an Open Letter to Fedora Maintainers

This post was originally drafted as a reply to a discussion on desktop@lists.fp.o about gaining marketshare.

GNOME Software is awesome. I started a fresh F22 installation on my laptop and thought I had installed.. $package. Whatever it was. I typed out the application name, a matching thing popped up, I pressed enter, and found out "Oh, this isn't installed, I need to press this one button first". Then I was done. It was really easy; no messing around with a terminal, no visiting sketchy blogs, no third party sites visited. I have a sense that this is exactly the kind of experience you'd like when a user wants to use flash, or Virtualbox, or listen to MP3s - everything they want to do Just Works on Fedora.

There's a problem with this. The user that's completely dissuaded by four lines of cut and paste instructions to make all that happen is going to gleefully appreciate that "Fedora Just Works with my flash videos, mp3s, and videos! I didn't have to do anything". We can sit down and discuss the technical, by the books compliance with stated policy by not shipping the bits, or metadata that provides the bits - hey, it's just a URL to the metadata, it doesn't load anything until the user initiates something. It's a tired discussion, and one that IMO continually misses the point. First, I hope nobody actually thinks that obfuscating this is different - to the end user - compared to actually shipping it. Why do people with nvidia cards appreciate Ubuntu? It offers them the nvidia driver. Not installs for them, detects and offers it. The user is making the choice there. We don't do that; the user has to open a browser, type "Fedora Nvidia", click several times, then perhaps cut and paste a line into a terminal. I have a lawnmower with more complicated instructions - and I can disassemble it and replace broken bits with spec parts if I need to.

More importantly, there's a compromise of the project's values. Not company policy, not bureaucratic red tape, not a few difficult community members that need to be convinced that the easy way is better. Core. Values. The compromise isn't decreased by making the user click "OK" or offering them a brief "this comes from a third party" to ignore. The licensing and patent issues that come under discussion are symptoms of a disease that, by consensus shown via participation, we all want to cure. The Fedora Project's highest goal is not to produce a competitive, easy to use operating system.

When someone asks me what makes Fedora different, especially a prospective contributor, I don't talk about how easy it is in GNOME to switch to an already-running application, or how nice it is that the gedit UI matches the UI of the system settings application. These are all good things, and they're all upstream and available in other distros too. I point them at Fedora's values, the project's commitment to furthering the Open Source Way, transparency, advocacy, staying close to open upstreams - all of the philosophy that results in a somewhat difficult transition from more tolerant platforms. The Fedora Project's Mission Statement, Foundations, and Objectives are required reading for contributors.

I'm shocked that these principles are continually treated as negotiable obstacles. Maybe some end up contributing to the project without thinking about these issues, or because their dayjob requires it, but many, myself included, chose a distribution to play in because of the community and it's principles. Kendell's situation is a great example; he's passionate about the ideology behind the project, and beginning to contribute because the project's values align with his own. He's written about the formats used for audiobooks made for the blind - DRM crippled, vendor lock-in at every level, really as inaccessible as an accessibility effort can be. You can understand his frustration when, after finding a project that's committed to advocating permissively licensed solutions to these problems, he finds that the developers responsible for the project's flagship product advocating abandoning those values for convenience and marketshare gain.

There are a lot of us out there contributing our free time in support of these values. I encourage everyone to do the same - if you strongly feel that patent and license restricted bits should be effortlessly available to end users, spend some free time improving a project like RPMFusion or Kokora. If you want to create a world where free culture is welcoming and widespread, collaboration is commonplace, and people control their content and devices, well, it isn't going to be that easy.



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