The Dilemma of the Linux Desktop

Between Ubuntu's Unity and Linux Mint's Cinnamon, we have a snapshot of the Linux desktop in crisis.


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Last week, the current crisis on the Linux desktop was neatly summarized in the headlines.

On one hand, Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth blogged about his intention to replace menus in Unity with a system he called "Head Up Display" (HUD).

On the other hand, Linux Mint announced the latest version of Cinnamon, its effort to re-create and extend the classic GNOME 2 desktop on top of GNOME 3.

Both Unity and Cinnamon are reactions to GNOME 3. However, Unity is the result of Ubuntu's inability to work with the GNOME project, not a difference in design policy. While Unity and GNOME 3 are very different interfaces, both are the result of a top-down process, in which the design is chosen by lead developers and allegedly supported by usability principles.

By contrast, Cinnamon is a reaction against GNOME 3's top-down decision making. Clement Lefebvre, Linux Mint's lead developer, writes that, "The Gnome development team is not interested in the features we implemented, it's opposed to adding them to Gnome Shell, and it doesn't share our vision of a desktop."

In fact, Cinnamon is being represented not just as a complaint of one group of developers about the behavior of another, but as a response made on behalf of common sense and users in general.

This stance might be seen as nothing more than posturing, except for one thing: experienced users, at least, appear to favor Linux Mint by a wide margin over Ubuntu or Fedora and openSUSE, the major distributions that ship GNOME 3.2. That's suggested not only by the much-disputed DistroWatch Page Hit statistics, but by the comments made by bloggers and pundits over the last few months. In this sense, Cinnamon seems as much a reaction against the philosophy of Unity as that of GNOME 3.

Such, apparently, is the state of the Linux desktop today. We've had a year of user revolts against GNOME and Unity, ranging from outright rejection of their recent innovations to respectful pleadings for development leads to be more responsive to other ideas.

Now, we have Unity addressing problems no one else sees as problems and Linux Mint gallantly trying to turn back the clock with only spare energy devoted to innovation. The overall absurdity would be enough to make you laugh if the effect on free software wasn't so serious.

Replacing the Menu with HUD

Recent Ubuntu releases have shown a de-emphasis of the main menu. Last week, Shuttleworth explained why: he wants to eliminate menus, replacing them first by the Head Up Display (HUD), and perhaps eventually with voice recognition. For the next release, anyway, menus and HUD will co-exist, but HUD "will ultimately replace menus in Unity applications."

Shuttleworth's blog includes a video demonstration of HUD. Basically, however, it is a keyboard-driven tool in which users type in the function they want, instead of searching the menu. HUD will attempt to complete what users enter, and will record the features that each user accesses most often in an effort to anticipate their needs better.

If anyone else is clamoring for the replacement of menus, they are doing so quietly. All the same, Shuttleworth claims four main problems exist with menus.

According to Shuttleworth, menus are hard to navigate when they have too many levels and require you to read a lot more than you need. They are also hard to use from the keyboard, and often impose an arbitrary organization that is hard to memorize.

Of these problems, only the difficulty of using menus with a keyboard has much validity. Major features do have hot keys, but in a complex application like LibreOffice, many other features don't.

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Tags: Linux, Gnome, KDE, Shuttleworth

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