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How will GNOME 3.0 be Received?

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It could go either way.

After a week of using GNOME Shell, the preview of GNOME 3.0, on Fedora 13, that is the closest I can come to a prediction about how GNOME’s new desktop will be received when it is officially released in the spring of 2011.

On the one hand, GNOME Shell is an attractive and easy to use interface that integrates multiple workspaces better than any desktop that I’ve seen. On the other hand, it requires some adjustments in the way you work, and, in its present form, feels inflexible — although part of that inflexibility may be due to features that haven’t been implemented yet.

GNOME Shell has been available in GNOME releases since version 2.29 last year. It is not a standard part of most installations, but you can find it in the repositories of most major distributions. Once you install the package and its dependencies, you can run it with the command gnome-shell –replace.

After a few seconds, GNOME Shell will replace the existing desktop until you logout (if you want to always use the GNOME Shell, add it to your applications to run on start up). Meanwhile, you can refer to it while following the observations below.

A Skeptical Background

Just going into development, GNOME 3.0 faces obstacles. In the aftermath of KDE 4.0, users are suspicious of major interface changes. Although columnist Jack Wallen, who proclaimed last April that “I have seen the future and it is GNOME 3” is not alone in praising GNOME Shell, the majority reaction seems to be indifference mixed with a mild skepticism. Accustomed to the GNOME 2 series of releases, many apparently see no urgent need to change anything.

Even discussion of the preview seems subdued and relatively rare, probably due partly to the fact that the GNOME 3.0 release has already been delayed twice.

Another obstacle is that the new desktop requires 3-D acceleration, which is still not universal on the Linux desktop. In some cases, potential users must either use proprietary video drivers or stay clear of GNOME Shell (My own exploration was curtailed until I had a computer with Intel video, which has free 3-D drivers).

Among those who try GNOME Shell, I suspect that reaction will be further influenced by how comfortable they are with mobile devices. Constant switches between screens are unavoidable in GNOME Shell, and the result is a desktop that would almost be more at home on a phone or music player than on a workstation computer.

That interfaces for mobile devices are influencing the design of workstation desktops is a sign of the times — but what works on mobile devices may not be the most comfortable design for the desktop.

I wonder, too, whether users want a workstation desktop that works similarly to their phone interface. The similarity makes GNOME Shell easy to learn, but it might not be the most efficient or comfortable design when you have plenty of display space.

Out of the Desktop, Constantly Switching

All these issues and background problems may be enough on their own to prevent GNOME 3.0 from getting a fair hearing. However, GNOME Shell may create mixed feelings all by itself.

The overall look of GNOME Shell is an extension of the industrial minimalist look that the GNOME 2 series has been tending towards for several years. Everything is clean and stripped down for functionality, and recent GNOME applications like Brasero look very much at home in GNOME Shell.

Essentially, GNOME Shell offers two main views. The first is the ordinary desktop or workspace, which you can configure from a right-click menu, just as in the GNOME 2.0 series.

The second is the overview, which contains the menus and views of the workspaces you define. On the left of the overview is the menu, which from top to bottom offers an application search field, a list of all applications, a list of favorite (and open) applications, links to places and devices, and, at the bottom, recently opened applications.

On the right of the overview is the workspace display. It is a horizontally-scrolling display of workspaces, with a link to each one below.

The constant between the workspaces and the overview is the panel, which from left to right includes Activities (a link to the overview), the currently active window, A clock and calendar, notification tray icons, and a menu from which you can centrally declare your status for chat and social networking, or log in or out. So far, there are no applets that can be added to the panel.

If you are already a frequent user of multiple workspaces, then you will immediately appreciate the Activities overview. Not only does it offer easy switching back and forth between workspaces, but it offers a thumbnail in which all the applications running on each workspace are clearly visible. Its workspace display is much cleaner than the cramped horizontal scroll currently offered in KDE (or, for that matter, than the Zoom Out view that the early KDE 4 series offered).

