GNOME 3.4: A Question Searching for an Answer: Page 2

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


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By contrast, GNOME has taken some pains to renovate Epiphany, its Mozilla-based browser. Now rebranded Web, its minimalist design now resembles the Chromium browser more than Firefox, both in redesign and speed.

However, in adding a panel menu, Web has not opted for a traditional menu array for other items. Instead, they get crammed into another menu, this one on the top right of the browser window -- complicating matters even further by giving two jumbled lists of features to search through instead of one. The result does nothing to make Web a contender against Chromium and Firefox, and you have to wonder why GNOME insists on keeping this also-run alive.

With this release, too, the GNOME 3 series has spent time on accessibility, which was largely ignored in last year's 3.0 release. In 3.4, the Orca reader is integrated into the desktop, and improved contrast modes and an adjustable zoom help to make computing easier for those with weak vision. Given that GNOME 2 was the undisputed leader in accessibility on the free desktop, it seems inevitable that the project should have returned to it at last. If anything, more attention to accessibility seems overdue.

Other new apps continue GNOME's trend of simplifying the display. The GNOME Disk Utility, renamed Disk, now both lists disks and serves as a partition editor. A separate utility called Document finds, displays and organizes various document formats, while Boxes is a virtualization image wizard and manager.

It’s probable that Boxes will become the major feature of the 3.4 release, since it not only fits into the design philosophy, but also makes virtualization much easier to set up. In the last few years, with all the talk about GNOME's usability and interface principles, Boxes is one of the few additions that is simply an improvement that users will appreciate.

Back to Basics, or Frivolous Fiddling?

The jury is still out on GNOME's redesign, as well as on many of the improvements and new apps. However, whatever the public verdicts on these things, the features that best summarize the overall approach in GNOME 3.4 are two of the most frivolous.

First, according to the release notes, Wanda the Fish, a silly but time-honored applet of GNOME 2 that wriggles across the screen, is back. This time, it's as an Easter egg (and, no, I don't know where it is, and haven't bothered looking.). Perhaps the intention is to encourage exploration of the desktop environment?

Then there is the wallpaper, which lightens or darkens according to the time of day. This feature may have been inspired by a similar wallpaper introduced in an early Fedora release, or perhaps by the live (that is, animated) wallpapers available for Android.

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These features are notable in that they are the first indications of triviality in the GNOME 3 series. Together, they might seem to deliver a message. However, what the message in their triviality is anybody's guess.

One possibility is that they mark the moment when GNOME put aside major changes for a few years, leaving controversy and concentrating on incremental releases. They might signal that, instead of addressing the major issues of desktop environments, GNOME developers are back doing what they do best.

Another interpretation is that GNOME has no intention of addressing the questions about its intent and design that have been raised in the last year. Instead, its developers reserve the right to do whatever interests them -- and, if what interests them is trivial, that in no way reduces their right to do as they please.

In itself, GNOME 3.4 is a release made up of tweaks and small innovations. But, like Wanda and the animated wallpaper, exactly what message - if any -- the content of 3.4 sends about GNOME as a whole remains obscure.

Although the project has publicized the release almost as heavily as it did GNOME 3.0, and rebranded a number of apps, I can't help wondering if even the GNOME project knows exactly what message it wants to deliver.

At a time when GNOME is fragmenting and possibly losing market share, this seems a question badly in need of an answer.

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Tags: Linux, Gnome

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