to work out somehow.  Wilderness retreat or whatever.  There were also a few discussions during the week about whether GNOME needs a Technical Board, which sounds like a good idea for other reasons, and might help here, too.  In any event, the GNOME OS idea is designed to make GNOME releases easier to test & provide feedback on, which is 100% in the good-things column.

Music cue

Anyway.  Back on track, the word count line at the bottom of this WYSIWYG form is telling me I just passed 60,000 words on this post, so I’m going to try to wrap it up.

All in all, I know how corny it sounds, but the best thing about my week at GUADEC was definitely meeting the people.  Multiple times over the week, I met someone, had a moment of mutual where-do-I-know-that-name-from contemplation, and then we realized I had emailed them and written something about their project.  And a lot of them said thanks, which doesn’t happen to me a lot.  That’s not because I usually write scathing personal attacks or anything, but simply because I usually write form home and not in an office with the people that I interact with.  So it was a blast to get to know them in person, since I genuinely like what they do.  Into this category I would put Eduardo Lima, who develops the awesome-and-under-the-radar file transport tool FileTea (and who generously put up with my lame questions about Cuba), Joaquim Rocha, who makes the excellent OCRFeeder (in addition to SkelTrack mentioned earlier), and Joanmarie Diggs, who does all the heavy-lifting on accessibility work (and has some good stories to tell about EU immigration law…).

I also met a lot of great people that I had never talked to even via email before GUADEC, including the Yorba team of Adam Dingle and Jim Nelson (whose Geary application I had reviewed, but without discussing it with them, and who are both way ahead of everybody else when it comes to thinking about funding open source software development, and about eating pulpo), testing guru Spider (who put up with my questions about home automation), and of course the GNOME power couple Jonathan Blandford and Rosanna Yuen (or power trio, if you also count Jonathan’s beard).  One of my great surprises was to discover that not only is Jonathan the author of the solitaire app AisleRiot (yeah, I don’t read a lot of “About” screens…), but that he also shares an interest in unusual card games, and secretly built in Aisleriot support for decks of cards with five or more suits—which happens to be a weird hobby of mine.  One of my great regrets about the week is that I had to leave at crack-early on Monday morning, so I had to miss out on playing a bizarre card game of Jonathan’s.  But that’s on the agenda for next time.  As luck would have it, my own talk was scheduled at the exact same time as the talk absolutely everyone most wanted to hear, Owen Taylor’s session on smooth animations.  In fact I considered skipping my own talk to hear it, but ultimately I couldn’t find Taylor’s room.  Subsequently, Jonathan tracked Owen down and did some sort of arm-twisting (behind closed doors, obviously) so that Owen agreed to meet me at lunchtime and essentially recap the talk and show me the demos.  I’m still writing it up for LWN.

It was also good to see folks that I bump into more regularly, like Garrett LeSage and Jakub Steiner, who are both regulars at Libre Graphics Meeting, Guy Lunardi, who I think knows everyone in the software business (and not just open source, either), and Karen Sandler who has always been exceptionally helpful with my press requests (and, I discovered, whose husband Mike is one of those guys who can have conversations about both the Beach Boys and about BIOS).  There are clearly a ton of other people that I enjoyed getting to meet at GUADEC 2012, including a lot of Igalia folks, but the bulk of them I need to save for my follow-up post, which will deal with my font talk—and what came out of it.

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