Experimentation vs. Tradition: The Future of Innovation on the Linux Desktop

The new diversity of Linux desktop choices could actually hinder innovation.
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A few years ago, users had two -- maybe three -- major choices for a Linux Desktop. Now, several user revolts later, they have eight or more.

But while this increased choice may be good for users in the short term, how will it affect long-term development? It may be that this diversity means either less innovation in the future, or a constraint of innovation to one or two unpromising directions.

The possible consequences are overdue for discussion. The current diversity has been accompanied by several user revolts, and the accompanying flame wars have left their mark. As a result, many users seem less willing to consider innovations than they were a few years ago.

Rumor suggests that some desktop developers, discouraged by the reception of their work, have either quit or reduced their activities. Others seem to be in denial, refusing to consider the possibility that they might have made mistakes. Those attitudes could easily discourage the consideration of desktops that are very different from what already exists.

Nor has much reconstruction taken place in the aftermath of the user revolts. KDE, which was at the center of the first user revolt, has managed to recover to a considerable extent, but GNOME has barely begun talking about what steps to take. Meanwhile, Ubuntu's response has been to downplay criticisms of its Unity interface.

As for Linux Mint, while its Mate and Cinnamon recreations of GNOME 2 have benefited the most from the user reactions, it has little incentive to think beyond the immediate.

The problem is in the types of desktops that have emerged in the new diversity. Numerically, users may have more choice, but in terms of design philosophy, we actually have no more choice that we did when the upheavals began. And statistically, we have little chance of moving beyond that situation.

Changing Philosophy

For all practical purposes, until 2010, the Linux desktop was dominated by a single philosophy. Yes, lightweight and tiled window managers, even the command line, also existed, but none of these were popular enough to ever be a major influence. Nor are they now.

Both GNOME and KDE had their origins in the late 1990s. At that time, the goal of the Linux desktop was to be all things to all users. KDE and GNOME followed this general approach for most of a decade. Each emphasized incremental improvements rather than anything radical and attempted to catch up with proprietary alternatives, particularly Windows.

Even Xfce, which was conceived as an interface for experienced users, eventually succumbed to this generalist approach. Around 2005, Xfce added user-friendliness to its philosophy of lightweight efficiency, a balancing act that it continues to maintain with considerable success to this day.

The release of KDE 4.0 in 2008 marked the end of this generalist approach. Contrary to some users' fears at the time, KDE did not abandon the generalist approach. However, having achieved a rough parity with Windows, KDE made generalism a lower priority. Generalism had taken the project as far as it could, and the more interesting question became what should happen next on the desktop.

Caught up in its rivalry with KDE, GNOME quickly followed, offering its own reinterpretation of the desktop -- although, unlike KDE, it did not provide a functional fallback. Meanwhile, having failed to assume leadership of the free software community, Ubuntu/Canonical attempted innovation on its own and produced Unity.

At this point, users reacted against innovation. Throughout 2011, the flames were steadily replaced by a search for traditional alternatives.

Overnight, Xfce soared in popularity. So did LXDE, with Lubuntu becoming one of the main alternative desktops for Ubuntu. At the same time, Trinity, a fork of KDE 3, emerged. By 2012, Linux Mint had forked GNOME 2 in Mate, and recreated it on top of GNOME 3 in Cinnamon, while GNOME Shell Extensions developed to the point where it became a do-it-yourself kit for bringing back GNOME 2.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Ubuntu, Gnome, KDE, Linux Mint, desktop, Unity

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