GNOME Advisory Board Member Interviews

I interviewed 21 advisory board members representing 15 organizations in June 2009. Each conversation took 30-60 minutes. My full notes were sent to the GNOME Board of Directors.

During these interviews, I was specifically asking for feedback. While most of the people I talked to were positive about the GNOME Foundation in general, and in particular about all the things we've done in the past year, they had lots of ideas for how we could continue to improve and accomplish our mission of providing a free desktop accessible to all. So if it seems like there's a lot of "constructive" feedback, it just means that people are excited about what we are doing and the potential we have but we still have a lot of things we can do to help make the world a better place with free software. So use the feedback where it's useful and keep up the good work!

Here is a summary broken into general topics.

Advisory Board Meetings

Just about everyone really like the monthly advisory board meetings. They liked how the meetings were regular and how they conveyed information, in particular many liked the GNOME 3.0 meeting - they thought the information was useful to people not on Planet GNOME and all the mailing lists. In general they liked having access to key people - having presentations at adboard saves them keeping track of all the lists and blogs or feeling like they might have missed something.

In particular they liked these meetings:
 * GNOME 3.0
 * usability
 * GTK

Many had suggestions for how to improve them.
 * We should have an overview of every thing that is happening twice a year - a "big things" summary.
 * A couple of people suggested they should be bimonthly instead of monthly.
 * Many people asked for more meetings around releases:
   + 2 calls per release. One the month before on where we are at and one the month after with postmortem. Open floor for input for next release.
   + Progress towards GNOME 3.0 and milestones for releases (things like bug counts), post mortems of releases. And uptake from distributions.
   + During the release process, someone decides what is in the release and what is out of the release - it's really hard to discern how that in/out decision is made.
   + Release updates would be useful.
   + More information for what is proposed for the release and what is changing. Often a new release breaks things that depend on GNOME technologies and they often don't find out until it's too late.
   + Useful to hear thought process for what gets included in a release - what are the key drivers.
 * Every other meeting give a finance update.
 * Monthly meetings are good - it would help if the companies collaborated at a higher or broader level. Currently they only collaborate at the individual developer level.
 * Some were very valuable, some were not very focused - It would help if the attendees were more focused on the meetings and avoided tangential IRC conversations.
 * Update of major change is better than the nuts and bolts of funding.
 * Would like to see finances with burnrate.
Several people were not actually clear about what authority the advisory board has. People representing their companies change and we need to make sure we update the new members.


Practically everyone I spoke to thought the hackfests were extremely valuable and were disappointed that we didn't have more this year. (Note that we didn't have many this year because we had trouble coming up with funding.)

 * "Pity we can't have hackfests."
 * "Hackfests are vital"
 * "The Boston Summit was very valuable."
 * "hackfests are good"
 * "canceling the GTK+ hackfest was a pity and made us look bad."
 * "Hackfests are one of the nicest things of the last couple of years."
 * "Make webkit part of GNOME: that could be a hackfest."
 * "Best thing of the past year: Boston Summit and UI hackfest. Got GNOME 3.0 plans unstuck."

Several companies made commitments for sponsoring hackfests. Location was an important factor for them.

An idea that come out below too:

Usability studies. Several expressed interest in usability or user experience studies, especially in the netbook/mobile space.


This feedback is from pre-GUADEC. There were two main themes to the feedback:
 * Interest in how the co-location with Akademy will go. (Most really want it to go well. Not only does it increase collaboration but it decreases their travel costs and conference sponsorship fees.) Several expressed concern that it might not be successful because of the economy and hoped that didn't affect the overall perception. Several had doubts it would work well at all but thought it was a good idea to try.
 * Location. Almost everyone complained a lot about the location. Many did not attend personally because of the time involved to get there and the perceived vacation nature of the locale. Several sent fewer developers than normal as it was hard to get corporate approval for the travel.

