Sometimes, being right is no fun. Three years ago, I suggested that the Linux desktop was headed for a future dominated by KDE, and that GNOME would be at a disadvantage. Looking back, I conclude that I was right, if only approximately.
What I did not foresee was that GNOME 3 would not only lag behind KDE for code maturity and innovation, but fail catastrophically with users, resulting in alternative interfaces, ranging from Ubuntu's Unity to Linux Mint's re-creations of GNOME 2 in Cinnamon and Mate.
The collapse is so thorough that GNOME is reportedly now talking about obtaining a twenty percent share of the Linux desktop by 2020, where a few years ago its share was well over forty percent.
I know of no figures for traditional desktop usage in 2012, but LinuxQuestion's 2011 survey showed KDE in front, followed by Xfce. Cinnamon was too new to make the survey at all, and Mate registered only a few percent, but, like Unity, both are almost certain to do better this year.
Some, or even all three of these desktops are likely to do better than the 19% that GNOME 3 managed in 2011. GNOME 3 itself will probably show even further decline. As for actual numbers of users, all traditional desktops are likely to lose ground to mobile devices.
Today, the Cold War of the giants, of KDE vs. GNOME, is over. We are in a new era of diversity (or fragmentation, if you think having more choices is a bad thing). So which, if any desktops are likely to dominate in the next few years?
Which will be the source of major innovations? Which will fail to emerge from the pack? Which are likely to be in the running?
None of these questions are as easy to answer as they were three years ago.
The Linux Also-Rans
Immediately, I would remove Xfce, Cinnamon, and Mate. I regularly use all three, and all of them are likely to increase in popularity, but their development goals are too modest for any of them to dominate the desktop.
Xfce succeeds in its goal of being both "fast and requiring low system resources, while still being visually appealing and user friendly," and a percentage of users will always want this combination. But it has never been a center of innovation, and a massive change of direction would be needed for it to become one.
Similarly, Cinnamon and Mate are dedicated to recreating the GNOME 2 experience. So far, neither has managed more than minor innovation beyond that modest goal, although both are new enough that judging them on their releases to date would probably be rash. They may have been too busy providing the basic GNOME 2 experience.
However, the whole idea of Cinnamon and Mate is to offer what users want -- and that means giving users GNOME 2. In ten years of active development, GNOME 2 was more known for incremental changes rather than radical redesigns, so that suggests we should expect the same from Cinnamon and Mate.
Just possibly, development of one might be discontinued in a few years in favor of the other, but that is probably the largest change to be expected. While GNOME 2 clones are popular now, they are hardly likely to be the long-term future of the desktop. Their popularity may be a temporary reaction to GNOME 3 and could plateau after this year.
Is GNOME Still a Player?
So what about GNOME itself? At the recent GUADEC, GNOME's annual conference, Xan Lopez and Juan Jose Sanchez delivered a presentation entitled "A bright future for GNOME." Contrary to what I expected, the presentation was not ironically titled, but a call to revitalize GNOME that is scheduled to result in the release of GNOME 4 in March 2014.
Lopez and Sanchez identify the problems of GNOME as due to a number of trends, including the shift to mobile devices, the fragmentation of the desktop market, a lack of corporate support, a brain drain, and user disenchantment. In the place of these discouraging developments, they suggested ambitious possibilities for rebuilding that included developing GOME for mobile devices and a GNOME distro.
Strangely, their suggestions did not include greater user involvement in development, which would be a natural solution to GNOME's present state. All the same, coming at GNOME's annual conference, their presentation could be called the first official recognition in the GNOME project that GNOME 3 was a disaster. After eighteen months, such a recognition was long overdue.
However, from its slides, the presentation appears to have been long on strategy and short on tactics -- specifically on interface and software changes. Perhaps the follow-up discussions on the conference corrected this oversight. But, for those with a sense of history, the emphasis sounds uncomfortably close to that of the discussions that led up to GNOME 3. The project is aware that it needs to take some bold steps, but has no definition of just what those might consist.
In addition, the presentation may have an optimistic view of the situation. Shortly before GUADEC, developer Benjamin Otte announced that he was skipping the conference this year, calling it a "self-congratulating echo chamber" and adding "I don’t feel like I would be productive in the current state of things."
