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KDE to be default on openSUSE?

Recently, the discussion whether to make KDE the default desktop on openSUSE has been raised. The situation bears some historical meaning, and has also brought up some misconceptions. Let me try to give a bit of an overview of it, and put things into context.

The numbers

Last year's user survey has shown that a large majority of openSUSE users uses KDE, the distribution, according to this survey, is 68.3% use KDE, 26.9% use GNOME. The recent entry on features.opensuse.org (a tool to track feature requests by the community, which also has a voting system attached to prioritize the proposed features based on how important they are to the community). At the time of this writing, 15% are against this feature, 68% voted for this feature. The request to make KDE the default on openSUSE is by far the most popular entry (second most popular following up at 175 net proponents). Those are very clear indicators of the popularity of KDE in openSUSE. Both confirm that KDE is the desktop of choice for most openSUSE users.

The History

SUSE Linux, and openSUSE (its follow-up) have traditionally been very KDE-centric, many KDE developers ran SUSE, many inside Suse ran KDE, basically Suse was a KDE-centric distribution and all was fine. When Novell bought SUSE Linux, and roughly at the same time Ximian, things started to change. Three years ago, some people inside Novell planned to ditch KDE, meaning to lay off all KDE personnel and move on with the GNOME desktop only. That happened relatively short after Novell had bought both Suse and Ximian, it has been said that those events are closely connected. The community, and many people at SUSE have made clear that they wouldn't accept this decision which eventually lead to Novell backpedallling and starting to "live with KDE".
Also, over the last years, openSUSE moved further and further away from being the home to many people inside KDE, and the best distro you could choose when looking for a KDE-based desktop. Compare this screenshot with this one, for example.
The first step was making KDE not the default anymore, offering a list of options during installation. At first, KDE was still on top of that list, at some point it was moved to the second place (which of course was done to reflected the alphabetical ordering). The dialog does not have an option pre-selected. (Also, Novell's enterprise offering, SLED has moved to GNOME as default desktop. But this is not so much about SLED, but about openSUSE.)
In any case, the development of openSUSE position towards KDE have lead to many people moving on to alternatives. Quite some KDE developers I know, who have previously been avid SUSE users have reconsidered and are now running something else.

openSUSE and community

Nowadays, Novell is trying to turn openSUSE into a project which is fully managed by the community. I think this is a great opportunity, also for upstream communities to get more involved with a distribution, but of course it goes both ways. Giving users the tools to create software (such as the excellent openbuildservice) and the means to take part in decision-making processes (through features.opensuse.org for example) goes a long way to make community-developers (those not receiving a pay-check from Novell) more comfortable. Conversely, if those developers get the feeling that their work is welcome, but their input is not, and that their work is not equally valued to others' work, you'll lose those exact same people.
In the case of making KDE default on openSUSE, Lubos Lunak explains this really well, so instead of re-writing his words, I'll just quote him:

An important point that many people here fail to realize that this is not asking for granting a special priviledge to KDE. In fact, it is asking for removing a special priviledge that makes many in the KDE community feel that KDE is treated unequally in openSUSE. In all other cases, when there is a clear preference, it is selected as a default, sometimes not even offering the user an easy choice. In this case, however, while KDE is the clear choice in the openSUSE community, it is not treated the same like in other cases. Instead, GNOME is given a priviledge that a preference must be explicitly expressed here, and this priviledge, to my knowledge, is not given to any other openSUSE component. No other non-default browser, mailer, shell, filesystem, etc. has this luxury. This is interpreted by the KDE community as a message from openSUSE that it values GNOME more, that GNOME is forcibly pushed into openSUSE and that KDE is not equally welcome in openSUSE. The openFATE request, in practice, asks for removing this GNOME priviledge and fair treating of all openSUSE components.
From Lubos' email, it's pretty clear that the status quo is not OK for a large part of the active contributors to openSUSE.

Vincent Untz, Board Member at the GNOME foundation (while acknowledging his bias) has proposed to do another vote on this particular issue. I think that's a very dangerous thing to do, because it might be interpreted as "We'll keep repeating the vote and changing the mechanism until the result suits us". Joe has already initiated doing another user survey. While a user survey does have a lot of value, only surveying, and then not following up on the results risks credibility.

The case of openFATE (the application running behind features.opensuse.org) needs to be looked at as well. In his introduction to openFATE, Michael Löffler, Product Manager at openSUSE, announces: "We're looking forward to receive more qualified feature requests to make our openSUSE distribution and the project itself fit your needs better from day to day." My understanding is that FATE (features.opensuse.org) is the preferred way to receive those feature requests, based on the assumption "If you ask, you also create some obligation to take the answers into account. Otherwise, nobody should waste others time with asking, it'll not be more than a lip-service.

