How will GNOME 3.0 be Received?

Based on the preview of GNOME 3.0, the Linux desktop release may encounter some significant user resistance.
Posted September 28, 2010

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

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It could go either way.

After a week of using GNOME Shell, the preview of GNOME 3.0, on Fedora 13, that is the closest I can come to a prediction about how GNOME's new desktop will be received when it is officially released in the spring of 2011.

On the one hand, GNOME Shell is an attractive and easy to use interface that integrates multiple workspaces better than any desktop that I've seen. On the other hand, it requires some adjustments in the way you work, and, in its present form, feels inflexible -- although part of that inflexibility may be due to features that haven't been implemented yet.

GNOME Shell has been available in GNOME releases since version 2.29 last year. It is not a standard part of most installations, but you can find it in the repositories of most major distributions. Once you install the package and its dependencies, you can run it with the command gnome-shell --replace.

After a few seconds, GNOME Shell will replace the existing desktop until you logout (if you want to always use the GNOME Shell, add it to your applications to run on start up). Meanwhile, you can refer to it while following the observations below.

A Skeptical Background

Just going into development, GNOME 3.0 faces obstacles. In the aftermath of KDE 4.0, users are suspicious of major interface changes. Although columnist Jack Wallen, who proclaimed last April that "I have seen the future and it is GNOME 3" is not alone in praising GNOME Shell, the majority reaction seems to be indifference mixed with a mild skepticism. Accustomed to the GNOME 2 series of releases, many apparently see no urgent need to change anything.

Even discussion of the preview seems subdued and relatively rare, probably due partly to the fact that the GNOME 3.0 release has already been delayed twice.

Another obstacle is that the new desktop requires 3-D acceleration, which is still not universal on the Linux desktop. In some cases, potential users must either use proprietary video drivers or stay clear of GNOME Shell (My own exploration was curtailed until I had a computer with Intel video, which has free 3-D drivers).

Among those who try GNOME Shell, I suspect that reaction will be further influenced by how comfortable they are with mobile devices. Constant switches between screens are unavoidable in GNOME Shell, and the result is a desktop that would almost be more at home on a phone or music player than on a workstation computer.

That interfaces for mobile devices are influencing the design of workstation desktops is a sign of the times -- but what works on mobile devices may not be the most comfortable design for the desktop.

I wonder, too, whether users want a workstation desktop that works similarly to their phone interface. The similarity makes GNOME Shell easy to learn, but it might not be the most efficient or comfortable design when you have plenty of display space.

Out of the Desktop, Constantly Switching

All these issues and background problems may be enough on their own to prevent GNOME 3.0 from getting a fair hearing. However, GNOME Shell may create mixed feelings all by itself.

The overall look of GNOME Shell is an extension of the industrial minimalist look that the GNOME 2 series has been tending towards for several years. Everything is clean and stripped down for functionality, and recent GNOME applications like Brasero look very much at home in GNOME Shell.

Essentially, GNOME Shell offers two main views. The first is the ordinary desktop or workspace, which you can configure from a right-click menu, just as in the GNOME 2.0 series.

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Tags: open source, Linux desktop, Linux downloads, Gnome, KDE

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