Yorba Desktop

The Gnome Desktop and Beyond

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At a time when many developers are focused on cloud applications, Yorba’s sights remain fixed firmly on the desktop.

Best known for the Shotwell photo manager, in the three years of its existence, the San Francisco-based non-profit Yorba is one of the up and coming builders of the Gnome desktop. It is now poised to influence free software in general, both with new applications and the possibility of a software-dedicated crowdfunding site.

Yorba was founded in 2009 by Adam Dingle. A graduate of computer science at Princeton and Berkeley, Dingle taught at Charles University in Prague in the mid-1990s when the Internet was first becoming popular. Later, he joined Google, where the projects he worked on included the indexing algorithms for Google Desktop.

“Google was really where I first started getting seriously into the Linux desktop,” Dingle says. “I’d tried using Red Hat Linux back in 2001, but the desktop was just not usable at all. It was really clunky. I didn’t switch all my own activities from Windows to Linux until 2006.”

From these experiences, Dingle emerged as not just “a fan of free software, but also of desktop environments and interfaces.” With this attitude, he made a deliberate choice to write for Gnome. He rejected the currently popular idea of writing cross-platform software on the grounds that web-based applications “are often using the least common denominator, because they can only use what’s available on every single platform. Thunderbird and Firefox have done a good job of doing this, but it takes a lot of development effort. I’d love to think that data could be in the cloud, but you can still write applications that run on the desktop and have rich graphical interfaces.”

More specifically, Dingle chose to develop for Gnome “because it is the default desktop on Ubuntu and Fedora. It is the largest desktop that we have.”

Dingle founded Yorba because “I was dis-satisfied with media applications on the free desktop.” Originally, the group started work on Fillmore, an audio editor, and Lombard, a video editor, as the developer’s tools to build them, including Valencia, a Vala plugin for gEdit.

However, Yorba quickly chose to focus on the photo manager Shotwell, on the grounds that it was less specialized. “Everyone in the developed world has a digital camera or phone,” Dingle explains. “It’s just this ubiquitous activity.” This calculation of the odds quickly paid off, and “within one year of the first release, we were already the default in Fedora and Ubuntu.”

In the last year and a half, Yorba has also begun work on Geary, a lightweight mail client being written from scratch. “We’ve never been a big fan of Evolution, which is the Gnome mail client,” Dingle says. “Thunderbird is okay, but we wanted something that was a little lighter and a little more integrated with the Gnome desktop.”

Geary, which has had one release and has a second one scheduled shortly, is influenced heavily by Gmail, with a conversation-organized structure and “really fast search” among the main development goals.

All Yorba’s projects – for that matter, Yorba itself – are named for San Francisco streets, to the occasional bemusement of visiting programmers. (The Fillmore, of course, is also a world-famous concert hall.) All, too, follow the Gnome Human Interface Guidelines.

“The classic tension in software design is that you want something that is very simple and usable, but you also want something that has all the features that everyone wants,” Dingle says. “What I would like to do is have a default set of features that is minimal and comfortable and usable, but then plugins that would enable additional features.”

This approach is partly implemented in Shotwell, whose exports to the Piwigo and Yandex sites were provided by non-Yorba developers. “We don’t have an API yet, but we have had people say that when that exists, yeah, they’d be interested in writing plugins.” No plugins exist yet for Geary, but Dingle anticipates plugins eventually for encryption and a message delay feature like the one in Gmail.

The Search for Funding

Yorba’s contributions to the desktop were recognized by a keynote address by Dingle and lead developer Jim Nelson at the 2012 GUADEC, the annual Gnome conference. However, Dingle’s ideas about funding free software development may eventually prove even more influential than any application whose development he oversees.

Right now, Yorba survives through a combination of donations and private contracts. However, the donations “aren’t enough to pay our bills every day” – partly, perhaps, because although Yorba has applied for tax-exempt status, it is still waiting for a decision. This process can take years; meanwhile, Yorba’s inability to issue tax receipts could be limiting donations.

As for private contracts, although Dingle describes them as “the classic way to survive in the free software world,” he obviously considers them an unsatisfactory survival tactic because Yorba was never intended to operate as a business. Instead, Dingle is turning to the idea of crowdfunding, particularly the popular Kickstarter site for funding grassroots projects.

Kickstarter, Dingle says, “would seem like a great fit for free software because free software benefits everybody. You’d think that everybody would just like to pitch in and contribute to crowdfunded projects.”

In practice, though, Kickstarter has been, at best, a mediocre way to support free software. Although Diaspora* made headlines while raising over US$ 200,000 via Kickstarter, other free software successes in crowdfunding remain rare.

Dingle suggests two reasons for this situation. First, Kickstarter groups software and hardware together as “technology,” and many proposed hardware projects – “like robots or autonomous vehicles” – are far more likely to catch donor’s attention than any kind of software.

Second, by its very name, Kickstarter is for starting new projects. By contrast, software projects can last years, and it can be difficult for them to be continually asking for funding for each release.

Dingle’s proposed solution is a crowdfunding site for software only. “And more, I’d like to see a site where users could actually vote on what the developers should build,” he speculates. “Maybe they can propose features, [and] maybe they can vote features up and down. This is something we’ve talked about at Yorba a lot: Should we build a new crowdfunding site for free software projects?”

The most obvious concern is whether such a site would repay the efforts required to develop it. However, Dingle and his employees are also considering such aspects as whether crowdfunding will continue to be popular or prove to be a passing fad. Dingle says that he is “cautiously optimistic” that crowdfunding will continue to be popular, although he suspects that there will be few sites for it in five years – but, of course, nobody can know for sure.

Another consideration is how large the pool of potential donors might be. If the same people are constantly asked to donate, a time might come when regular donors become more resistant to funding requests. However, considering how free software has grown in the last decades, Dingle suggests that the growth is likely to continue. “If we can get to the point where free desktops have a lot of users who are not in themselves technical, then I’d like to think there would be very much an incentive to [continue to] contribute,” he says.

Dingle adds that a crowdfunding software site would also require “some high profile projects on it from Day One.” Just as people go to Kickstarter to learn what’s interesting, he envisions the proposed site as being a place “that people would go because they really want to see what cool free software was in development.

“I think the way that would pitch it is, ‘Hey, everyone, let’s not just help Yorba, but let’s prove that this whole model is actually viable’,” Dingle says. “If it succeeds, that will be interesting. If if fails, that will also be interesting.” In that case, he is considering some efforts at crowdfunding aimed at Geary and other Yorba applications.

Future Possibilities

Even if Yorba does not launch a site for software crowdfunding, the next few years look like busy ones for Yorba. With Geary, Dingle is looking to repeat Shotwell’s success in the coming year. Nor has he abandoned hopes of one day having the resources to return to Shotwell and Lombard.

Looking further ahead, Dingle is also considering new projects. “I’m still not totally wild about office applications that we have, for example. I mean, OpenOffice.org works, but it feels clunky. I’d like to have leaner, meaner applications for office aps – for instance, for presentations” – and, by that, he is referring to the interface as much as the features.

“OpenOffice.org feels like a fifteen or twenty year old application,” he adds, “Which I think it is. With OpenOffice.org, you have the usual tension: Do you try to evolve what you have, or do you try something new?”

Whether Yorba will ever undertake such projects is uncertain just now. But with its focus on the most pressing development needs and on interfaces as much as features, Yorba seems likely to continue to become a major player on the Gnome desktop.

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