Otte followed up on these comments in a longer blog entitled "Staring into the Abyss." In it, he paints an even bleaker picture than Lopez and Sanchez do.
According to Otte, GNOME is losing lead developers, is understaffed, and directionless, and the majority of developers are from Red Hat, which makes it unrepresentative of the general community. The accuracy of his comments are harder for outsiders to assess, but, in 228 comments, only a few people quibbled over details and none, so far as I can see, questioned his general perspective. The closest to an opposing view I can find is the statement that GNOME has faced similar situations before -- which it has, if never such serious ones.
Yet another sign of the state of GNOME is that Debian, which has defaulted to GNOME almost as long as there was a GNOME, will now use Xfce instead.
At best, GNOME has a hard struggle ahead of it. Its position in the future will depend much on its immediate plans. But, right now, whether mainstream GNOME can recover anything like its former dominance seems unlikely.
The Dark Horse
A possible contender might be Ubuntu's Unity. Unity is slightly more tolerant of different work flows than GNOME 3, and no one can say in its interface experiments are not attempts at innovation.
The trouble is, exactly how popular Unity might be is nearly impossible to evaluate. Ubuntu's commercial patron Canonical likes to talk about the number of computers that ship with Unity, but those figures are received by most observers with considerable skepticism. Moreover, as with Linux itself, no one knows how many machines it remains upon once the sale is made.
Considering that Ubuntu repositories allow another desktop to be installed in fifteen minutes or less, and that users' attacks on Unity are almost as numerous and impassioned as those on GNOME 3, the desktop's popularity may actually be far less than Canonical insists.
As for being an innovator, Unity is the vision of Ubuntu and Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth and a small team of designers. Whether its innovations are anything that the majority of users want is questionable, to judge by their reception. You might even say that, by allowing the needs of mobile devices to influence Unity's design, Shuttleworth and his designers have regressed the desktop rather than advanced it.
If Canonical's statements are accurate, then Unity might manage to emerge as the major desktop, if only for commercial reasons. However, I wouldn't be surprised if independent polls suggest a different story than Canonical's.
Back to KDE
From the current state of affairs, it seems probable that KDE will continue to be the leading desktop for the next few years. Not only does KDE have a mature code base, but its options accommodate everyone from those who want a basic desktop to those who want to experiment with a variety of desktop. It even has a two-year head start on interfaces for mobile devices.
True, KDE's last major release was received with almost as much hostility as GNOME 3 or Unity. But, KDE appeared to listen to complaints, and subsequent releases satisfied most of them. Although comparing various user polls suggests that KDE may have lost 7-9% of its users after releasing KDE 4.0, that is less than half what GNOME lost, or maybe as little as a third.
KDE does have some challenges. In particular, its attempt to produce a tablet has been delayed by the sorts of problems that can be expected in bringing a new product to market, especially by those with no experience in the project.
However, while GNOME seems in a communal decline, in early 2011, the latest period for which I could find figures, KDE was steadily adding developers.
KDE's largest problem is that, with the just-released 4.9 release, it seems to have settled into incremental releases, with less direction than it had a year or two ago. However, in the aftermath of GNOME 3 and Unity, a cautious approach to changes may be exactly what the average user wants.
Same Leader, Different Situation
If I am right, KDE is going to continue to be the desktop with the strongest combination of user popularity and innovation. This isn't an unusual position for it; if you look through the user polls, KDE repeatedly switched first and second place with GNOME over the last ten years.
However, if KDE does remain dominant, it will do so under terms very different from those of the past. Instead of competing mainly with GNOME, with Xfce a distant third, KDE is likely to have a far less commanding lead, with several desktops not far behind it.
Even more importantly, the criteria for judging desktops will be different than in the past. A decade ago, KDE and GNOME releases were judged by the new features they introduced. For the next few years I suspect that user choice will be the main factor in choosing desktops.
Small changes and redesigns may still be welcome, but, more than anything else, users are likely to value familiarity in a desktop, as well as the ability to work the way they choose. Possibly, too, they will appreciate a desktop that runs as well on their phone or tablet as on their laptop.
As a desktop that juggles innovation with customization, KDE is in the best position to be the main player in such an era. But who will the other major players be? We'll have to wait and see -- an answer that says even more about the future state of the Linux desktop than which one is the leader.