It’s been a long time since a desktop environment has caused so much controversy in the FOSS universe. How long? It is really hard to say, since the last time I can recall any kind of user backlash and retreat was over half a decade ago when the KDE project announced KDE 4.0. Alot of people relate the release of KDE 4 to the release of Gnome 3, drawing all sorts of wild parallels; but I say that these 2 releases could not be any more different. Now this article is not about KDE, but at the same time, a clear line in the sand must be drawn in order to explain what Gnome 3 really is.
KDE 4 was an incomplete release of beta quality software, and thankfully it was advertised as just that. If you paid attention to developer blogs and distribution release notes of the time, they all unanimously attested that it was not ready for prime-time. Users were forced to stay in the KDE 3.5.x series while they drooled over technologies like Plasma and the soft and pleasant look of the Oxygen theme atop of QT4 applications. This caused a mass exodus, or so was reported on the Internet, of KDE users who all fled to other desktop environments. This is completely immeasurable or course and should be taken with a grain of salt, but what you cannot argue is that there was a period of about 18 months where KDE just didn’t work, 3.5.x was over, and many applications still hadn’t crossed over.
Flash-forward to 2011. Most of us were pretty blown away by the “made of easy” videos at the Gnome project’s homepage. A lot of us we’re looking for the best way to force it onto our 11.04 machine without unleashing hell on earth. Reactions across the Internet were virtually identical with one fine division; users who were using Gnome 3 in a production environment or had use cases that required them to maintain a productive work-flow were completely hampered by the experience while the much smaller class of adventurous casual users thought that it was pretty and offered enough bling for them to impress their friends with. The repercussions of the existence of Gnome 3, unfortunately, is 1 million times greater than the impact of Qt4.
The Negative Impact
Users of Arch, Slackware, Gentoo and other distributions with a fine reputation for adhering to Unix standards and principles will suffers the most. Also, users of Debian or any other rolling distribution are running scared right now trying to figure out what to do when the Gnome 3 packages start rolling in and changing everything. There is no Unity in Arch. There is no Elementary in Gentoo. There is one product right now based on GTK3, and if you are using Gnome 2.x, you will be upgrading to it! So, I guess that now is the time to switch to KDE now that it is finally working huh?
I suppose you could run to XFCE, or can you? Let’s consider some of XFCE’s bundled applications. Thunar, Mousepad, Orage, all GTK 2.x. When does the XFCE project decide to start releasing GTK3 versions of these applications? The XFCE panel? Who knows. It is their choice to build their compilation with any toolkit they choose, but how long until your system breaks because your distribution wants you to upgrade to GTK3 packages because the GTK2.x ones are deprecated. You can’t distribute these forever, and you can’t keep your package manager from upgrading them forever without risking a broken system. So, I guess you are all screwed then huh?
Now this is not to say that users of Arch and Gentoo are desktop users in the traditional sense, in fact I would argue that they are just the opposite, but at a bare-minimum these users have to be able to manage windows! So where will those users go who never wanted to use KDE, and refuse to use Gnome 3. They are headed straight for Ubuntu and they don’t even know it yet.
This brings me too my next point, and what sets this text apart from most of the blogs you have been reading bashing Gnome. Gnome 3 is the worst desktop environment I have ever used, but it will be the best thing to ever happen to Linux.
The Positive Impact
Gnome 3 is the best thing to ever happen to Linux? Absolutely, but before you unleash the flames, I am aware that the roots of the argument I am about to make are philosophical in nature and have been debated a million times over by everyone. My stance however, is firm. Some believe that the reason Linux has never captured the general mind-share of the public is because of so many competing products within it’s own ecosystem. Well, I don’t care in the least how desktop Linux performs in the marketplace. All I care about is that there are so many projects out there that can one-up each other release after release, yet still collaborate and maintain %100 compatibility (I’m looking at you Freedesktop.org).
This silent competition has made different desktop environments compelling and beautiful and useful and just plain great! In my mind, there is no contest between a Mac OS X desktop and a Gnome 2.x one. Freedom always wins; but let me get to the point… Why will users leave Arch and Gentoo for Ubuntu and how in the hell is this a good thing? GTK is just a toolkit.
Let’s take a look at the Elementary project. Planing their next release around Ubuntu 12.04, the Elementary project is essentially releasing a unique software compilation based on GTK3. Let’s take a look at what they have going…
Marlin: A brand new file manager based on GTK3. With Gnome 3, we were given a simpler version of nautilus that doesn’t seem to offer the same flexibility as the old GTK2 Nautilus. Programs like Marlin will offer file manager alternative that will integrate into whatever GTK3 based desktop you might end up using, and who knows, that environment might just be Elementary!
Slingshot: A snow leopard style application launcher that seems to be able to take on some of the behaviors of the Unity launcher and Gnome 3 launcher.
Elementary Gedit: A simplified version of Gedit that adheres to the Elementary project’s usability principles.
Others: Elementary has several others projects in the works, but they all rely on the Gnome project and GTK 3.
Mint has a lot of work ahead of itself. In the beginning it was just a branch of Ubuntu with some extra tools and codecs installed. Today, it pretty much is the same thing with a few extra touches like the Mint menu. Their plan, however, is to have a 12.04 release with a familiar desktop using GTK3 packages. So, in short, no Gnome 3.
It seems like an absolute paradox that in just a few short months from now, there will be many systems out there is the while with GTK3 packages on their systems, but no Gnome 3. It is unavoidable given the nature of Linux systems being repository based. So what do users do when their standard Linux distributions cause them to have to upgrade to Gnome 3. They will go to KDE or move to Ubuntu or an Ubuntu-based derivative. If there is a Mint desktop that allows for the same productivity as a standard Gnome 2 desktop and it is packaged only for Ubuntu… I think you see where I am going with this. Not only does Ubuntu have the largest selection of software available through repositories and PPA’s, it will soon have the largest selection of Desktop environments. But what will be the motivation for the Gnome project to keep momentum if no-one is using it their flagship project?