2012 was the year that the Linux desktop diversified.
Two years ago, users could choose between two or three desktop environments. But by the end of the first quarter of 2012, they had at least eight choices, with more on the way.
Similarly, the year started with LibreOffice as the main office suite. But halfway through the year, LibreOffice was joined by Apache OpenOffice as well as Calligra Suite.
Just as importantly, 2012 saw several events which, although they had little influence during the calendar year, are apt to influence the Linux desktop in 2013 and beyond.
Here is my list of the major Linux desktop announcements, releases and initiatives of 2012.
1. Cinnamon and Mate
In the first months of 2012, GNOME users were struggling with the question of whether to accept GNOME 3 or to switch to alternatives such as Xfce. The situation changed overnight with the first general releases of Linux Mint's Cinnamon and Mate.
As you probably know, both Cinnamon and Mate offer a GNOME 2 experience: Cinnamon by adding extensions to GNOME 3, Mint by forking and updating GNOME 2. Both gave many users what they wanted and proved that at least some developers were listening. Better yet, the two alternatives gave users an even broader choice, with reviewers carefully weighing the pros and cons of both.
Within six months, other distributions started shipping with Cinnamon or Mate. More recently, both desktops have continued giving the tradition of giving users what they wanted, such as a GNOME 2 file manager. While neither seems likely to be a major source of innovation, together they have firmly established Linux Mint as a leading distribution.
2. Plasma Active and KDE's Vivaldi Tablet
At a time when Unity and GNOME 3 are attempting to develop single interfaces for everything from workstations and laptops to tablets and phones, KDE is pursuing a policy of developing different interfaces for each form factor. 2012 saw two releases of KDE's tablet interface, Plasma Active, which stands out among the alternatives for its task-oriented organization and ease of use.
Plasma Active can be installed on a variety of tablets and is currently being modified for Google's Nexus 7 tablet.
At the same time, KDE is planning its own Vivaldi tablet (formerly known as Spark). Although delayed by manufacturing problems, this effort marks the first time that a major community project has started a commercial venture. It could very well change how the community and corporations interact, and at the very least, create new roles such as product manager in free software. Others, such as Mozilla and GNOME, are contemplating similar ventures, but the odds are that Vivaldi will be first to be released.
Admittedly, in 2012, both Plasma Active and Vivaldi were more objects of curiosity than of widespread adoption. Potentially, however, their influence on the Linux desktop, both technically and socially could be enormous in the next couple of years.
3. Haiku Alpha 4
Haiku is the free software implementation of BeOS. A dozen years ago, BeOS failed as a commercial operating system, but it retains a cult following among long-time users of free software.
While Haiku failed to reach general release in 2012, it did release its fourth alpha, a very stable release that shows its potential. Notable features include a rationalized file hierarchy and a filesystem that allows users to add whatever attributes they choose.
Long-time Haiku contributor Ryan Leavengood describes Haiku as a mixture of the aesthetics of OS X with the licensing and development philosophy of Linux. According to Leavengood, the fabled general release should come within a year.
4. Enlightenment E17
Speaking of cults of nostalgia, I remember when Enlightenment was the cool desktop to use and knowing hackers were wearing T-shirts proclaiming, "I'm on E."
A dozen years and at least one major code re-write later, Enlightenment has finally released another general release. Once described as a window manager and now as a desktop shell, Enlightenment retains most of the features that once made it so popular, including speed and a high degree of customization and configurability.
Some aspects of Enlightenment, such as choosing which modules to load, may be more than new users care to worry about. However, distributions like Bodhi Linux and Elive offer acceptable default settings.
In this age of desktop diversity, Enlightenment could easily outlast the first nostalgic rush of interest and settle down into its own niche as an interface for more advanced users.
5. OpenMandriva Foundation
A decade ago, Mandrake was one of the leading distributions. Today -- several name changes and rounds of financial trouble later -- the commercial distribution now known as Mandriva has gone into a serious decline.
2012 saw another effort to regroup and continue development in the form of OpenMandriva. This foundation of stakeholders includes both Mandriva SA and ROSA Lab. It's a mixed community-corporation effort centered in Russia that is doing its own modifications on the KDE desktop.
