Yet, at the same time, having the menu stay semi-permanently on the screen, occupying valuable space seems a step backward for me -- even if it does disappear when a workspace or window is enlarged.
Also, while I am no fan of the classic menu that cascades across the desktop, it at least has the advantage of giving new users something concrete to explore. New users could use auto-completion to explore, of course, but that is not nearly as convenient as having everything visible at a glance, and grouped into categories. To me, the GNOME Shell menu seems more a tool for intermediate users than beginners.
The same is true of the overlay view and the workspaces. For advanced users who are used to multiple workspaces and having several windows open at a time, these features bring a much needed organization and accessibility. In my experience, however, multiple workspaces tend to be ignored by new users, no doubt because they are not standard features in Windows. Perhaps GNOME 3.0 will introduce new users more quickly to the possibilities of multiple workspaces, but, perhaps, too, it will only confound new users with a level of complexity that they neither want nor are prepared for.
But probably the element that will most determine how GNOME 3.0 is received is how much customization the final version will have. What we see now gives few concessions to personal configuration, and possibly the lack of choices seems all the greater because of the resemblance to the limited functionality of mobile devices.
Considering that what we have now is an unfinished application, that lack seems understandable. At this point, developers have not gone far beyond functionality, and no doubt have barely thought about customization. Yet, when I remember the reception of KDE 4.0 twenty months ago, I am convinced that the degree of customization is central to how GNOME 3.0 will be received.
With KDE 4.0, people might have forgiven the new features and work flows if only they had the same degree of customization as before. But they didn't, and the KDE project has spent much of its time since digging its way out of the avalanche of hostile criticism. If the KDE experience teaches anything, the lesson is that users of the free desktop value customization above every other feature.
From this perspective, the discussion among developers of the GNOME Shell as a radical simplification raises the possibility of a backlash similar to KDE's. Like KDE, GNOME could endure a period where the project is perceived like the English Puritans of the 17th Century, taking away choices like the Puritans took away Maypole Dancing and Christmas for no better reason than they are caught up with their own personal agenda.
The present incarnation of the GNOME Shell is far from the last. At least two point releases are scheduled before GNOME 2.30, and the project has announced that it will delay GNOME 3.0 for another release cycle if necessary. With these plans, the project should have several opportunities for receiving feedback and listening to it.
The trouble is, with KDE's example always in mind, the question is whether GNOME will do. The best time for user feedback would have been last spring, when the project was conceived, yet there was almost none. Now, with the version of GNOME Shell that came out with 2.28, another opportunity seems to have lost. To date, GNOME is not even trying very hard to sell its vision of the desktop.
Add the ambiguity of what is visible, and the concern seems justified. While the new desktop design succeeds in some respects, from other perspectives, the developers might be seen as working with themselves in mind, rather than unsophisticated users. That, of course, is a time-honored approach in free software, but, these days, it is one that a project as large and as important as GNOME can no longer afford. Nobody wants to stifle innovation, yet, at the same time, GNOME needs to introduce major changes with the cooperation of its users.
Let's hope it enlists that cooperation in the next few months. So far, I'm not sure that it has tried.