One of the greatest differences between an open source operating systems and those that maintain a proprietary code structure is the flexibility in customizing each one.
While Windows and OS X offer a set-in-stone desktop environment, Linux enjoys a robust number of desktop environments from which to choose from – including the highly popular GNOME. Some may even argue that having a limited number of desktop environments would allow those distributions to hone in on gaining a larger market share. And perhaps that’s true, though I believe that most Linux enthusiasts chose Linux because of its diversity. In this article, I'll look at where GNOME came from, where it is now and the end goal I think it'll reach within the next couple of years.
GNOME from the past
My early experiences with GNOME dates back to a time before Linux was all that user friendly. Generally considered an advanced OS better suited for highly technical users, early releases of GNOME had little interest in providing a user-friendly experience. Back then, GNOME offered panels, launchers and was tied in with various gtk-based applications.
System, Utilities and Applications – this was the mantra GNOME offered for getting things done. It lacked polish, yet it still captured the interest of many Linux enthusiasts who preferred its straight forward method of getting things done on the Linux desktop.
My first experience with GNOME was using early Red Hat. Despite being ugly by today's standards, I fell in love with it back then because it was logically laid out. Anything that wasn't provided for with the GNOME desktop, could be tackled using the right config file. It was simple and it made using the Linux desktop a pleasure. No extra control sections to configure, just launch the applications you want to use and enjoy.
Sometime later, we came into what would be GNOME's golden age – GNOME 2. Unlike its previous layout, GNOME 2 offered a perfect storm of GUI controls along with a minor polish on an already functional user layout for managing your Linux desktop. At the top panel, the iconic Applications, Places and System launcher could be found anytime you needed it.
GNOME 2 was amazingly easy to use, even for first time users. Getting around the menu layout and tweaking the desktop settings was extremely simple. For me personally, this was when GNOME was at its best.
When GNOME 3 first rolled out, I'll admit that I was into other desktop environments at the time - Cinnamon, KDE and XFCE were my go-to choices. But after revisiting GNOME 3 recently, I can see how it could become the tool for a unifying desktop experience.
One of the good things I’ve heard: GNOME 3 offers a clean, clear sense of purpose in how each item appears on the desktop. This includes the menus, the default icons and even the new GNOME indicators located in the upper right hand corner of the desktop. Bundle these changes from GNOME 2, and it's easy to see that GNOME 3 was created with a very specific vision in mind.
Going back to 2008, there's a great summary of what the GNOME developers were aiming for with the development of this desktop environment and where the developers want to take this user experience. As one might expect, the biggest indication here is a seamless unification of user experience for users of all skill levels. Most specifically, this is a desktop that feels like it's destined to be on tablets and smartphones, not just desktop computers.
The biggest challenge for previous Gnome users is that it's a very different overall feel when compared to GNOME 2 (now forked as MATE). Early on with GNOME 3, there was some frustration due to the lack of a minimize option, and a new work flow in how one accesses software via Activities, among other changes made to the desktop environment.
Now to be fair, there are options to further tweak GNOME 3 into a more customized experience – the GNOME Tweak Tool, for example. This tool is fantastic in giving you control over your startup applications and even using a minimize option for your applications.
Another example of a great GNOME 3 work-around is using alternative file managers in place of Nautilus. With the recent changes to Nautilus, many Linux users have found themselves jumping over to alternatives such as Marlin. I've found that Marlin is a good solution for those Nautilus users who weren't happy with the recent changes made to the file manager. When Nautilus trimmed down the file manager and merged titlebars and toolbars, it lost functionality.
Other aspects of GNOME 3 that took some getting used to include: the applications layout and being able to locate applications easily using the built-in search feature. I've also found myself intrigued by the renovated Workspace options offered by GNOME 3. Lastly, the Activities overview mode is another great way to manage open applications and other windows. This seems to be the new alternative to offering default options such as the minimize option; at least without using the GNOME Tweak tool mentioned above.
GNOME in 2014 and beyond
GNOME desktop unification will rely heavily on the applications that are well-integrated into the new GNOME experience. At this point, many applications aren't there yet. Granted, some software titles like Firefox can be themed to better fit into the new GNOME desktop. But for the most part, applications on the GNOME desktop aren't going to blend as well as we might like. In the future, I hope we'll see greater application integration.
If applications start to embrace the GNOME environment, it could mean amazing things for the GNOME desktop in the future. As things stand now, GNOME is pushing the envelope and I think they're off to a good start. I'm still not convinced GNOME focusing on tablets, as well as the desktop, is the best way forward though. Then again, we just started the new year and anything is possible. Perhaps it'll be GNOME that manages to bridge tablets and desktops before anyone else.
Speaking for myself, I'll stick with the Cinnamon desktop as it provides me with a work flow that both meets my needs, and doesn't require me to alter my muscle memory. In the future however, perhaps GNOME will grow on me permanently.