GNOME 3.4: A Question Searching for an Answer

GNOME 3.4 is full of small changes. But what these changes add up to is open to debate.


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To anticipate the first question: No, the newly released GNOME 3.4 does nothing to change the general structure of GNOME 3. Nor does it install by default with any of the extensions that reproduce GNOME 2, although users can download many of them from the GNOME Extensions page.


Instead, GNOME 3.4 is an incremental release, focusing on polishing the GNOME 3 release series without introducing any major structural or conceptual changes. Specifically, the new release begins the implementation of the design concepts summarized two months ago by Allan Day.

Depending on your perspective, this is either an incredibly gutsy decision that shows GNOME's developers refusing to compromise their vision, or an irresponsible ignoring of users' feedback.

However, if you download the Live CD of the release, you'll find more than cosmetic changes. You'll also find a scattering of improvements in old apps, and the introduction of a few new apps as well.

But are such changes random? Or do they indicate trends in GNOME development? Such questions are much harder to answer than the changes are to describe.

The Redesign

With the GNOME 3 series a year old, the project is gradually redefining its Human Interface Guidelines. The 3.4 release marks a transition in the guidelines, with some applications conforming to the new design principles, with others still to come.

You can tell which applications have been re-designed to the new standards at a glance. Like all but a few small-windows utilities, they open full-screen, and the title bar has only a close button in order to reduce clutter.

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However, one of the most noticeable features of the redesigned apps is the scroll bars. They are thinner than the old scroll bars, and omit the arrows at each end, which are usually so small that some users could have trouble clicking them with the mouse. Instead, users are expected to do what many have done for years anyway, and drag the much larger position indicator up and down.

The indicator, too, is easier to find with the default theme, being blue against a light gray background. By contrast, the older design made them light gray on dark gray, which makes the indicator harder to find.

The other characteristic of the redesign is the transfer of menus from the title bar to a single menu in the panel. But while the redesigned scroll bars seems sensible, this change seems arbitrary -- at best, the difference between the titlebar and the panel seems minimal.

In fact, given that most apps open maximized so that users are less likely to lose track of them, there seems no theoretical reason for the move. After all, users don't need to search for the title bar. The change would actually have made more sense in GNOME 2 than GNOME 3.

Nor does the change work well in practice. In GNOME's web browser, the single menu on the panel means that items once clearly organized by a half dozen sub-menus are now tossed into a single menu, and are one more mouse-click away. In the text editor, the single menu means that only Quit is in the panel menu, and all the everyday options remain in the traditional menu, either because the editor is unconverted or because the panel menu can't handle the complexity.

Add the fact that some apps are untransitioned, and some third party apps might conceivably never be squeezed into the new standard, and the change quickly moves from arbitrary to actively annoying. It doesn't help, either, than items in the menu are separated by wide spaces, creating the appearance that some are missing.

Several higher-level decisions in the redesign also raise questions. For example, is the separation of mounted disks and documents from the file manager really an improvement? From one perspective, by making three apps where only one existed before, GNOME is adding to the complexity without getting many benefits. From another, GNOME is making functionality easier to understand by giving each function into its own application.

Similarly, when the Removable Devices icon is on the overview (in the lower right corner), why do the displays of mounted and virtual disks open in the workspace? Placing all disk displays on the same screen would only make sense.

Of course, the redesign will be clearer and easier to assess when complete. Yet, for now, it seems to be still evolving. Since natural selection is still going on, the results are not only mixed, but, in some cases, more complicated than the design standards that are being replaced.

Apps Old and New

Exploring the 3.4 release reveals dozens of random changes in different applications. For instance, the email reader Evolution now auto-detects common Internet service providers. Cheese, the camera operator, now defaults to WebM when saving videos. The Image Viewer now includes an optional side pane for meta-data. The Contacts app includes more fields for information. All these changes are welcome, but, considered together, don't seem to suggest any particular direction.

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Tags: Linux, Gnome

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