In the last two years, the Linux desktop has settled into a period of quiet diversity. The user revolts of 2008-2012 are safely in the past, and users are scattered among at least seven major desktops -- Cinnamon, GNOME, KDE,LXDE, MATE, Unity, and Xfce -- and likely to stay that way.
So what comes next? What will the next innovations on the desktop be? Where will they come from? Prediction is as safe as investing in penny mining stocks, but some major trends for the next couple of years seem obvious without the bother of a tarot reading.
The bottom line? Expect a few incremental changes and many behind the scenes, but little or nothing to challenge traditional ideas of the desktop.
Some of the major desktops seem unlikely sources of change. The point of MATE is to provide a classical desktop. LXDE and Xfce have the same goal, but add being lightweight. All three have succeeded in their goals, so successfully that they seem to have nowhere else to go. Nor, to be fair, are many of their users likely to want major changes.
Xfce can sometimes be surprising, but, of these three desktops, MATE seems the most probable source of change, since Linux Mint does make some effort to develop MATE in tandem with Cinnamon.
However, even in MATE, upcoming changes are likely to be more of the same -- incremental changes, rather than revolutionary ones. MATE's latest release, for example, features the addition of Compiz as a window manager, and a dialogue for managing kernels -- both of which are welcome enough, but unlikely to change the concept of the desktop.
After all, while Compiz's cubed desktop catches the eye, it has been available for almost a decade. The only difference today is that more Linux systems today have the hardware acceleration to run it.
The prospects for Cinnamon are only slightly higher. Being an entirely new desktop, rather than a re-creation of an old one, as MATE is, Cinnamon is more oriented towards innovation. The last couple of releases in particular have seen the addition of hot spots, applets, desklets (desktop applets), and a rationalization of the configuration tools. All of this increases Cinnamon's customizability, but fails to change or give new choices for how anyone works on the desktop.
The headings on the latest release announcement say it all: Responsiveness and memory usage, more polish, more settings and hardware sources.
During earlier releases, GNOME developers were the masters of incremental releases. GNOME 3 was a major departure, introducing radical changes and a move away from the classical desktop that sparked widespread user revolts. Those revolts were quieted by the introduction of extensions that allowed users to undo many of the radical changes, but the experience seems to have left the project with even less of a taste for radical changes than before.
Even the relatively modest changes proposed for an upcoming GNOME 4 appear to have been abandoned or postponed, to say nothing of the proposed schedule. Instead, the changes for the upcoming 3.16 release are the very definition of "incremental."
What GNOME has been concentrating on is design. Starting with the minimalist design that the project has always favored, in the last few years, GNOME has developed a desktop is that by far the most consistent and most aesthetic of the major choices. GNOME has discussed improving security, but design is likely to continue to be its most obvious trend. Design is, after all, what it is best at.
KDE, whose fourth release series triggered the first user revolt, is now preparing the fifth version of its Plasma desktop. This time, the project is managing expectations better. Plasma 5 has been held back from general distribution, and version 5.2, currently in second beta, is apparently intended as the first to go into general release.