They go to GUADEC for:
 * Future technology planning
 * Getting in touch with other mobile people
 * the advisory board meeting

Other comments related to GUADEC:
 * Progress and closure on GNOME 3.0 should be the #1 goal for the adboard and the conference. It doesn't feel like there's been any progress since Istanbul. (We should see this as an indication that we aren't communicating GNOME 3.0 plans through all the right channels.)
 * Cautiously optimistic about Akademy/GUADEC but the toolkit problem will probably continue to be a difficult problem.
 * Thinks a "meet with ghosts of GUADEC past" at GUADEC for future organizers would be good. (LinuxConf Australia does this. Previous LinuxConf organizers get together with the new organizers to help pass on knowledge of what needs to be done, want went well and what to avoid.)
 * Was good that people went and looked at venue this year.
 * Conference is getting a bit long.

At the advisory board, almost all of them wanted to see other companies' plans and a GNOME 3.0 update. (Almost everyone wanted to hear more about Moblin.) Several wanted to discuss areas for collaboration between the advisory board companies - make plans at a higher level.

Roadmap/technical direction

There was a lot of concern and frustration at what was perceived as a lack of overall technical leadership.

Likes that the GNOME Foundation doesn't make the technical decisions but at the same time technical decisions aren't consensual and it's not clear who made them. The GNOME Foundation could have a technical committee or board like Debian or Ubuntu. Elected or something. They can resolve technical disputes. Would help solve all the rehashing of issues that GNOME does.

Many companies said GNOME is missing project leadership. Although there is technical leadership at the individual component/project layer, there's no cross-GNOME leadership. No technical roadmap.

What is GNOME? Is GStreamer part of GNOME, developers are Foundation members but are they GNOME? What's in our vision and roadmap? For example, one project owner was surprised by being part of GNOME 3.0 and felt blindsided by the decision.

Who are the active stakeholders in GNOME? Who is pushing it? Would like to see clear commitment and direction. Doesn't see much of the new world (netbooks/mobile) in the GNOME project yet right now there is a lot of activity in the mobile space and a lot of potential investment. It's getting Linux in the news and more widely adopted but users don't care that it's Linux. Linux in mobile is up, in desktop is down. Some of the advisory board members think that consumers don't see a compelling reason to move from Windows.

Several companies talked about their end user experience. They want it to be good and they want branded features as a differentiator. "GNOME is a shared resource" many people can use it without detracting from others.

GNOME Foundation

Communication over the past year has gotten a lot better. The profile of the GNOME Foundation is better.

The GNOME Foundation is so incredibly organized and competent "so impressed - you guys are so organized".

Several people were excited about the Friends of GNOME project and would really like to see it succeed.

Positive feedback for the marketing team:
 * "excited about enthusiasm on marketing list"
 * "Board got good at marketing in the past year."
 * "things are going well"

There was concern from at least one member about not being able to articulate the GNOME mission and product, especially mobile. A "set of technologies" is completely uncompelling. GNOME is not a relevant brand, it's invisible.

Giving estimated 2009 sponsorship fees and event costs early (in September 2008) was really good. Unfortunately nobody could commit because of the economy. Would like us to float the budget a couple of times a year with a "Here's what we've funded so far."

Consistency in leadership. Recommends that the Board of Directors terms should be extended. Changes to the board are very disruptive. Recommended 2 year terms. Suggested elections every year with only half the board seats turning over.

About hiring Stormy in particular:

Some general feedback on hiring Stormy: (Note that Stormy was doing the interviewing.)
 * Everything has improved over the last year.
 * Several people expressed appreciation for Stormy's weekly updates.
 * Likes how things have been working and how stuff gets done since Stormy joined - "doing a terrific job."
 * The advisory board has improved a lot. The structure has been coming back. Would be useful to show how feedback has been used.
 * "Nothing but positive feedback."

