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Separation of Church and Choice

Nicholas Petreley

Issue #143, March 2006

When did “choice” become the god of the Open Source community?

I recently lodged several criticisms of GNOME in Linux Journal's sister publication TUX (www.tuxmagazine.com). GNOME fans were outraged, of course. I find it telling that none of them even attempted to explain why the GNOME way of doing things was better than KDE or any other competing desktop.

The closest thing I saw to a defense for a GNOME feature was the argument that “Microsoft plans to do it the same way in the next version of Windows.” The claim wasn't strictly true, but that is beside the point. You can read last month's rant if you want to know what I think of the “monkey see Microsoft, monkey do Microsoft” mentality that is infecting the Open Source community.

But, the most confounding response to my criticisms of GNOME was that “You should stop bashing GNOME and praise it because it offers desktop users yet another choice.”

Let me be clear that what follows is not a rant about GNOME. (Relax, I'll get to that column all in good time.) This is a rant about defending anything based solely on the fact that it adds another choice for users. This is a very popular defense. I've seen it leveraged against criticisms of many other things in the Linux universe, not only GNOME.

Let me be equally clear that I don't care whether you use GNOME, KDE, Xfce, Blackbox, Fluxbox, Fuzzbox, Jackinthebox, Window Maker, Enlightenment, Fvwm, IceWM, Twm, Ratpoison, Ion or any of the other gazillion desktops or window managers. I like several of the above, depending upon my needs at the time, but I will not lose a wink of sleep over the fact that you prefer something other than what I like. Neither will I be the least bit offended if you disagree with what I believe about what is best in the narrower field of full-featured desktops.

But the fact that we're both entitled to our opinions doesn't mean there isn't an objective standard against which we can measure our opinions. There is. And, even the nastiest of letters I received about my criticisms of GNOME proved that my opinions came closer to that objective standard than the opinions of those who disagreed with me. How can I make such a bold assertion? Easy. First, as I said, nobody really offered any logical defense that anything in GNOME was better than the competition. One has to wonder why not, if GNOME is such a great desktop?

More telling is the fact that almost all (if not all) of those who disagreed with my criticism of the Nautilus “spatial” file manager couldn't respond to specific questions or complaints because they don't use Nautilus in spatial mode. What a way to bolster your case, eh? I don't like it enough to use it, but stop criticizing it because, like GNOME itself, it is a choice.

GNOME is a choice besides what? KDE, Xfce, Blackbox, Fluxbox, Window Maker and so on? The last time I looked, it didn't seem like the progress of Linux was roadblocked by the lack of another desktop or window manager. So what is the source of this notion that something has inherent value based solely on the principle that it provides users with yet another choice?

If I were a restaurant critic, and I happened upon a restaurant that based all its recipes on rat feces, you can count on the fact that I would not defend or praise this restaurant on the sole basis that the dining public could choose it over McDonald's or Ruth's Chris. Crap is crap, and there's no way I'm going to say anything positive about a restaurant that features it on the menu. I don't care what kind of platters the restaurant uses to serve it up.

Granted, that doesn't mean people won't patronize a restaurant of this kind. There's no accounting for taste, an axiom proved by the fact that there are any GNOME users at all. But let's not pretend crap is filet mignon in order to appease the god of choice. If a god of choice did actually exist, I have my doubts that we'd find him dining on rat feces in order to glorify his name. And no “God uses GNOME” letters, please. That's too easy.

The bottom line is this, and it applies to every bit of software, not just GNOME. If you can't defend its design, or you find out its users turn off the very features you claim make it great, then here's my advice. Either go back to the drawing board and make it really great instead of theoretically great, or just deep-six it once and for all. Cremate it and scatter the ashes somewhere they won't stink up the rest of the software base. But don't come to me and defend it based on the fact that it gives users a choice. You'll find no sympathetic ear here.

Yeah, but what do I really think?

Nicholas Petreley is Editor in Chief of Linux Journal and a former programmer, teacher, analyst and consultant who has been working with and writing about Linux for more than ten years.

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