Dropping GNOME Fallback Mode: The Right Decision, Wrongly Handled

In dropping fallback mode, GNOME made the right decision -- and utterly failed to communicate that fact.
Posted November 13, 2012

Bruce Byfield

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You have to pity the GNOME project these days. Even when it does the right thing, it does so in a way that maximizes controversy.

I'm talking about the project's recent announcement about dropping support for fallback mode. Since it was first introduced with the GNOME 3.0 release the fallback mode has provided an approximation of the GNOME 2 desktop for users who lacked the hardware acceleration needed for the latest desktop environment. Now, GNOME developers have announced that the upcoming 3.8 release will not include the fallback mode.

From any perspective, this decision was correct. Although described in the GNOME 3 release notes as "an excellent experience [that] incorporates many of the improvements contained in the release," fallback mode has actually been a crippled version of the last GNOME 2 releases.

Far from attracting users, fallback mode appears to have been widely regarded as a contemptuous gesture to those who either lacked the necessary hardware or who preferred not to use the proprietary drivers needed for the hardware acceleration required by the GNOME 3 release series.

Part of the problem may have been, as GNOME developers suggest, that "Some distributions labeled this mode as something other than fallback mode. This caused some grievance as it gave an impression that it was intended to provide a GNOME 2 experience."

But whatever the case, few are likely to miss fallback mode. When the news reached Slashdot, one commenter described fallback mode as "non-functional." The most positive comment was, "I hate fallback mode, but it's better than nothing."

Moreover, while fallback mode was inadequate from the start, in the last year, GNOME Shell extensions, and Linux Mint's Cinnamon and Mate have all begun offering an experience far closer to that of GNOME 2.

How much such considerations played in the decision is uncertain. For GNOME developers, a large part of the decision was simply practical. According to the initial proposal, fallback mode was not being tested and was simply in maintenance mode.

Just as importantly, an increasing number of applications, including Totem, Empathy and Cheese no longer worked in fallback mode, and some core features, such as keyboard configuration, would require an overhaul if they were to continue to work in fallback mode.

In addition, as users of the latest Fedora release have found, a new technology called llvmpipe offers a way around video drivers without hardware acceleration.

Despite a small reduction in performance with llvmpipe and its lack of support for a few chip architectures, the efficiency of maintaining only a single desktop environment speaks for itself.

Admittedly, GNOME never made clear to users (although they might reasonably have guessed) that "fallback mode was always meant to be a temporary stopgap."

Still, the alternative would have been to increase efforts to support something that simply "does not provide an acceptable experience" and was no longer needed anyway.

Despite all the reactions to the decision as GNOME's abandonment of users, it was obviously nothing of the sort. The switch to llvmpipe improves user experience, and the decision to drop fallback mode was a well-considered decision made over several months.

True, you might argue that GNOME should never have implemented such a half-hearted decision as fallback mode in the first place -- or perhaps not depended on hardware acceleration. But at the very least, the project is finally correcting its original mistake.

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Tags: open source, Linux, marketing, Gnome, desktop

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