Desktop environments are supposed to be yesterday's technology, gradually being replaced by mobile devices. Yet someone apparently forgot to tell the developers of Linux desktops. At a time when desktops are supposed to be obsolete, Linux offers more alternatives than ever. Apparently, Linux users are not prepared to give up their workstations and laptops for tablets or phones.
Of course, the modern Linux desktop is not the Linux desktop of five years. If you look at the Linux desktop today, at least seven development trends are visible, including several that are reversals of popular past trends:
The days are gone when GNOME and KDE were three-quarters of the desktop market. Today, at least seven desktop environments are in widespread use -- Cinnamon, GNOME, KDE, LXDE, MATE, Unity, and Xfce -- and hopping between them is a popular pastime, especially among those that use GNOME applications.
Mark Shuttleworth's challenge in 2008 to develop interfaces that rivaled Apple never produced the unified effort he presumably wanted, but it did get programmers interested in usability and design. GNOME has the most experience and expertise in design, but none of the major desktop environments ignore design today. GNOME, Unity, and KDE have even developed their own brand fonts.
KDE 4, GNOME 3, and Unity were all major departures from the classical desktop, and many users reacted to them with hostility. Some of that hostility has died down as new releases addressed the complaints, but the experience has left developers nervous about introducing too many changes too quickly. Instead of introducing new features, developers today are more likely to spend their time streamlining the code and tweaking the interface.
Among the innovations attempted at the desktop was the elimination of icons, especially user-assigned ones, on the desktop or the panel. Half of users were probably indifferent to this decision, but the other half objected strenuously. This change alone may be enough to explain why KDE and Xfce, which never removed the icons, are consistently the two highest-ranked desktops.
Consisting of a panel, menu, and a workspace for displaying windows, the classical desktop has been a standard for over two decades. During 2008-11, developers on the Linux desktop tried hard to expand or move beyond the classical desktop -- an effort that was rejected by many users.
Today, four out of six desktop environments provide a classical desktop by default, although KDE does allow the concept to be considerably extended.
One of the holdouts is GNOME, but its extensions allows the quick creation of a classical desktop, and I suspect that a majority of users choose that option. The only true holdout is Unity, which polls suggest is the choice of less than ten percent of users.
As phones and tablets became universal, their interfaces became models for desktop environments. The theory seems to have been that users would be familiar with mobile-inspired interfaces, but in practice, users were annoyed by the constant change of screens. These days, only Unity uses a mobile-inspired design, largely because of Ubuntu's vision of the same interface on all devices.
Other desktop environments have moved so far from the idea that most have dropped plans for expanding on to mobile devices. GNOME has yet to carry out plans for a mobile version of its desktop, while KDE's efforts to design netbook and tablet interfaces currently exists only as a workspace layout based on the netbook design. Probably, user's reluctance to risk bricking their mobile devices by adding a new desktop may be partly responsible for this retreat.
Customization has always been important to Linux desktop users. However, amidst the current reluctance to innovate, customization is one of the few areas in which change seems welcome. The latest Xfce release greatly increased the number of customization options, while Linux Mint's Cinnamon and MATE have both increased audience share by adding more customization features with each release. Noticeably, too, KDE, the single most popular desktop, has always had more choices than any of the others.
Five years ago, I would have predicted that cloud-based applications and greater interaction with users would be on a list of trends in 2015. However, I would have been wrong. Despite the popularity of Chromebooks, none of the leading Linux desktops depend on cloud services, apparently preferring to see cloud services as a utility rather than an organizing principle. Similarly, only Cinnamon and MATE make user input a priority in deciding the contents of a release.
So what do the current trends amount to? In general, they suggest an era of conservatism, a retreat from the innovation of the previous half decade and a renewed interest in desktop basics. Some opportunities, such as expanding into mobile interfaces, are probably being lost, but most users sound relieved that the controversies of the past have died down, and a more sensible approach to development has prevailed.