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Gnome 3 and the Future of the Linux Desktop

For many years, many of the most popular Linux distros came with Gnome 2.x as the default desktop environment, and life was good.  Now, Gnome 2.x has been replaced by Gnome 3.x, and life may never be the same.  Gone is the light-weight, highly customizable, eye-candy-rich experience that we all came to know and love.  Instead, Gnome 3.x represents a shift to resource-intensive, rigid, hard to customize desktop that, I think, people are not very happy with.

Don't get me wrong, I understand what Gnome is trying to do, and in some ways it's a good thing.  The paradigm appears to be based on today's smart phone interface, that is, the screen full of big icons that you can hit with your thumb.  Hey great, Gnome 3 will be a good fit on smart phones, and that may position it for a future where we all use phones and tablets, but on a big desktop monitor, you end up with icons the size of golf balls.  How about a way to change the size of those icons?  Eh, can't find one.

In Gnome 2, the menu panel was fully customizable, allowing you to add your favorite apps as launcher icons on the panel, as well as access all installed apps and settings via the menus.  Gnome 3 still has a panel, but it's only function appears to be to bring up the screen full of big icons.  The panel is now a black bar that's unresponsive to most attempts to mess with it.  It's good for almost nothing.

Launchers are instead configured on a strip of overly-sized icons on the left edge of the screen.  This strip takes up quite a bit of screen real estate.  Now when you've got an app in the foreground, this strip will hide itself at the edge of the screen, and when your mouse touches the left edge of the screen, the strip will fly out and reveal itself.  When this happens, your app will suddenly shrink to make room for the strip, and any other apps that are currently running will also appear shrunk.

The result is a lot of windows flying around every time you reach for the strip or accidentally let your mouse touch the edge of the screen.  This leads you to a semi-conscious fear of the screen edge that I find intolerable (the same thing is true of Ubuntu's Unity interface).

What Gnome 3 fails to understand is that we value our real estate, the position of our windows, and the limited memory installed in our machines. The desktop should take up as little desktop space as possible, use up as little RAM as possible, and stay the hell out of the way.  Gnome should also realize that, on a desktop, our thumb is resting on the keyboard, not on the screen as is the case with a smart phone.  Don't make me reach for the mouse all day.

All of that, and what's even worse is that Gnome 3 won't even load on video hardware that isn't 3D capable.  Much of the hardware I have lying around is perfectly fine for running Linux, but not Gnome 3.  I get the "Gnome 3 Failed to Load" error, and in most cases, am left in Gnome Classic mode.  Actually, that's fine with me, it looks a lot more like Gnome 2, I can live with that.  The exception I saw was OpenSUSE 12, which loaded Gnome 3, but all the windows were blacked-out.

Gnome Classic mode is certainly no Gnome 2.x.  All of the applets we used to use for eye-candy customization are missing.  You need to install additional tools just to change your theme.  That said, it's livable now that people have figured out what you need to do to tweak the darn thing.  In fact, the same tweaks are required regardless of whether you're using Gnome Classic or full-blown Gnome 3.  It's hard to believe that Gnome didn't include any sort of tweak tools in the core package set!

Meanwhile, many popular distros are now providing spins that contain alternative desktop environments such as KDE, Xfce and Lxde, among others.  These desktop environments are lighter weight and highly customizable, like Gnome 2.x used to be.  My current preference is Xfce, which is very Gnome 2.x-like.

Just to comment on the recent rise of Linux Mint to the top, replacing Ubuntu as the most popular Linux distro, I think that was due to the fact that people didn't like Ubuntu's new Unity desktop, while Linux Mint 11 still had Gnome 2.x.  Now that Mint 12 is out and has Gnome 3.x, I think that Mint's spike in popularity will fade.  Mint did endeavor to create a fork of Gnome 2.x called MATE, and they also tried to create shell extensions for Gnome 3 to make it more friendly, but both have failed in my opinion, at least for now, they're too buggy.  I'm now running either Gnome Classic or Xfce on both Ubuntu and Mint, and as such, there's very little difference between the two.  Why choose one over the other, I've no idea.

As for Gnome, I think their time as the standard Linux desktop may have come to a sudden end, and we will now see the rise of another standard.  I'm personally not all that fond of KDE, I think it too is a bit to heavy.  Rather, I think we may now see the rise of Xfce as the new stardard.  We'll see.  Gnome may yet change course before they've lost everyone.  The good news is that we Linux users try just about everything available every six months or so, so if they fix things, we'll come back.  But for now, see ya Gnome.  It's been fun.


Gnome 3 is apparently hearing us complain.  They're busy developing lots of extensions for gnome-shell, which will bring a lot of customization back to the Gnome 3 experience.  Check out the extensions site at


Chris C. said...

I think that developing extensions to what's effectively a 'broken' interface style in order to enable classic users to attempt to integrate Gnome 3 into their lives is wasted energy. Gnome 3 should be renamed to something else entirely, and a true Gnome 3 should emerge as improvements for Gnome 2.x that follow the traditional paradigm. This whole business has effectively been a bait-and-switch that we are all forced to buy into, lest we lose the install os/be productive method of work. Moving to install os/install extensions/tweak all extensions/attempt productivity is just not viable for older more traditional users. Change is good, but I'm willing to be that had Gnome 3 been under a different nomenclature, it would have been far more popular off the bat.

Brian said...

I agree with that. Anyway, how hard would it have been to have a fully functioning Gnome 2 mode as a choice along with the Gnome Shell interface? I just don't get it...

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