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As System76 starts work on its own Linux desktop world, GNOME guy opens blog, engages flame mode

PC and server slinger 'a case study on how not to collaborate with upstream'

Updated 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 environment 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 environment based on Rust, and not GNOME.

Murphy spoke 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 Rust-based operating system called Redox.

On Tuesday, Christopher Davis, a core member of the GNOME team, accused System76 of "poor behavior" in a post, though added: "I do not speak for GNOME as a whole, only for myself."

He referenced several incidents. Back in May 2018, there was a row over LVFS (Linux Vendor Firmware Service). System76 refused to use it following a discussion with its maintainer, Richard Hughes, and criticized the service's data collection among 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 continued, saying System76 has fixed bugs in its own distro before fixing them upstream in Ubuntu, which Pop!_OS is based on, leading to a complaint from Sebastien Bacher, another member of the GNOME team. We note that, from 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 was development work by System76 on an i3-style tiling manager in GNOME, which Davis said System76 has refused to collaborate with GNOME on, and that System76 made proposals too late for GNOME 40 and "shared misinformation" when these ideas were not included. There was also a reference to a disagreement over 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.

Hours after Davis tweeted a link to his blog post, saying "it’s finally time to lift the curtain," Soller revealed he was stepping back from System76's Linux distro work.

"I will be staying away from Pop!_OS development for a while," Soller tweeted. "This is a nice time to work on firmware." He added he is deleting some of his old internet comments and tweets because "it is driving me nuts that old tweets get referenced, new ones are not seen, and context is ignored."

Murphy told us "Jeremy is stepping down from his involvement in Pop!_OS as a result" of the blog post, and from being bruised in a Twitter thread late last month, now deleted, in which Soller commented on the difficulties Linus Sebastian, of Linus Tech Tips fame, encountered when attempting to use Steam on Pop!_OS. For a YouTube video that now has over a million views, Sebastian, who has 14 million YouTube subscribers, installed Pop!_OS on his PC, ran into problems, and, well, it's fair to say the operating system sadly didn't come off well.

"The Steam packaging happened to be broken for some reason, and Pop!_Shop refused to install," Soller said, adding that Sebastian 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 this was targeting System76.

Reaction to all of this 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," read 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. ®

Updated to add at 0400 UTC, November 11

A spokesperson for System76 has been in touch in an attempt to distance Soller's decision to step away from Pop!_OS from Davis's blog post. They told us:

Jeremy's decision to pull away from Pop!_OS was not tied in any way to Chris Davis's recent blog post. Instead, Jeremy found that too much of his bandwidth was being used up addressing comments related to the recent Linus Tech Tips YouTube video, and decided to shift his attention to other projects within the company.

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