System76 accused of not collaborating with GNOME

A core member of the GNOME team has accused System76 of being “a case study on how not to collaborate with upstream” following confirmation that the Linux PC vendor is working on a new desktop built with Rust.

System76 makes PCs, laptops, and servers with Linux pre-installed, using their own distro called Pop!_OS. Software engineer and Pop!_OS maintainer Michael Murphy recently confirmed that the company is planning a new Linux desktop based on Rust, not using GNOME.

Murphy has spoken of frustration about the fact that the GNOME extensions System76 develops “break every GNOME Shell release” and that there are “things we’d like to do that we can’t simply achieve through extensions in GNOME.”

The company has plenty of in-house expertise with Rust. Principal engineer Jeremy Soller, also a Pop!_OS maintainer, is working on a new Rust-based operating system called Redox.

But Christopher Davis, a core member of the GNOME team, has now accused System76 of “poor behavior” in a post early today, though added: “I do not speak for GNOME as a whole, only for myself.”

He references several incidents. Back in May 2018, there was a dispute about LVFS (Linux Vendor Firmware Service) which System76 refused to use after discussion with its maintainer, Richard Hughes, citing its data collection as well as other issues. In August 2019, System76 described its new firmware manager which connects to LVFS as well as the company’s own firmware service. Davis said: “System76 began using the LVFS and fwupd without any fanfare or retraction of their prior statements.”

Davis then said that System76 fixes bugs in its own distro before fixing them upstream in Ubuntu (Pop!_OS is based on Ubuntu), leading to a complaint from Sebastien Bacher, another member of the GNOME team. We note that looking at the comments on that post, including those from Murphy and Soller, the issue is not clear-cut. “Pop!_OS provided patches for both those GNOME examples,” said Soller.

Another issue is work on a tiling window manager like i3, which Davis said System76 has refused to work on with GNOME, and that System76 made proposals too late for GNOME 40 and “shared misinformation” when they were not included. There is also a reference to a disagreement about libadwaita, a library to make it easier to follow GNOME human interface guidelines. “I do not feel like it is worth my time to engage with System76,” said Davis.

The immediate consequence of the post is that Soller said on Twitter: “I will be staying away from Pop!_OS development for a while. This is a nice time to work on firmware.” He added that he is deleting some of his old comments and tweets because “it is driving me nuts that old tweets get referenced, new ones are not seen, and context is ignored.”

Murphy confirmed to us that “Jeremy is stepping down from his involvement in Pop!_OS as a result” of the Davis post and being bruised from another Twitter thread late last month, now deleted, when Soller commented on difficulties Linux creator Linus Torvalds had when attempting to use Steam on Pop!_OS. “The Steam packaging happened to be broken for some reason, and Pop!_Shop refused to install.” Soller was concerned that this illustrious user had a bad experience but said that Torvalds should have asked for help “like a normal user,” which prompted considerable debate.

Murphy added that the statements made by Davis were “mostly untrue. He doesn’t really understand our situation. Makes too many assumptions about us.” He also referred The Reg to a separate GNOME campaign, signed by Davis, requesting that apps are not themed because “all our efforts designing, developing, and testing our apps are made futile by theming in many cases.” Murphy believes that this was targeting System76.

Reaction from the community is mixed but by no means supportive of the post from Davis. “I read this expecting to pooh-pooh on System76, but left thinking maybe they have a good case,” said a comment on Hacker News.

GNOME has long been controversial within the Linux community with some feeling that it has taken wrong directions both with GNOME 3 (the MATE desktop came about in order to continue to evolve GNOME 2) and with GNOME 40, and lack of consensus about its merits is one reason for there being substantial support for alternatives such as the Rust-based proposal from System76.

Pop!_OS is well liked for its user-friendly approach, and System76 has done a lot to broaden the appeal of Linux as a desktop operating system. Healthy debate is no bad thing, but the Linux community will likely also hope that GNOME and System76 can overcome their differences to help advance the operating system on the desktop, especially as the Rust-based alternative is still at an experimental stage and some years away from possible production. ®

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