In the last two years, the Linux desktop has settled into a period of quiet diversity. The user revolts of 2008-2012 are safely in the past, and users are scattered among at least seven major desktops -- Cinnamon, GNOME, KDE,LXDE, MATE, Unity, and Xfce -- and likely to stay that way.
So what comes next? What will the next innovations on the desktop be? Where will they come from? Prediction is as safe as investing in penny mining stocks, but some major trends for the next couple of years seem obvious without the bother of a tarot reading.
The bottom line? Expect a few incremental changes and many behind the scenes, but little or nothing to challenge traditional ideas of the desktop.
Preserving the Classic Linux Desktop
Some of the major desktops seem unlikely sources of change. The point of MATE is to provide a classical desktop. LXDE and Xfce have the same goal, but add being lightweight. All three have succeeded in their goals, so successfully that they seem to have nowhere else to go. Nor, to be fair, are many of their users likely to want major changes.
Xfce can sometimes be surprising, but, of these three desktops, MATE seems the most probable source of change, since Linux Mint does make some effort to develop MATE in tandem with Cinnamon.
However, even in MATE, upcoming changes are likely to be more of the same -- incremental changes, rather than revolutionary ones. MATE's latest release, for example, features the addition of Compiz as a window manager, and a dialogue for managing kernels -- both of which are welcome enough, but unlikely to change the concept of the desktop.
After all, while Compiz's cubed desktop catches the eye, it has been available for almost a decade. The only difference today is that more Linux systems today have the hardware acceleration to run it.
The prospects for Cinnamon are only slightly higher. Being an entirely new desktop, rather than a re-creation of an old one, as MATE is, Cinnamon is more oriented towards innovation. The last couple of releases in particular have seen the addition of hot spots, applets, desklets (desktop applets), and a rationalization of the configuration tools. All of this increases Cinnamon's customizability, but fails to change or give new choices for how anyone works on the desktop.
The headings on the latest release announcement say it all: Responsiveness and memory usage, more polish, more settings and hardware sources.
GNOME: Aesthetic and Consistent
During earlier releases, GNOME developers were the masters of incremental releases. GNOME 3 was a major departure, introducing radical changes and a move away from the classical desktop that sparked widespread user revolts. Those revolts were quieted by the introduction of extensions that allowed users to undo many of the radical changes, but the experience seems to have left the project with even less of a taste for radical changes than before.
Even the relatively modest changes proposed for an upcoming GNOME 4 appear to have been abandoned or postponed, to say nothing of the proposed schedule. Instead, the changes for the upcoming 3.16 release are the very definition of "incremental."
What GNOME has been concentrating on is design. Starting with the minimalist design that the project has always favored, in the last few years, GNOME has developed a desktop is that by far the most consistent and most aesthetic of the major choices. GNOME has discussed improving security, but design is likely to continue to be its most obvious trend. Design is, after all, what it is best at.
KDE: Learning from Experience
KDE, whose fourth release series triggered the first user revolt, is now preparing the fifth version of its Plasma desktop. This time, the project is managing expectations better. Plasma 5 has been held back from general distribution, and version 5.2, currently in second beta, is apparently intended as the first to go into general release.
Plasma's fifth release series is an improvement over the fourth, with many core components rewritten and speeded up. However, like the recent work on most other desktops, it shows few signs of any rethinking.
The array of innovations that marked the fourth series, making the desktop more flexible and customizable, is missing from the 5.2 beta. Instead, it adds administrative and configuration tools, a few new widgets, and a handful of minor improvements, such as the ability to undo previous changes to the desktop.
The greatest change is that the new version of Plasma shows the efforts of the Visual Design Group that has been working for the last year on improving KDE's often under-organized dialogues. Unlike GNOME, which might be described as humanistic in typographical terms, KDE has opted for a geometrical design, resulting in a distinctly different look. Otherwise, Plasma 5 might more accurately be described as Plasma 4, Part 2.
Unity and the Internet of Things
Ubuntu's Unity goes where Canonical Software goes. Unity started as an attempt to upgrade the aesthetics of the Linux desktop. In the last couple of years, however, its releases have offered little immediate to the desktop user.
Instead, the development of Unity has been largely invisible to users. Its development has been focusing on porting the desktop to mobile devices, in keeping with Canonical's plans to release a phone and a tablet.
More recently, Canonical has concentrated on cloud services, improvements to virtualization via Driver, and readying for smart devices. Sooner or later, administrative tools for these purposes are likely to be added to Unity, extending the traditional desktop in several directions.
However, while undeniably innovative, these directions all depend on Canonical establishing niches in highly competitive markets, which is by no means assured. Should Canonical fail, then any tools added to Unity will be white elephants rather than meaningful contributions to the free desktop.
With Technical Challenges Like These
Current plans for the Linux desktop are decidedly more modest than those of the last era. But perhaps that is what both users and developers want -- to avoid a repetition of the user revolts, and get on with their work as usual.
At any rate, the changes coming for all the major desktops may be enough without complicating events with new options. All the major desktops will be facing the transitions from the X Window System to Wayland, and from Init to Systemd in the next couple of years, and Systemd is already the center of controversy. With these challenges looming, who has the time or desire to take on more?
In fact, under these conditions, perhaps the fact that most changes will be minor, invisible, or aesthetic should not be surprising. Perhaps the surprise is that we are seeing any improvements at all.