Free Software and Linux should not be a choose-your-own-adventure game

February 9, 2008

Fairly recently, I ran out of disk space. If you’re a developer, especially one who uses things like JHBuild, virtualization, etc. – this has almost certainly happened to you. The consequences are pretty unpleasant (search for disk space in the GNOME bugzilla).

This got me to wondering – why the heck didn’t GNOME have a low disk space notification? This morning I decided to look into that. Certainly a patch would be not more than 100 lines to do a libnotify notification, along with an action to say empty your trash.

It turns out that I (and at least Fedora) had been victim of two things. 1) autoconf 2) GNOME release policy.

What happened of course is that the code exists – it was just conditional on libnotify-devel being installed. From the Fedora gnome-volume-manager build log:

checking for NOTIFY… no

So the the support wasn’t being compiled in, for who knows how long. I just fixed this for Rawhide, but we need to stop thinking of Linux as a source of random bits that you can put together optionally, and instead think of it as one unified stack. That means if you’re a software maintainer – your check should not be if (have_libnotify_h), but instead if (linux) { require(libnotify_h) }. GNOME release policy totally ignores the fact that the vast majority of people using GNOME have these components. I understand the desire for things to be optional – we want GNOME to work on Maemo and new devices where not all of the stack may exist. But the right approach is for these new distributions to use flags like --disable-notify. Or we can use a semi-standardized flag like --enable-maemo, since often these non-desktop devices require other source changes too.

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