Canonical and GNOME: the Atlantic chasm?

While contemplating the tensions between Canonical/Ubuntu and GNOME that a lot of people have been blogging about I just thought had an insight. I have thought of what we are observing here as a clash of cultures before, but merely as a clash of company cultures. However, aren’t we observing something that has deeper cultural roots?

GNOME was founded by two Mexicans and currently seems to be predominantly dominated by people from the United States, with the foundation itself being based in the States. The most important companies behind it, RedHat and Novell, are both from the United States too.

Ubuntu was started and Canonical was founded by a South African based in London, where the company has its headquarters. Although there is again a very high American presence within the community and company, the leadership is much more eclectic than GNOME’s. Furthermore, the Canonical Design Team seems to be predominantly British.

Why would this matter? Our differences aren’t very large after all, the open source community is dominated (unfortunately) by white, Caucasian males and they have a lot in common. I think it may play a more important role than we have thought so far. Communication is very culture-bound and it seems that it is communication that has been causing most of the problems.

If we look at the rejection of ‘libappindicator’ as an external dependency, we may be able to see this more clearly. Canonical, say some people in the GNOME project, failed to push its inclusion thoroughly enough. They may have done what was formally required, but didn’t show the initiative that could have resolved the issues that were raised. They say that you need to find the right people to talk to, not expect a machinery to process your request once you’ve delivered an appropriately tagged package.

Canonical reiterates that it did what was required to propose a module as an external dependency. They say that they want to have someone to talk to, to have someone in charge who makes the decisions and can be phoned up if necessary.

Both parties expected different things from the other. This may be what caused the unease. Each party feels that it did enough and the other too little, so no one is to blame.

Strikingly, it seems that the cooperation concerning the application indicators/status notifiers with KDE—founded in Germany, its foundation still being based there—was very productive. Was this because of the persons involved, or because of the cultures? The communication ways I described above do seem to reflect the stereotypes of the two continents.

What should be said that the above is a gross generalisation. Generalisations can usually only be used, with great care, when you talk about large groups. In this case it might be better to talk about individuals instead.

I don’t think that what I said above is the whole explanation. I do think, though, that it is something we should keep in our minds. It may not only have played a role in worsening the unease and misunderstanding here, but it affects all communities that are truly diverse. Traditionally, FOSS seems to have been dominated predominantly by people from the US. Now that is changing, more people learn English—as an example, my father’s generation learned German, not English, as the most important foreign language at Dutch secondary school, for me it is English—and ‘developing’ countries are catching up.

Cultural differences will be more visible in communities, we need to be aware of the different ways different cultures communicate if we want to make sure no contributions go to waste.

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15 Comments

  1. Very interesting read, as an end user I've been insulated from internal politics as it relates to my desktop. As an American that has lived in other countries though it is hard to ignore the differences in cultures and the way they interact. Effective communication isn't as easy as it seems, even when everybody is on the same sheet of music.

    Hopefully this is just a minor hiccup and everyone involved will learn from this and everything will fall back into place.

  2. The drama is getting seriously boring at this stage. I dont like all this tension we are all more or less playing for the same team so the drama is mute since time will tell who is really right. I think Unity is going down the right lane for me but I dont know if its for every one. I like the design of the app indicators but they do restrict (on purpose) what developers can do. At the moment I dont think its Gnome vs Canonical I think its Red Hat vs Canonical and im not even including Novell on that list since they only had gripes about the banshee revenue stuff. In particular I think its more Canonical's ultimate dream of a desktop vs the Red Hat designers and they are clashing on that. Maybe the ideas for both came from the same meeting but the overall direction switched considerably and thats whats causing the friction.

  3. I'm sorry, but this is nonsense. There are some culture differences, but as an american, I have no problem dealing with brits, swedes, etc. While the time zones may have a TAD to do with it, I think the reality is there's much more personal history and long-held grudges involved.

    And to be clear, I side with Canonical on this issue, but I also don't think gnome is evil. But I do feel they need to take a very close look at their culture and ask if it's still working correctly.

    1. @BiosElement

      But Canonical doesn't need to take a look at their culture? Here is a company where managers have specifically told engineers to _stop_ collaborating with GNOME.
      http://www.blogger.com/profile/029601405264978472

      Please understand how hypocritical it is for Shuttleworth to point fingers at GNOME distributed culture..when Canonical's own hierarchical corporate culture goes out of its way to actively prevent engineers from working inside the GNOME project.

      Even if GNOME does do some soul searching and does make a renewed effort at communication… it won't change a thing with regard to Canonical's involvement. Canonical will still actively prevent its own engineers from taking the initiative to work inside the GNOME project. And there has been no evidence at all that Canonical's corporate culture is interested in changing its internal management policies to make that possible.

      -jef

        1. All that shows to me is that they don’t want certain unfinished products from being a representative of the company. Sorry Jef, but your whining posts are just as annoying as they were a year ago when you were invading every Ubuntu-related post that had at least a bit of attention.

  4. Amazing nonsense! Gtk and Glib for a long time have been led by two germans, Tim Janik and Mathias Clasen. GUADEC, the big GNOME conference, is strictly european (that's what the E in its name stands for!), in fact Europe is by far the dominating origin of GNOME developers. The various companies founded around GNOME are all european, such as Fluendo, CodeFactory, immendio, lanedo, openismus, igalia, Collabora (the bigger half at last)… and so on. How many companies have been founded with GNOME in mind in the US? Zero!

    You are just so impressively wrong, that it hurts.

  5. A valid point, especially when you consider that the intent of our expression is often conveyed in our body language and facial expression. Naturally in an environment where most communication is done via mailing lists this is entirely missed.

  6. @Sense:

    when RedHat "sponsored" GNOME work, Novell wasn't really on the Linux Ship.
    (reference: http://primates.ximian.com/~miguel/gnome-history….
    SuSE (before bought by Novell) sponsored mostly KDE work.

    KDE was one year older before even GNOME was born.
    (reference: http://www.kde.org/community/history/)

    What people totally forgot:
    – GNOME had always a bigger marketshare in markets != Europe. RedHat had always a bigger marketshare in markets != Europe.
    – KDE had always a bigger marketshare in markets == Europe. SuSE had always a bigger marketshare in markets == Europe

    When Novell boarded really the Linux Ship with buying SuSE (a German Company), they changed the desktop experience from KDE (which was the de facto standard on SuSE) to GNOME, because GNOME was a better selling argument then KDE in the world.

    Human Culture doesn't play a role. Company Culture does. It's all about business and money. And that's what many people are forgetting these days.

    (And last but not least: Mark already showed the world, that a South African Business can make a difference…see his "Thawte" story, everyone in the slowly growing internet bang boom boom was very happy about Thawte providing cheaper SSL Certs than Verisign, and Canonical and Ubuntu are not really ZA businesses, just the Zulu word "Ubuntu" is the last sign of ZA)

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