Mageia, an earlier community-based fork that has enjoyed a degree of popularity in the last year or two, appears to be boycotting OpenMandriva. All the same, the foundation could play a major role in helping this once-popular branch of the Linux desktop to survive -- and maybe even prosper.
6. The MariaDB Foundation
The MySQL database was once part of the standard Linux server applications -- the M in the so-called LAMP solution (Linux, Apache, Mysql, Perl/Python/PHP).
However, after MySQL's sale to Sun Microsystems, Oracle acquired it with Sun's other assets. Many, including MySQL's founder Michael (Monty) Widenius, distrusted Oracle's commitment to keep the open source database alive as a rival to its own proprietary products. In fact, Widenius make every effort to prevent Oracle's acquisition of MySQL.
Widenius failed. But he went on to encourage the development of MariaDB, a fork of the MySQL code, as an alternative. These efforts reached a new level with the announcement of the MariaDB Foundation.
Days later, the announcement was followed by Wikipedia's announcement that it intended to move from MySQL to MariaDB. Given the widespread distrust of Oracle in the Linux community, that announcement is almost certain to be the first of many.
7. Calligra Suite
2012 was generally not a year for major innovations in applications. An exception was Calligra Suite, a fork of the old KOffice.
Like LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice, Calligra Suite is a collection of office applications whose default format is Open Document Format. Unlike LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice, Calligra has a modern-looking, modular design. Its graphical applications are particularly mature, especially its raster editor Krita, which recently announced its own foundation, and Flow, which is perhaps the best free software alternative to Visio.
Just as importantly, Calligra is redefining the idea of the office suite, adding a mind mapper and an e-book editor tool to the standard word processor, spreadsheet and presentation lineup. Although LibreOffice has done much to open up development of the free office suite, the emergence of Calligra can only help promote even more innovation.
8. GNOME Core Extensions
Six months ago at the annual GUADEC conference, GNOME began a process of self-examination to determine policies and directions. The first result of this process was GNOME's announcement that, rather than continuing to support fallback mode, it will support a group of core extensions in order to provide a GNOME 2-like interface for those who need or want it.
After two years of discontent over GNOME 3, this single announcement alone is unlikely to win back users immediately. All the same, many -- including me -- take it as a sign that GNOME is finally considering user feedback and may be back on track. By the end of 2013, I suspect that this announcement will be considered a turning point in GNOME's fortune, especially since Matthias Clasen tells me that the release team is now in charge of giving direction to the project as a whole.
9. The GNOME Safety Campaign
Further hints of a change in GNOME came while I was preparing this story. GNOME announced a new campaign to add security and privacy features. Inspired by a talk at GUADEC by Jacob Appelbaum, the GNOME project plans to add such features such as disk encryption and application integration with privacy settings and anonymous browsing tool Tor.
So far, GNOME is using the announcement primarily for fundraising, and details are lacking. However, with the growing concern over privacy and security, I suspect that this campaign will help to restore to GNOME's reputation and will be copied by other desktop environments. It's simply an idea that's overdue for implementation.
The Failures and Other Stories
These are only the major stories that shaped -- or promise to shape -- the Linux desktop. Another dozen or two stories could easily be added. They include the first release of Apache OpenOffice, which created an instant rivalry with LibreOffice, and the second effort to launch the cloud-oriented Chromebook laptops.
In other cases, stories are notable because of their apparent failure. Two of the most prominent failures were Ubuntu's experiments with the Head-Up Display (HUD), an attempt to replace traditional menus with a typing completion tool, and the inclusion of results from Amazon in desktop searches.
Both received considerable attention because of their novelty but were generally judged to be innovations in which few users had any long-term interest. Neither is likely to disappear, but neither are the HUD or Amazon search results likely to become popular or to influence other desktop environments.
Innovation and improvement are thriving on the Linux desktop, with a healthy combination of preserving what exists and of exploring new possibilities. I expect more of the same next year, with many of the initiatives begun in 2012 coming into first maturity.