The conventional wisdom these days is that GNOME is faltering. GNOME 3 is unpopular, and users and distributions are abandoning it for alternatives such as Xfce or Mate.
The project itself suffers from a lack of developers and a loss of morale, and faces new challenges as mobile devices become more common than traditional desktop environments.
So what strategies are available for GNOME in the next few years?
This ugly assessment of GNOME's current condition is not just being made by outsiders. Recently, GNOME developer Benjamin Otte made the same critique in a widely discussed blog post entitled "Staring into the Abyss."
Many of the same subjects were even raised at GUADEC, GNOME's annual conference. In particular, Xan Lopez and Juan Jose Sanchez gave a presentation called "A Bright Future for GNOME" that outlined the project's challenges. Lopez and Sanchez's presentation was supposed to be a call to arms, but, in the weeks since it was delivered, it has been used mainly as proof of just how the once mighty GNOME has fallen.
Some GNOME developers have shrugged off the current malaise, noting that the project has faced challenges before. All the same, you can hardly help feeling sorry for members of the project. After all, many gave their time, labor, and ingenuity in an effort to create something new on the desktop.
But, instead of having their work accepted, they have seen it dismissed with anger and sarcasm. Some have also endured personal attacks on their competence and intelligence.
And now, after eighteen months of mostly keeping silent -- either out of project policy or simply out of the faint hope that familiarity would make users more accepting -- the GNOME team is facing the unavoidable conclusion that they have failed. It may be a necessary conclusion, but reaching it can't be easy.
So how could GNOME scramble out of its present situation? At least seven possibilities exist, although not all are equally likely. Some would even allow GNOME to back out with some grace from the dead end it's now in while remaining reasonably honest in the marketing strategy.
GNOME 3 was marketed as elegant, uncluttered, and easy. To describe it as a new vision for the desktop is not hyperbole, but a literal description of its designer's intentions.
With this perspective, the project has resisted making changes that might detract from the vision. The GNOME developers believed they had usability expertise on their side, and have shown little interest in offering more than one way to work in GNOME 3.
Yet with very few changes, GNOME 3 could be much more acceptable to most users. A moveable panel, panel applets, desktop launchers, user control of virtual desktops, menu alternatives that would remove the need for the overview -- all of these could be added easily as options. Together, they would reduce at least ninety percent of the complaints against GNOME 3.
Moreover, this way, GNOME 3 wouldn't be abandoned. It would just be modified to increase user choice -- a direction that would receive few, if any complaints.
The first releases of GNOME 3 required 3D hardware acceleration. Since many Linux machines still don't have hardware acceleration, they included a fallback mode that was a slightly crippled cousin of the last GNOME 2 releases.
In the last couple of releases, the need for hardware acceleration has eased, but the fallback mode could still be brought up to the standard of GNOME 2 in a couple of months.
The marketing strategy? GNOME 3 was a testing of two different desktop strategies, and the fallback mode has won. Users might even pretend to believe the claim, so long as they got what they wanted.