Free software enthusiasts will tell you that the GNU/Linux-based desktop environment, all set to see its first major release in a few days after nine long years, is a complete misnomer. Yes, GNOME, the uber stable and technically advanced ‘Free' desktop environment/user interface — the software layer that enables you to interact with your computer — that made the once ‘for-geeks-only' Linux a popular and user-friendly option, will once again challenge the desktop dominance of Windows and Macintosh with its Version 3.
Speaking to The Hindu, the Director of GNOME Foundation and Free software advocate, Brian Cameron, shares his excitement about GNOME 3, discusses the relevance of the Free software philosophy and reflects on the “surprising fact” that despite its lead in information technology, the Free software community or coder base in India lags behind that of China and other Asian countries. The interaction was held on the sidelines of the ongoing GNOME Asia Summit being held at the Dayanand Sagar College here.
Years of hard work by the GNOME community has resulted in a revitalised desktop that includes rich animations and usability enhancements. Open GL (used here) makes use of rapid graphics drivers and allows better animation for simple stuff like opening/closing programmes, Mr. Cameron explains. Besides an exciting or intuitive interface, it makes third-party app development easy, and provides a consistent user interface that is scalable across platforms. “The idea of navigating with touch or on small screen has changed the way people use applications. We've taken that approach from the ground up,” he says, with subdued excitement. Other modern features that Mr. Cameron is excited about include support for Instant Messengers (so no matter what protocol you're using, all messengers can be migrated into the desktop), significant de-cluttering and, most importantly, accessibility features for the handicapped.
Excited to be in India, he concedes that community interest here is still on the lower side. Setting this straight is particularly important when it comes to GNOME localisation. “Localisation is a huge challenge here, mainly because there are so many languages, and also because of the way the alphabet font is linked. This is where Free software is critical, because smaller the user base, lesser the chances proprietary firms will take this up.” We count on enthusiastic developers, who are proud of their language and want to preserve it in the digital realm, Mr. Cameron adds. In fact, he points out there are “big business opportunities”, domestic and international, for those who commit themselves to such projects.
Free vs Open
GNOME, a strictly community project that locates itself in the Free software movement (of Richard Stallman fame), is part of the GNU project. Conscious of the philosophical implications of the ‘Free' in Free software, Mr. Cameron admits that users couldn't care less about these distinctions, and ‘Free' and ‘Open' are often lumped together.
However, the ‘Free' here is not just about the cost, he emphasises. A “die-hard fan” of Free software in his university days, it took him eight years of coding to understand the values and ethics of Free software, and that the cost is just a “side-effect” of the ideology. “The key is that you believe that you want to give back, and that you don't want corporations to control what you are able to do.”