The User's Point of View

Why is a default so important to the user? In order to get as many people possible to install openSUSE, you need to make the installation process as simple as you possibly can. This means not asking the user too many questions, and certainly not asking the user questions he or she cannot answer. This is the reason why almost every operating system out there has chosen default settings. Default settings for a webbrowser (what appp is used to open links?), default options for ui-specific settings (colors, theming, for example). The general idea is, offer good default that suits the largest possible group of users in order to minimize the "total setup time" all users combined have to invest. It's also good marketing practice: "Accommodate the largest group of your customers".
Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier, community manager at Novell sees real value in not having a default, however. He points out "But limiting choice, in my opinion, isn't the best option - the best option here is to do a better job at informing new users.". I do not quite agree with the points, Joe made, though:

  • By setting defaults you are not limiting choice. If that was the case, you should just not setup defaults at all, anywhere, and that would quickly show that it's impractical to not offer defaults. Choice is about being able to choose an alternative, not about "inform yourself first!". Gerald Pfeifer, Director Product Management at openSUSE, put it nicely as "Choice is not (necessarily) about not having a default; it is about the ability to choose."
  • The best option might be to do a better job informing users. I wholeheartedly agree that it's very important to have informed users. There are two considerations to be made, however. First, you won't, ever, get only informed users. Especially if you're targeting new users to the Free Desktop, the complexity of switching to Free is already so high that adding another mandatory choice is only making it more difficult to install openSUSE. By not offering a default, you'll force new users to
    • ... do research upfront, and thereby increasing the real costs of installing openSUSE. (Costs measured also in precious "time it takes to get cracking".) The problem is that even if you force users to "do their homework", there will always be a non-zero amount of them not doing it. Some are too lazy, some don't have the time, some simply learn by doing. For all of them, not choosing a default option means increasing the entry barrier to openSUSE. The general net-effect is that some drop-out during installation because it takes too long, is to complicated and requires domain- or expert-knowledge.
    • ... guess about what's the best choice, which in turn causes uncertainty ("Which option is the right one? What is better for me? Will I be able to come back on this decision? and afterwards: "Did I screw up on that checkbox during installation?", "What have been the implications of this checkbox?") In other words: You lose clarity, you force more mental strain onto the user.

Another important point for me is that only one such question ("What desktop do you want?") adds the requirement of domain knowledge. The question is fundamentally different from "what is your timezone?" for example, so for a complete dummy, it'll not be possible to make sure all questions are answered correctly.

Michael Löffler notes that only a relatively small part of the openSUSE users are new (about 6% according to the survey), and concludes that therefore, a default setting isn't all that important. This way of thinking will actually make sure you keep preaching to the choir. If growth of openSUSE is one of the project's goals, the question "Why are only 6% of our users newbies?" would actually be one of the first ones I'd ask myself. Sure, it's a chicken-egg problem, the approach to this kind of question is essential to growth, however. It could well be that the number of new users is only 5% because openSUSE is hard to install, because there's no default choice, no clear support and no distinct identity.

The impression I get is that Joe Brockmeier wants to keep the status quo (no default, GNOME listed as first option) to not cause political discussion and disruption in the project, to keep people calm. That's his job, and it would work if the current situation didn't have major problems already. I've pointed out the problems for the end user, Lubos has pointed out the problems for the openSUSE-KDE community. It should be clear that this subject is not as easy as "We don't want to alienate the GNOME developers, so we'll keep the status quo". Actually, I would not at all be surprised if the majority of GNOME-on-openSUSE developers would just see this step as catering to the largest user group. It might even have a positive net-effect by making people try harder when they see that the default choice is actually a reflection of what the majority of users want, not a seemingly random decision by executives. The best way to accommodate for a healthy community is not avoiding politics at all costs, the best way is showing a strong sense of fairness and creating a system where success (for example expressed in terms of the default choice during installation) is based on measurable vectors, in this case popularity among users. Make your offering the most popular by gaining the most users, and you become the default choice. That's fairness because it's transparant.


The numbers are clear, KDE is the preferred desktop of the openSUSE community. There is a formal request to reflect that in the installation process. Novell, and those with decision-making powers in the openSUSE team now have the opportunity to prove that features.opensuse.org is not just a lip-service, that the community does control the direction of openSUSE. Not having a preset for the desktop that is installed is hampering adoption of openSUSE. On top of that, keeping the status quo in the current situation will alienate many people, because it'll convey the message: "However hard you try, we'll keep doing what we want.".

[ Mon, 03 Aug 2009 15:35:41 +0200 ] permanent link

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