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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.
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.
A Tale of Two Philosophies
Today, the Linux desktop is dominated by two design philosophies: the traditional and the experimental. Neither seems ideal for future innovation, especially when compared to the previous generalist tradition.
Innovation may not have been the priority for the generalist design philosophy, but sooner or later its followers got around to considering the possibilities. By contrast, both the current design philosophies constrain the possibilities of innovations due to their innate assumptions.
On the one hand, traditional desktops are undeniably popular. Probably, if you added up the users of each, they would comprise a majority of Linux users, or at least the largest single group. Linux Mint in particular owes much of its popularity to giving average users what they want, while KDE and GNOME seem to have seriously under-estimated the strong conservatism of the user base when they started experimenting.
Nothing whatsoever is wrong with meeting such preferences. In fact, users can reasonably expect developers to listen to their preferences to some degree. At the same time though, the traditional desktops seem seriously limited in their ability to innovate.
For one thing, a good deal of the development effort on the traditional desktop has gone into salvaging them. At times, the improvisations have been nothing short of ingenious. Yet the development teams involved are small. So far, they have had few resources to spare for anything else.
Although more resources should become available as traditional desktops complete their initial development, by definition, they can hardly be expected to be the source of innovation. After all, the fact that there was little new that was left to be done on the traditional desktop is a prime reason for the current situation.
At the most, the traditional desktops can be expected to add support for new standards and protocols. But new ways to work? Major new features? If users wanted to experiment, they wouldn't be using traditional desktops in the first place.
Nor can anyone expect traditional desktops to adapt to new form factors. An Xfce for tablets or a Mate for smartphones is a contradiction in terms. Traditional desktops are ideal for workstations and laptops, but they are too specialized to shift elsewhere. While they are not going to disappear any time soon, they amount to an evolutionary dead end.
The Mobile Limitations
On the other hand, the experimental desktops have their own limitations for future innovation. The only difference is that, unlike the traditional desktops, their limitations are a result of the assumptions that they have chosen to build upon.
KDE, GNOME 3 and Unity were all built with an awareness of the growing importance of mobile devices. Partly, this awareness was a recognition that mobile interfaces were those most familiar to users.
However, both GNOME 3 and Unity went on to assume that what users wanted was what they knew. If anyone on the development team ever thought to consider that what people tolerated because of the small screens on mobile devices was not necessarily what they preferred, their doubts failed to influence the final design.
Nor does there appear to be any consideration of the possibility that what is acceptable when doing consumer tasks, such as reading email or chatting, which is what tablets are primarily for, is unsuitable for productivity tasks, such as word-processing or coding, which is what workstations and laptops are best-suited for.
Instead, GNOME and Unity ported all the limitations of mobile devices to other form factors. Screen changes, apps that open full-screen -- all the most annoying features of mobile devices became the standard for all devices.
The fact that such design elements were a step backward on workstations and laptops never seems to have been raised. The excitement of change and the convenience of having a single code base across all form factors overwhelmed all other considerations. Both GNOME and Unity have flexibility, but at the cost of reduced usability in many common circumstances.
KDE, by contrast, has avoided this limitation by building modularly. In the KDE 4 series, even the interface is a separate module. Consequently, much of the code can be re-used as it stands for different form factors, while the interface can be rewritten as needed for circumstances.
This arrangement is not as convenient as a single code base. It requires somewhat more recoding. But it does mean that, unlike GNOME and Unity, KDE can optimize the interface for each device.
From the end user's perspective, KDE's arrangement is more likely to be satisfactory, if only because, eventually, users will be able to choose the interface they want regardless of the device they are working on. Already, Plasma Desktop and Plasma Netbook are available on any installation, and within a year, Plasma Active, the mobile interface, is likely to join them.
Innovation Without Imitation
The three experimental desktops also face another challenge: charting their own course, instead of following the time-honored approach of copying what proprietary equivalents are already doing.
In the case of mobile devices, proprietary norms include viewing mobile devices as what Aaron Seigo refers to as "app buckets" -- "places that you dump a bunch of toy apps into."
Seigo goes on to suggest that this profit-centered approach ignores potentially more useful courses of development, such as viewing all form-factors as part of a larger system, in which devices can be easily connected and synced as useful:
It's a sort of reverse tragedy of the commons, where there is no commons, and you have one group that owns the landscape and stands to benefit from it. What happens is that everyone else who would stand to benefit from the commons just stands out in the cold. So, in the case of both iOS and Android, for instance, there is an immense amount of innovation and product development that is simply not happening, because these platforms are not suited to creating devices for vertical markets.
In other words, mobile interfaces are being developed largely for the sake of profit from the app stores, a matter that interests the manufacturers, while ignoring other possibilities that might interest users more.
So far, neither GNOME nor KDE has imitated this tendency. However, Canonical has increased efforts to monetize Ubuntu by providing links to online services as part of Unity. The most obvious of these is the inclusion of results from Amazon in online searches, a move that benefits Canonical but is an irrelevant distraction for users trying to be productive. It also opens up major privacy issues.
The Future of the Linux Desktop
Assuming that the current situation continues, the future of innovation on the Linux desktop does not look promising.
By their nature, the traditional desktops constrict the amount of innovation they are likely to provide. By contrast, the experimental desktops share design assumptions that inhibit their abilities to innovate in ways that benefit users. Neither alternative is desirable.
So far, the only bright spot seems to be KDE, which has not abandoned the traditional desktop and has implemented or at least analyzed alternatives that avoid the limitations of other experimental desktops. Unfortunately, though, KDE is not to everyone's taste, and its perceptions have been shoved out of the spotlight by Canonical's aggressive commercialism.
Meanwhile, whether GNOME can produce a useful alternative remains to be seen.
Perhaps a new desktop with new priorities will become popular and change this situation. As events of the last two years have shown, such a development is perfectly possible.
Yet for now, the irony is that, having reached a stage where developers can seriously consider innovation, the Linux desktop has become a victim of its own recent history and is less able to innovate usefully than ever before.