GNOME Mobile

Many of the advisory board companies, even those not obviously investing in mobile, expressed interest and concern in GNOME Mobile. Concerns included comments like:
 * "Focus on desktop and you won't be relevant."
 * "GNOME mobile still isn't defined."
 * GNOME Mobile technologies aren't in GNOME. Should these be part of GNOME? Bluez, Telepathy, Avahi, GStreamer, SQLite, DBus. Most pain is in Pango, Cario ATK.
 * Discussion is happening on developer list not mobile list. Even people working full time on mobile don't seem to carry those mobile requirements back to the projects they were working on.

Another theme was how people want to differentiate on the UI. "Sharing is moving up the stack but ui is differentiation." This is especially a challenge with GNOME Mobile is that it doesn't have a default mobile experience.

Almost all believed GNOME Mobile is important and we need to work on it. One sponsor suggested adding committees to GNOME Mobile to encourage more action.

There was a lot of interest in Moblin.
 * "Moblin has been a good shot in the arm for mobile."
 * "Netbooks are android and moblin. GNOME is only relevant in partner offerings. No motivation to have direct contact with GNOME."
There was some concern about making sure that there was GNOME Mobile branding in Moblin.

There was also interest in usability across different form factors with the observation that devices are hard for hobbyist developers.

Areas the sponsors would like to see us work on

Applications. This was a common theme.
 * Many are thinking about things we could add to GNOME application space.
 * They'd like to see application development made very easy.
 * They were also worried about distributed applications as they haven't seen many yet.
 * Applications and GNOME shell, how will they be integrated? Launching separate apps feels clumsy.
 * Qt is seen as having better API documentation because Trolltech has documentation writers.
 * How do you take GNOME apps and make them fit better into Moblin/netbooks? Make GNOME apps more mobile aware.
 * Applications are really interesting. Especially those like tomboy which have widgets and web services. GNOME desktop should integrate more with online apps.

Users. Several would like GNOME to be a place where they can interact with users. Would like active user communities in GNOME, a vendor neutral place for desktop users.

Mentors. Have people on the adboard mentor people in the community. Several people were willing to mentor in areas like finance and marketing.

Collaboration models. Google wave is the elephant in the room. Interested in hearing about future collaboration models.

Branding guidelines. GNOME's biggest challenge is branding. Most people see Ubuntu as the desktop.  Create branding guidelines - "here's what GNOME asks of you". Another suggested that we make sure partners give credit for GNOME based things: Maemo and others (like netbooks) should say "based on Linux and GNOME".

Usability studies. Several expressed interest in usability or user experience studies, especially in the netbook/mobile space.

GNOME on a stick. Sugar on a stick has been very successful. Should consider GNOME on a stick - would also enable people to experiment more without feeling like they were changing all of GNOME.

Collaboration among advisory board members: Now that we have a sys admin team in place would like to find ways that we can collaborate better. Mentioned an article by J5 that talked about that RH, Novell and others are less involved because of the maintenance burden.They spend time on money on things like translations. No process to get them upstream and so they do it all over again next year.

Ideas for collaborating between advisory board members:
1. Translations. 
2. Bugzilla forwarding and syncing between downstream and upstream.
3. Documentation.

This would free up employees to do other things and would make it easier to contribute back upstream.

Sponsoring GNOME

The companies gave different reasons for sponsoring. As expected, most of them valued their sponsorship. They sponsored:
 * to support the community - "you're doing great stuff"
 * to be recognized as a supporter of GNOME
 * to make sure GNOME can continue to flourish
 * to get feedback on how they are doing with community
 * to monitor and to help out with the overall progress in GNOME

One sponsor did say that there is "no reason to talk directly to GNOME". They get the work they need done by working directly with the distributions.

Overall the advisory board members I spoke to were happy with the GNOME Foundation, especially all the progress and changes in the last year but they see lots of opportunities for us (the GNOME community and the advisory board companies) to work together to make GNOME and the GNOME Foundation better in order to further our mission of providing a free desktop that is accessible to everyone.

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