How Will Users React to GNOME 3.0?

With KDE for comparison, GNOME now faces a serious challenge.
Posted September 29, 2009

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

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GNOME 2.28 was supposed to preview GNOME 3.0. But it hasn't quite turned out that way, and whether what is visible will leave users eagerly anticipating or uneasy and rebellious is still anybody's guess.

The GNOME developers did their part, bringing the GNOME Shell, the basis of the GNOME 3.0 desktop, into presentable shape. Unfortunately, neither the GNOME 2.28 release notes nor many of the distributions which packaged GNOME Shell give any detailed instructions about how to swap out the existing desktop and replace it with GNOME Shell. Trying several distributions, I found packages that installed without dependencies, and at least one that conflicted with a standard package.

In the end, I found that the most successful way to install the preview was to follow the installation and compiling instructions released last spring, and forget about the distro packages altogether.

If my experience is even remotely typical, then the point of the preview has been lost. I suspect that most users will not install it, and that GNOME will not get the feedback it was vaguely counting on from this release.

If anything, distributions seem to be downplaying the preview. It is as though, having urged KDE 4.0 too early on their users, the distributions have over-compensated and made an unspoken resolution to keep the new GNOME away from users until it is completely ready.

But perhaps the inaccessibility of the preview is just as well. What I saw when I finally managed a successful install could easily go either way in users' estimation.

Change and Mobile Devices

GNOME Shell's ambiguous potential lies in the fact that it is an attempt to redraw the computer desktop. Since users neither seem greatly dis-satisfied with the current state of the desktop nor in any agreement about how it could improved, this departure is risky. Some users will undoubtedly reject it simply because it is different, no matter how innovative or useful it is, much as they did with KDE.

The GNOME Shell consists of two main parts. The first is the panel, currently glue to the top of the screen and lacking any applets except for basic ones like a clock and system tray.

Press the Activities button on the left of the panel, and the second part is activated -- the Overlay mode. The Overlay mode consists of a dynamic menu on the left, and workspaces on the right, each with its own icons and windows. The menu, workspaces, and windows for applications can all change size, up to a full-screen mode for a single workspace or application.

Actually, my overwhelming impression of the GNOME Shell is of panes continually changing sizes. I soon realized where I had seen a similar interface: on music players and phones. Apparently, computing has reached the stage where mobile devices are the norm, and they, rather than workstations or laptops, are driving interface design.

This design shift seems natural and inevitable. Adopting the interfaces that people know seems only logical. It might even have the benefit of giving new users an interface in which they can feel immediately comfortable. Yet, I could just as easily see users feeling that what is appropriate for a mobile device is less so for a full-size computer.

On mobile devices, a flurry of resizing and replacing of views seems logical. The screen is usually less than three inches wide, and needs to be constantly cleared to free up as much of it as possible. Understanding this limitation and (the convergence of email, videos, and applications on to mobile devices notwithstanding) most of our uses of mobile devices being fairly simple, we endure such interfaces without much complaint.

But could users find such activity a distraction on the desktop? If the desktop is still the place where our activities are more important and take longer, then perhaps mobile devices are as poor a model for the desktop as the desktop is for mobile devices.

Up Close and Ambiguous

My uncertainty about how GNOME 3.0 will be received continues as I zero in on the general work flow.

For instance, the unspoken consensus is that the concept of the menu needs improvement, no matter which desktop you find it on. That is why so many different alternatives are being auditioned.

The GNOME Shell offers its own alternative, complete with auto-completion and changes to meet the current context. In general, its menu reminds me of Krunner and GNOME Do, both of which pack a surprising amount of functionality for the size of their windows.

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Tags: search, Linux desktop, Gnome, KDE, desktop

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