2011: The Year of Linux Disappointments: Page 3

As years go, 2011 was a kidney stone of a year for free and open source software.


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At any rate, UEFI was only a brief diversion from the largest stories in FOSS technology in 2011: the release of GNOME 3 and Ubuntu's decision to default to the Unity shell on top of GNOME. Both GNOME 3 and Unity show the influence of mobile devices on desktop design. Both, too, are attempts to simplify the interface, and change the way that users work. Unsurprisingly, both have also received both intense defenses and criticisms, and became a major topic for 2011.

Exactly how numerous the discontented users of either actually are is uncertain. However, when GNOME 3 won the Linux Journal's Reader's Choice Award, and Ubuntu the Best Distro Award, numerous commenters online assumed that the voting was either rigged or represented the opinion of very few voters. While the percentage of complainers is uncertain, their anger and persistence seems undeniable.

Just as important as the interfaces themselves are the issues that they raise. For instance, Unity seems to owe its existence largely to Canonical and Ubuntu's inability to work with the mainstream GNOME project. How decisions were made about Unity also raises issues about the relationship between the community-based Ubuntu and the commercially-oriented Canonical.

Both GNOME 3.x and Unity also raise the question of whether the FOSS desktop is at the stage where video drivers with 3-D hardware acceleration can be assumed.

Other issues raised include the relationship between usability theory and user's practice, and GNOME's and Unity's developers and their lack of communication with everyday users. All these issues extend the technical issues beyond the technical details and apply to FOSS in general.

However, reactions to Unity and GNOME do have at least two benefits. First, they encourage users to examine alternatives like Xfce for their desktops. Second, they have encouraged other developers to build extensions to both Unity and GNOME that make each of them look more like their common ancestor GNOME 2. In other words, many of the first extensions to these interfaces undo most of their changes.

From one perspective, these extensions are a waste of time. However, from another, they demonstrate the community's determination to get what its members want. If the core developers at a project won't listen, then others will.

No question -- the issues centering around Unity and GNOME 2 dominated Linux news in 2011. To suggest that things were otherwise would be false. Still, the complications did mean that other technical developments, such as KDE's Plasma Active interface for tablets, passed almost unnoticed, despite their ingenuity.

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Among such gloomy stories, members of the FOSS community can take pride one thing: despite all the discouragements, work still got done. Releases still came, and improvements were still made. Although FOSS may not be so large that it endure any number of setbacks, if nothing else 2011 proves how robust FOSS is.

All the same, reviewing the year, I am reminded of how George Macdonald Fraser, the creator of the Flashman series, claims that his terror of a grandmother summed up a mediocre first nine holes of golf. That is (with the Scottish dialect cleaned up): “This and better will do; this and worse will never do.”

Here's hoping for a more upbeat year for everyone in FOSS in 2012.

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Tags: Linux, Gnome, KDE, FOSS

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