The Current State of Linux Desktops: Page 2

It's a contradictory era on the desktop today.
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Nor can users depend on the popularity of GNOME technology to maintain a common standard. Developers at the Yorba Foundation told me last year that, already, writing for both GNOME and Unity can sometimes be difficult. Since both Cinnamon and Mate are maintained by Linux Mint, they should remain compatible, but, in general, we may be returning to the time when applications written for one desktop can't be counted upon to run smoothly on another.

The new diversity may also discourage new Linux users—many of whom find even the idea of more one desktop difficult to accept. Where experienced users may hop happily between desktops and distributions but, new users may suffer with anxiety because there are too many options.

User Loyalty

One outcome of the user revolts is that user loyalty seems weaker. A vocal but unknown percentage of users concluded that the developers of GNOME, KDE and Unity ignored their interests and can no longer be trusted. Having started down this path, they are more likely to explore alternatives than in the past, at least periodically.

To some extent, KDE retains much of its former user base, although its ranking in polls is usually about 5 percent below what it was in the GNOME-KDE era. That it has survived so well may be due to the fact that it addressed user complaints only a few months after KDE 4.0 provoked a revolt, and within a couple of releases it had added most of the features that users demanded.

By contrast, GNOME was slower to respond. The project took over a year to answer users' complaints by promoting GNOME-Shell extensions. By then, resentment had been allowed to fester.

The only environments that seem to have won loyalty in the previous era are Cinnamon and Mate. Part of the reason for this continued trust is that both retain GNOME 2—the desktop that, in the user revolt, sometimes assumed almost mythic qualities—as their model.

However, what is more important is that Linux Mint has done a better job than any of the other desktop choices in listening to users. Among the reasons to use Linux Mint listed on the project's About Us page are the fact that "it's community-driven. Users are encouraged to send feedback to the project so that their ideas can be used to improve Linux Mint."

In other words, Linux Mint promises exactly what many users felt was missing in GNOME, KDE and Unity: a sense that what users wanted matter. Moreover, so far as anyone can tell, Mint has kept that promise and has yet to need damage control. If any environments have user loyalty in this new era, they are Cinnamon and Mate—but even their support would likely disappear quickly in a crisis in this disillusioned age.

The Future of Innovation

The User Revolt era was caused by the general recognition that the Linux desktop had caught up to its proprietary rivals and could now experiment with what came next.

Unfortunately, the experiments were too much change too fast, and they were made with next to no consultation of users. Nostalgia for GNOME 2 became commonplace—and with it a distrust of anything new. GNOME 2, I heard frequently during the user revolts, was an ideal desktop, and any changes would only subtract from its perfection.

Despite this attitude, change has continued—but in more furtive ways. Few, for example, seem concerned that none of the major desktops defaults to a GNOME 2-like menu whose sub-menus open across the desktops. Change has also occurred in the libraries and sub-systems that most users never see.

What has slowed to the point of immobility is change that users can see on the screen. Aaron Seigo of KDE told me nine months ago that KDE developers have deliberately slowed the pace of change, often introducing visible changes in developmental interfaces before incorporating them in the main KDE release.

In all the modern desktop environments, incremental change has become the norm. Changes that would give users new ways of organizing their work, like KDE Activities, or might change the workflow, like GNOME's overview, are simply not being attempted. Probably, it will be several years before any project will contemplate any major changes except on mobile devices.

The Tricks of Modern Times

At the start of the user revolts, desktop developers dreamed of clean, innovative desktops which would show that free software would no longer be second rate. Instead of desperately copying Windows and OS X, the Linux desktop would set the pace, becoming the model that others would follow.

For complex reasons—some of which were nobody's fault—reality fell far short of that dream. What we are left with now is mostly an emphasis on users' rights, a deep conservatism and a lack of long-term vision. It's a contradictory set of characteristics that shows exactly how badly the user revolts scarred development.

By listening to users, Linux Mint may promote a series of minor innovations. If KDE has learned to manage the pace of change, it might also produce small improvements. Otherwise, the desktop seems likely to remain a quiet place for the next year or two. Perhaps a change may come with GNOME 4.0, especially if it focuses on making security and privacy tools accessible and easy for users.

But until then? We may have lived past the user revolts, but we are still dealing directly with their consequences. Calling modern times the Reaction era sums them up as well as any phrase.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Ubuntu, Gnome, KDE, Linux Mint, desktop, community, Unity

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