The Dilemma of the Linux Desktop: Page 3

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


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In other words, unlike Shuttleworth, Linux Mint is not trying to tell users what they should want or how they should interact with their computers. To that extent, its philosophy seems more in keeping with what existing users want from a desktop environment.

Moreover, given GNOME 2's continued popularity, trying to recreate its user experience using the very different technologies of GNOME 3 is hard to criticize. Undoubtedly, it will be immensely popular.

In a very real sense, Cinnamon is a testimony to the ingenuity of the free and open source software community. Dissatisfied with GNOME 3 and unable to convince the GNOME project to accept its patches, Linux Mint has simply gone ahead and implemented the changes itself. No matter what you think of GNOME 2 or GNOME 3, the effort going into Cinnamon is a practical repudiation of top-down decision making.

Where proprietary distributors of a desktop would have had no choice but to accept what they were offered, Linux Mint has provided its own solutions. Seen in this light, Cinnamon is both cheeky and refreshing, to say nothing of a reassurance that the spirit of free and open software is alive and healthy.

All the same, the idea of Cinnamon does strikes one ominous note. Lefebvre writes that, with the release of GNOME 3, "our entire philosophy shifted from innovating on the desktop to patching existing alternatives."

In other words, instead of using the mature state of the free desktop as a chance to consider what comes next, Linux Mint has spent the last year trying to recover what has been lost in GNOME 2. No matter how much there is in GNOME 2 to admire, that seems a steep price to pay for restoring it.

True, Cinnamon does offer a few token bits of innovation, such as a couple of animation plug-ins. Yet most of the effort in the latest release has gone into restoring GNOME 2 functionality, such as the ability to reposition the panel, and to add applets. Nor are these efforts completed in the latest release; most likely another two or three releases will be necessary before Cinnamon boasts anything resembling complete GNOME 2 functionality.

Meanwhile, the Linux Mint team must have fewer resources for putting its distribution together. Far from enhancing the desktop, its members are simply recreating an existing user experience so that it can survive.

Linux Mint developers can in no way be held responsible for this situation. Assuming Lefebvre's account is true, they are simply taking matters into their own hand due to GNOME's lack of responsiveness and giving users what they want.

All the same, the waste of effort seems criminal. More than anything else, the fact that the Linux Mint team is forced to go to such an extreme is an indication of just how dysfunctional the Linux desktop has become.

Welcome to the New World

Viewed together, the introductions of HUB and Cinnamon make a couple of points clear.

First, the idea of distributions developing desktops that seemed so unprecedented when Unity was first announced has now become accepted. Not all distributions are going to develop their own desktops -- if nothing else, many lack the resources -- but the possibility remains, especially when upstream projects become too remote from their user bases.

Second, between the Unity approach to usability and the effort to recreate the previous generation of technology, the danger exists that practical innovation will be slowed or lost altogether. Instead, development threatens to be sidetracked by unwanted improvements and nostalgia. Just when the free desktop was becoming a match for proprietary ones, it is being sidetracked by projects that will do little for its reputation.

Last week did see one more promising headline: KDE released version 4.8. It's only an incremental upgrade, with few improvements visible to the casual user, and the release was overshadowed by the news about Unity and Cinnamon. All the same, its innovations are more useful than Unity's and preserve user choice in the same way as Cinnamon.

That's a balance that desktop development needs more often. Apparently, though, we aren't likely to see much of such constructive change in the coming months.

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Tags: Linux, Gnome, KDE, Shuttleworth

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