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When I was first asked to write this article, I immediately thought back to the many articles I've seen surrounding this now famous blog post. The blog post highlights one GNOME developer's view about how GNOME has lost its way and needs a clear direction for the future.
Others see it differently, of course. A counterpoint to this view was written by Bryan Lunduke, who explains that trying to measure the success of a project such as GMOME using standard metrics is pointless.
He opines that if users are able to use GNOME to customize their desktops to meet their needs, then the project is in fact a success.
In this article, I will bypass that minefield entirely. Instead, I'll focus on the desktop experience of GNOME 3 vs alternatives, while putting emphasis on the user experience – not how the underpinnings of the GNOME desktop work under the hood.
Experiences, not desktop environments
I have long since believed one of the strengths that allowed Ubuntu to become the "go to distro" for newbies and intermediate Linux enthusiasts alike was that Ubuntu was about the experience.
Normal people don't care about the version of a specific type of software or the core of their desktop environment. More advanced distributions have begun to realize this and have focused on a smooth experience with improved distro speed and user-centric customization.
Ever since GNOME 3 was released onto various desktop Linux distributions, there have been a mixed bag of reactions. They ranged from those who really enjoyed the change from GNOME 2 to those who honestly didn't care for it at all.
I fell into the latter camp, but not because I have something against GNOME. No, my issue with it was merely that the experience it provided wasn't a match for what I was looking for. Quite honestly, I would sooner have gone with another GNOME shell spin-off like Cinnamon, as I felt more at home with it.
Another desktop based on the GNOME shell that I prefer over the typical GNOME 3 experience is Unity. Despite loathing Unity when it was first released, I've come to prefer it as time has progressed.
Now realizing that I'm not likely alone in being among those who prefer Unity or Cinnamon, how does this affect the overall well being of the GNOME 3 desktop? In truth, I don't think it affects GNOME 3 at all.
What does affect each experience will be the desktop distributions they’re bundled with. Realizing that not every distribution out there gives you a prompt – which asks which desktop environment to select – many users simply choose whatever the default happens to be. See, only intermediate to advanced users are likely to actively choose one desktop over another. Newbies will likely run whatever desktop environment their preferred distribution happens to come installed with out of the box.
And there is the bigger issue here – newbies will judge a distribution based on the experience they have with the provided desktop environment. So while the rest of the Linux community argues whether or not GNOME 3 is a success or a mistake, in the end, it really doesn't matter – newbies are using Ubuntu.
And that means Unity wins the new user, by default.
GNOME 3 on the tablet
According to this article, the rationale was to use GNOME OS as a means of "completing the GNOME 3 experience." Apparently this idea is that usability issues would then be addressed. Super, sounds great! Unfortunately, the project then jumps the shark by immediately embracing touch interfaces, such as tablets.
Is it me, or does this sound like something Unity has already begun the process of doing? It's an admirable idea, but honestly, who cares? I wasn't that excited to see Ubuntu coming to tablets, much less other desktop environments. And I'm not alone here; many believe Android has already filled the void – anything else is a hobbyist toy. So what could GNOME hope to accomplish here?
Quite honestly, I think future revisions of the GNOME desktop would do all of us a favor by letting Unity fail in the tablet space. In addition, the lack of leadership and/or direction with the folks behind GNOME should be the focus long before trying to retool GNOME from the ground up.
Sadly though, the evidence thus far is that this hasn't happened yet. Some people have felt so strongly about this shortcoming, that they've opted out of GNOME completely and are using alternative desktop environments.
Lightweight desktops as safe harbor
When the news came in that Debian was dropping GNOME, it became clear that GNOME might not be considered a safe choice for a default desktop environment any longer. Xfce, as it turns out, is the new default option for Debian users.
This combined with Ubuntu using Unity (based on the GNOME Shell), Linux Mint opting for Cinnamon/MATE for their mainstream edition, and suddenly the outlook for the GNOME desktop begins to look pretty ugly.
At this time, there are still some distributions that are using GNOME 3 as their goto desktop solution. However, this is expected to change. With the GNOME project set to attempt to completely retool itself, despite losing its core vision of simplicity, I think GNOME could be in real trouble. Not because people will stop using it, rather because their desktop lacks any kind of real vision for the future.
Lessons from Unity
When the Unity desktop came out, myself, among countless others, despised it. The desktop was clunky and the support systems needed to tweak it to meet with our personal needs simply wasn't there just yet. But even back when it was first released, bugs and all, it had a clear vision: To make a Linux desktop environment that was clean, attractive and simple to use.
So even though there is still much debate among Linux users as to whether or not this has been successful, Unity has become a fairly popular option. This is obvious based on the continued growth of its user base on Ubuntu, and its adoption on other distributions as well.
Unity as a GNOME replacement
Is GNOME 3 destined to become a failure and will Unity be the new goto KDE alternative?
The short answer is no. The longer answer goes back to what I said previously: newbies will use the default desktop provided for them.
Advanced users will seek out alternatives and find the desktop that's best suited for them. That said, I suspect that most people who are disliking Unity will not find GNOME 3 to be a logical alternative. The reason being that they both share radical approaches to how they allow the user to browse around the desktop.
Despite the landslide of articles out there expressing how GNOME is dying and why everyone is jumping ship, I tend to take a more agnostic view of the situation. As someone who has been in the GNOME camp for years, I believe a wait and see approach is going to be the most pragmatic in this case.
Even if GNOME 3 is the future of the GNOME desktop and everyone does decide to jump ship, these types of events have a way of working themselves out. Remember what transpired with Unity? Despite the fact that many purists still hate it, other users (such as myself), have come around.
With a little tender loving care, a clearer direction and less focus on overcompensating, I think we could actually see the GNOME project bounce back. Remember, this is a project that has pushed through 15 years worth of challenges. So it's entirely possible, despite the really lousy direction being taken currently, that GNOME releases in the future could be fantastic.