Seven Current Issues on the Linux Desktop

Even as the Linux desktop has grown to equal Windows and Mac OS, a number of issue continue to challenge it.
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Not long ago, the overwhelming issue on the Linux desktop was catching up with Windows and OS X. Partly, the concern was usability, but it also included the need for a rich ecosystem of utilities.

But some time in the last few years, that goal was reached, so quietly that exactly when is impossible to say. Some might still quibble over a feature or two, but the competitiveness of the free desktop is strong enough that equaling rivals no longer seems a major concern.

Instead, the Linux desktop has become the testing ground for exactly what the future of computing will be. It is not the only place where such testing is taking place, but the speed of development and the frequency of releases for GNOME, KDE, and other alternatives often places the free desktop at the center of experiment and innovation.

In fact, there are at least seven issues with which various versions of the free desktop are struggling. Many of these have not been formally announced, but, watching developments over several years, they become obvious:

1) Fine-tuning usability

For almost a year now, Ubuntu has been focusing on Mark Shuttleworth's famous challenge to make the free desktop the equal of OS X's. This focus has resulted in the overhauling of the GNOME notification system in Ubuntu, as well as the infamous repositioning of the title bar buttons in windows.

These efforts have been criticized for being made in the distribution, rather than contributed to the GNOME project. However, Shuttleworth's efforts have got people thinking, and both GNOME and KDE have been paying more attention to such matters than they probably would have otherwise.

Regardless of whether Shuttleworth's efforts will be lost with the switch to GNOME 3 -- which seems likely -- they do seem to have pointed out several areas that needed closer attention.

2) The shape of a perfect menu

The classic menu unfolds across the desktop, one level at a time. However, desktop designers have been unsatisfied with this structure for some years -- presumably because it takes up space.

On Windows, one effort to reduce the size of menus has been to display by default only the most recently used menu items. So far as I know, nobody has copied this tactic on the free desktop, but another tactic borrowed from Windows and OS X is to confine the menu to a fixed size on the screen.

In the KDE 4, series, for instance, the default menu divides entries into several categories, and displays only one menu level at a time. KDE 4.x also offers Lancelot, which freezes the menu size, but displays several sub-levels.

The GNOME 2 series has stayed with the classic menu, but, the last time I looked at GNOME 3, it was opting for moving the menu off the panel and making it a permanent part of the desktop. Other offshoots of GNOME, such as the Unity desktop do the same thing, most likely influence by mobile devices.

Yet another alternative, as typified by Krunner and GNOME-Do, is a floating palette in which users can search for an application to run. However, this approach requires a knowledge of exactly what applications are available, and is largely for expert users.

So far, none of these alternatives seems completely satisfactory. Perhaps the menu is overdue to be retired in favor of some new organizational structure?

3) The netbook challenge

Small-screened and originally for light computing, netbooks are a design challenge. On netbook desktops like KDE's Plasma Netbook, designers have tried to rethink the desktop for the smaller screen and simpler use cases.

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