Setting Goals for GNOME

Often in GNOME, we think of goal setting is something that we can leave up to the board, or up to the marketing team. An appearance of direction that we layer on top of the what we are really working on. This is obviously backwards … everybody in GNOME should consider the goals of GNOME to be their business. I led a session Sunday morning at the Boston GNOME Summit to try and get some broader brainstorming going about where we want to go with GNOME. So, I wanted to write up both how I set up the discussion and some of the ideas that came out.

Why should do we need goals for GNOME? Goals inspire us. They are great tools for recruiting contributors of all types. They allow us to create compelling marketing materials that explain to user’s what is significant about what we are creating and where we are going. And importantly, they drive decisions – they let us choose between path A and path B. This leads us to what makes a good goal: a good goal is motivational – it can inspire. It’s realistic – it has to be achievable. And it is concrete enough to let you make decisions.

We can look at how some past GNOME goals fit into this framework. The most famous explicitly stated goal was the the 10×10 goal. 10% market share by 2010. It was very catchy and memorable. But even from the start realism was a huge question mark. And worse than that, it really didn’t help answer what we should be doing. By contrast, the goal of the early years of GNOME, though it was never explicitly stated, was to provide a free software replacement for Windows. Not nearly as neat-sounding a goal, but when you line it up against the criteria above it actually stacks up well. At that time Windows was the big barrier to putting users in control of their software through Free Software, so people were motivated to work on replacing it. The goal was realistic – we eventually achieved a lot of it. And it gave us lots of concrete tasks to work on. Things have moved on, but it was an effective goal for that time.

Any sort of exploration of goals for GNOME involves some idea of what GNOME fundamentally is. A phrase I think captures it: “GNOME is a community of people building Free Software for users”. The direction of GNOME is set by the people working on it as individuals, not the companies that might be sponsoring some of that work. GNOME is strongly committed to Free Software, not as a temporary strategy but as a fundamental principle. And we’re not building toys for ourselves, or creating technology masterpieces for their own sake, we are trying to make user’s lives better.

Within that broad set of parameters, we really have the option to do anything. We shouldn’t feel constrained by the set of things we do currently. Another thing to keep in mind is that the computing space is mind-bogglingly big these days. We don’t need to dominate even one segment of computing to be a big and successful project. But what we do need to do is create something that’s really great for the people we do touch: that meets their needs and makes a portion of their day better. And that means direct influence over the user experience. It’s pretty hard to build something that is great for users if you are just building components that other people take and re-purpose. It’s also pretty hard to to be great for users if we’re just a small slice of the total experience. To be concrete: if we’re just the stuff around the edges of the web browser, and the web browser is a tool to look at Facebook, and the user is looking at Facebook on their phone most of the time anyways. Then that’s not an experience we can do a lot to make better. We need to engage with the user beyond traditional “computers” and beyond the local application.

I finished my intro with the question: the user actually gets big benefits by giving all their searches and documents and mail over to Google. Giving their social interactions over to Facebook. While the downsides of centralizing your data under someone else’s control and being able to only do the things with that data that they want to let you do may be obvious, we can’t pretend that this is a trap for the unwary and smart users will keep everything locally. How do we, as GNOME, enable an experience that is both under the user’s control and also as good or better than the experience they can get by giving up that control?

In my next post I’ll describe some of the ideas that came out of the brainstorming session.


  1. Juanjo Marin
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    I wrote a SWOT about GNOME early this year. My intention was to generate some debate for defining the strategic plan for the project.

    It’s getting old, some point are subjective, but I think it still can help us.

  2. Posted November 8, 2010 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    Really good summary there Owen, thanks! Thanks also for the SWOT analysis Juanjo – I think you hit the nail on the head about the planet being the only way to know what is going on. That was my experience when joining GNOME and I’d never have seen your analysis without reading the planet.

  3. sllih
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    “And we’re not building toys for ourselves, or creating technology masterpieces for their own sake, we are trying to make user’s lives better.”

    The brand of the project is probably not “made of easy” (project identity) and is not appealing for target audience. At the name (basis of marketing message) level, isn’t GNOME that “toy” or “masterpiece”?

    So should GNOME be rebranded – maybe after setting long term goals and self-definition, but before GNOME OS?

    • Owen
      Posted November 9, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      It’s certainly a good question. Is the name GNOME a marketable consumer brand? There are certainly problems with it: it looks intimidating to pronounce, when written in all caps it’s a bit of a typographic monstrosity, and to English speakers it brings up images of little men and garden sculptures. On the other hand, it does have advantages even beyond the accumulated recognition and identify we’ve built up: it is very distinct, it has a touch of fun, and, as far as I know, it’s inoffensive in all cultures. (The foot logo may be more questionable in that regard.) It’s certainly possible to focus too much on how good or bad a name is – if you are successful, you build your own associations around the name and they will push pre-existing associations into the background. Many company and project names that I thought were awful have faded so much into the background that I can’t remember that initial reaction. (Even “the GIMP” I almost got over after a few years.) Naming discussions are soul-deadening and often fruitless, so certainly the default should be to not launch into one, but if “GNOME OS” is going to prevent us from getting where we want to go, then we can’t avoid it. (Is Gnome any odder a name than Android? Better GNOME than anyways.)

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