Everyone agrees that desktop Linux has become more diverse in the last couple of years. But how diverse? And how are the dethroned dominant environments responding?
Those are questions that nobody is asking -- although they probably should.
So far, 2012 has yet to see one of those magazine polls that are our main -- although imperfect -- indications of what desktop environments users prefer. However, with a little digging, a few indicators can be unearthed.
Several indicators are available from Distrowatch, the site that attempts to track distributions.
To start with, as I write, Distrowatch's last ten updates (from September 27 to October 8) include two distributions that offer a choice of default desktops, one that offers GNOME or KDE, and one apiece that uses IceWM, LXDE, and Xfce. Four use GNOME, but none use precisely the same version: one uses Cinnamon, Linux Mint's recreation of GNOME 2: one ships Mate, Linux Mint's set of extensions that converts GNOME 3 into GNOME 2, one offers GNOME 3 with a large number of extensions, and the fourth ships GNOME with its own modifications. Neither KDE nor Unity are among the default desktops of the distributions mentioned.
Any other group of updates from the last six months shows an equal diversity of results. To take a random sample from June 20-29, one has no desktop, one offers the choice of GNOME, KDE, or Xfce, one a choice of GNOME or KDE, one of Unity, and one of KDE. Four ship with GNOME, and one with a privately customized version of GNOME.
The page hits tell a similar story about what those interested enough in Linux to know about Distrowatch are interested in. Cinnamon / Mate, Unity, and Xfce are each represented by one of the top ten distros, KDE by two, and GNOME 3 by two. The rest have no single default, or else use lightweight window managers such as IceWM or Enlightenment.
By contrast, the top ten page hits for 2010 include 5 for GNOME and 3 for KDE.
The only user survey for 2012 that I could locate was a study of Czech users completed two months ago. It showed 24% were using KDE, 17% some version of GNOME 2 (probably Mate or Cinnamon), 20% GNOME 3. Unity accounted for 14%, and Xfce for 12%.
The same study, parsed for Czech Fedora users, showed 46% using GNOME 3, and 27% KDE. Some 12% used Xfce, and 8% GNOME 2. In comparison, 30% of Ubuntu users were -- unsurprisingly -- using Unity, 21% GNOME 3, 18% GNOME 2, 15% KDE, and 10% Xfce.
Assuming that any of these indicators reflect all desktop Linux usage to within more than a few percent would be rash. However, taken together, they clearly show the current diversity of interfaces (or fragmentation, if you believe this situation undesirable).
They also show no strong preference. Although KDE and various flavors of GNOME remain strong, none dominate as decisively as GNOME and KDE once did.
As for Xfce, which for years was the third most popular desktop, either it has slipped from its popularity in 2011 LinuxQuestions.org Members Choice Awards, or else those results were atypical. If Xfce has slipped, it is probably due to the maturation of Cinnamon and Mate -- perhaps users are thinking there's no point to using a desktop something like GNOME when a GNOME variant is available.