Similarly, if you are jealous of every square centimeter of screen display, you might appreciate the exiling of menus from the workspace. Even if you do not use what KDE calls a classical menu — one whose sub-menus cascade across the desktop — you no longer have to worry about obscuring part of the desktop with the menu.

However, if you do not use multiple workspaces, or use a menu frequently, you may very well become annoyed by the constant requirement to shift back and forth between your workspace and the overview.

The only other alternative is to set up one workspace with all the icons you are likely to need, so that you rarely need the overview. But the main tendency in GNOME Shell is to pressure you into using the overview, whether you want to or not. Even to see a minimized application requires you to switch between the workspace and the overview, unless you happen to remember what workspace the application is on, and the workspace is not too crowded.

To further the pressure, the overview of a workspace, with thumbnails neatly arranged in rows, is not what you find when you zoom in on a workspace. Instead, what you find on a workspace is a stack of open windows, and no easy way to search through them. Instead, what you have to do is select a window from the overview, so that it is active when you zoom in — which gives yet another reason to switch constantly between activities and overview.

Probably, too, you should not open too many windows on one workspace. But that means opening more workspaces, and increasing your need to be constantly switching views.

No matter how you look at GNOME Shell, the result is the same: either you are going to do a lot of clicking, or else you will need to learn the keyboard shortcuts. Either way, the momentary pause as the screen redraws may be a distraction to your thoughts.

The Devil’s in the Details

The lack of flexibility in the general design is reinforced by the menu on the overview, at least in its present state. Currently, at least it is uneditable, and unscrollable, too. If you prefer a file manager to a series of links, or want links to other locations, you are out of luck.

It is possible, for instance, to get a view of the directory structure outside of your home directory, but the means are buried several clicks deeper than in the GNOME 2 series. That is fine for regular users, but less than ideal if you happen to double as root user and want to refer to the directory hierarchy while you have a terminal open.

Just as important, if you open too many windows at the same time, the bottom parts of the menu become inaccessible. Since Recent Items are at the bottom of the menu, the only way to take advantage of this feature is to close applications and reduce the amount of space occupied by the favorites list — an interruption that distracts from the simple act of trying to start an application.

Other problems with the overview menu include the list of applications, which is alphabetical, but not grouped by categories. If you want to find, for example, administration tools, you have to scroll through the entire list. Similarly, because favorites and open applications are in a single display, you cannot always be sure which is which.

Presumably, such quirks will be smoothed out before GNOME 3’s release. Meanwhile, familiarity does mitigate them. Yet, as you deal with such limitations, you may feel — yet again — that you are working the way that GNOME Shell requires, rather than how you would prefer.

A hung jury?

The preview, I suspect, shows GNOME Shell in its purest form, with the division of labor between workspaces and the overview rigidly observed. By the time of GNOME 3.0’s official release, perhaps applets and more customization will soften the distinction between the two views, and make GNOME Shell more friendly. Perhaps, too, the overview menu will become more flexible.

Meanwhile, I hesitate to pass judgment on a work still in progress. GNOME Shell offers plenty to admire, particularly its ingenuity and its treatment of workspaces as an integrated part of the desktop, rather than as an add-on (which is how most desktops treat them).

Yet, without more flexibility, GNOME Shell requires considerable planning and organization to make it a tolerable environment. Once you have your standard workspaces set up according to tasks, then everyday computing becomes far easier and more tolerable. But, even then, GNOME Shell requires far more customization than the GNOME 2 series. You have to wonder whether uses will accept this requirement, or switch to alternatives that are more ready to use out of the box.

My growing conviction is that GNOME is on to something promising with GNOME Shell, but hasn’t worked out all the implications of the design to make it acceptable to different styles of computing. How many users greet GNOME 3.0 as the future of the desktop and how many immediately demand a fork of GNOME 3.0 will depend very much on how well the GNOME project addresses the need for greater flexibility. But, because GNOME Shell is so different from the GNOME 2 series, I suspect that we will most likely see both responses.

ALSO SEE: Eight Ways GNOME Could be Improved

AND: Top 20 Apps for GNOME Fans

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