by Swapnil Bhartiya

Gnome Foundation executive director wants you to think beyond the desktop

Feb 27, 2017
Linux Open Source Operating Systems

The newly elected executive director of the Gnome Foundation discusses his role and some uncomfortable subjects around desktop Linux.

Neil McGovern was recently elected as the Executive Director of the Gnome Foundation, a position that was previously held by Karen Sandler.

Prior to joining the Gnome Foundation, McGovern was working with Collabora Productivity, a UK-based company that offers enterprise solutions based on the fully open source LibreOffice project. He spent five years at Collabora before taking over the full-time role at the Gnome Foundation.

As you may already know, Gnome is one of the major open source projects. It’s a desktop environment for Linux and BSD systems. The Gnome Foundation oversees the development of the project.

The foundation works to further the goal of the GNOME project, which is to create a computing platform for use by the general public that is completely Free Software, and designed to be elegant, efficient and easy to use.

“On the surface, the foundation is primarily a non-profit, one which can hold assets, both funds and trademarks on behalf of the community.  However, by being so, it is also the public voice and image of GNOME,” said McGovern. “The project itself is wide ranging and has many different people who contribute to it, and the foundation is there to provide a direction and vision to the project, and to other organizations who want to contribute, or simply to know more.”

As the executive director of the project, McGovern has several roles and responsibilities across four main areas: administrative, finance, marketing and community.

McGovern helps the GNOME Foundation run smoothly, overseeing the day-to-day operations and making sure tasks progress.  As far as money is concerned, McGovern works with the foundation’s board to ensure that they maintain good financial control, but also to grow the supporter base and sponsors. Marketing and external relations are critical to the survival of a large project like Gnome. Not every open source project can afford to have dedicated marketing resources, but the Gnome Foundation does have them. McGovern’s job is to maintain and establish relationships with organizations that share Gnome’s Free Software mission, and promoting GNOME and GNOME technologies at events. The last, but not least, important component of any open source project is its community and McGovern assists in the wider GNOME community with support for events and understanding the challenges it faces.

When we think of the Gnome project, we mostly think of the Linux/BSD desktop, but McGovern said that it’s really “…important to note that the GNOME project is more than simply a desktop. GNOME technologies have been used to build a range of highly successful consumer products,” he said.

“Additionally, I like to focus on the outcomes of the project, rather than simply the technology. By being independent, free (as in freedom), connected to the wider ecosystem, and people focused, the project puts software in the hands of end users,” said McGovern. “We need to ensure that everyone can have access to computing, not just those who a) can afford a proprietary licence or b) who have needs (be it language, or physical abilities) that are not met due to there being insufficient revenue in a particular sector.”

Future of the Linux desktop

All said and done, the Gnome project is mostly known for providing a very easy to use and modern desktop environment for the Linux-based distributions. To a great extent, a desktop environment is also responsible for the success or failure of Linux on desktop.

I fear that ‘the year of desktop Linux’ in the consumer space might never arrive, given the complexity of the consumer PC space. In that case shouldn’t desktop Linux focus on a niche, its core competency instead of fighting a lost battle?

McGovern seems to disagree, when I asked him this question.

“Ah, the eternal year of the Linux desktop question! Part of the issue is that it’s quite hard to define what this means. For example, in 2016Q1, Chromebooks outsold Macs for the first time in the US, and in September the Raspberry Pi Foundation announced that they had shipped over 10 million units. It really depends on what is meant by desktop, which is becoming much more of a fuzzy definition these days,” he said, “As for the niche markets, I think there is indeed a great opportunity there, but it’s worth noting that things like privacy and security shouldn’t be niches! These are imperatives –  and running a secure system that respects your privacy isn’t something that only a few geeks on the internet care about.”

Another problem that I see in the desktop Linux space is too much fragmentation. Just look at the forks of the Gnome desktop itself. Does that mean it’s hard to collaborate, compromise and co-operate in the desktop community? To me, it seems that people find it easier to fork a project than to work together.

“I’d disagree with the premise,” said McGovern. “One of the strengths of Free Software is that people are empowered to take the software and modify it for their own needs. Even between ‘competing’ projects, I’ve seen a great deal of collaboration and cooperation. It’s this innovative approach that I believe has actually led to the success of Free Software — it’s not a centrally controlled bit of software, or even a movement with one single vision of what is the “best” way of doing things.”

He added that this diversity actually “makes each and every project stronger than it would be on its own — the key thing is that we all remember what we’re aiming for — protecting and promoting user freedoms.”

While he did admit that problems do occur when that collaboration doesn’t happen and organizations go off and produce software without it. “However, this isn’t the ease of forking that’s to blame, it’s building things in isolation rather than with an open community model,” he said.

Apps vs apps

As a long-time desktop Linux user, who also happens to use multiple distributions, I’m often frustrated with the way apps are delivered to the platform. There are two competing technologies that are trying to solve this: Flatpack and Snaps.

McGovern seems to favor of Flatpack. “Flatpack is an exciting technology that has a number of benefits to both developers and users, and should complement distribution packaging. It has two primary aims: 1) to make it possible for third parties to create and distribute applications that work on multiple distributions; and 2) to run applications with as little access to the host as possible (for example user files or network access).

From a security point of view, McGovern thinks that “the sandboxing aspect is very important as it allows the threshold of trust that users need to place on applications lower, which is important for users of third party applications. It also gives the user some level of protection against things that were historically not handled by the security system on Unix (which is primarily focused on protecting the system installation against the user). It’s an emerging format, but I hope to see the use grow and become more widely adopted.”