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GNOME Shell – the UI revolution is well under way

by Jos Poortvliet

openSUSE community manager Jos discusses the paradigm shift in UIs brought on my the mobile computing revolution…

This past year has seen some interesting developments in the Linux desktop arena. GNOME 3, obviously, has been a big bang. But I would also mention the wide spread of Xfce 4.8, which shipped with openSUSE in March 2011. As I wrote in a review at the time, it’s a really impressive release. As usual for Xfce, there have not been any major releases since then – the project tends to take a while to push out major features. Then again, Xfce does not aim to shake up the infrastructure (like KDE did with version 4) or the user interface (à la GNOME 3). Keeping things simple and familiar has its advantages, so why do KDE and GNOME make us change our ways?

As with KDE’s 4.0 release, GNOME 3 has attracted many complaints and negative publicity. While KDE aimed to keep their interface essentially the same (although failing to reach feature parity for at least another two years), the GNOME community decided to make an even more radical change. Did they do the right thing? I think they did. While incremental changes can get you far, by their nature there’s a limit to how far they can stretch. KDE bumped into those barriers four years ago and set out to create a future-proof infrastructure. GNOME 3 did the same a few years later, recognising that the way many of us use computers has changed radically.

Yes, if you’re a kernel developer, you probably work in much the same environment as you did ten years ago; but for us mere mortals, Facebook, Gmail, iPhones and Android have radically changed what we expect from our UIs. Even Microsoft has made invasive changes in the recent past with the Ribbon, while the upcoming Metro interface is optimised for tablets. And for good reason. Most of us use computers differently compared to a decade ago. Where we used to open a file manager and navigate to folder with ten files, we now have our data online. We share and like our files and Tweet and Digg our way through the internet in ways unimaginable just a few years ago.

Bringing these concepts to the desktop just makes sense. If your are working in Google Docs, having a file browser which only shows you local documents just doesn’t cut it any more. Chat is not something you might use now and then any more, it’s a basic part of a modern workflow. And sharing files is something which should be as seamless as possible. GNOME 3 attempts to do this with the heavy integration of chat and microblogging in the shell and new applications like the ‘document browser’, which brings local and online documents together in one place. Likewise, KDE’s Plasma Active project integrates Share, Like and Connect buttons directly in their tablet shell and uses the NEPOMUK semantic framework to connect local and remote resources.

Xfce does not, which is fine – if you are a kernel hacker, but if you’re more like the average home or office user, your needs have evolved. While Xfce might offer a familiar interface, it doesn’t offer the most efficient UI any more. That said, while GNOME Shell and KDE’s Plasma Active attempt to create more effective environments for us, they’re not necessarily ready – a lot has happen, but there’s still more work to do. Both projects will have to experiment to find out how to get it right, but they’ve started and must be applauded for that.

As a final note I should stress that I don’t think change for the sake of it is good. If reality changes, however, you have to be prepared to change with it. GNOME and KDE are doing that at the cost of their users adapting to new environments and new technologies. The long-term net result should be high productivity with a short-term hump in the road as we get accustomed to these new ways. Since both projects already offer ways to customise your environment (GNOME through its ‘Shell extensions’ and KDE via Plasma technology), I really think it’s time we all joined the revolution!

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    • Matador

      Hi Jos,

      I am glad you do appreciate the recent work of the GNOME community. Were not for people like you, their time would have been wasted.

      I am no kernel hacker or anything of the sort. I just loved GNOME 2 very much. I thought it was a nearly perfect desktop environment. Using it just made me happy. Period.

      My dissatisfaction with GNOME 3 (and I think this is also true for many others) came from the fact that the interface I loved so much was thrown into the trash bin as if it had no value. GNOME Classic was not nearly as good as GNOME 2. Again, I am happy you love GNOME 3, but why would you ditch something as good as GNOME 2 when so many people appreciate it? It makes no sense. The GNOME developers could have kept GNOME 2 and modernized it to work with the GNOME 3 libraries. I doubt that would have costed them a lot of time compared to the GNOME 3 development time itself. But instead they decided to just go their way showing no respect for the community that revered them. And because of that, I now XFCE. And no, I am no kernel hacker. I just love a clean interface which I can microconfigure according to my own tastes and demands.

    • Benjamin Q.

      Honestly, Android and iOS do NOT have changed the way I like to interact with my DESKTOP computer. They are fine in what they do, they may be inspiring in a variety of details, but they are alright and super fine for touch devices, which is not what I (and thousands of other people) have as their day to day computing machine.

      I will not start using a 23′ touchscreen on my desk, I do not want a desk with an integrated 23′ touchscreen (sort of Giga-tablet), as it is what you may need to truly benefit from GNOME3’s metaphor.

      Why can’t we have configurability in GNOME3? (yes extensions will provide some). Why not serving those hundreds of thousands that luckily stick with the “classic” Desktop metaphor, at least as an full fledgend option? I can’t see anything in GNOME3 that boosts my Desktop efficiency to the similar extent like certain features of Compiz did.

    • Vonskippy

      What utter nonsense.

      A lot of people are riding bikes now, should we expect the car’s steering wheel and brake pedal to be replaced by a handlebar and squeeze brakes?

      One size does NOT fit all.

      Saying the desktop needs to be replaced so that it emulates mobile devices is pure horse hockey. Who are the mysterious “they” that keeping coming up with these stupid ideas?

    • dimiter

      “Most of us use computers differently compared to a decade ago. Where we used to open a file manager and navigate to folder with ten files, we now have our data online. We share and like our files and Tweet and Digg our way through the internet in ways unimaginable just a few years ago.”

      The difference is that a decade ago, you data was indeed _your_ data. Now your data belongs to you and possibly 300 companies, plus billions of people you’ll never meet in your life.

      As far as the desktop itself, the gnome and kde teams do not share the same mentality. The kde team has clearly stated they don’t intend to go crazy. It looks like they actually understand, that a 6″ touchscreen tablet and a desktop pc with a 32″ screen and mouse, are two different things. Or that a computer isn’t only for writing a mail and watching one video. You don’t have to be a kernel dev to multitask. I’m a teacher and I actually use my computer. No cloudy clouds here.

      The great thing about gnome 3 though, is javascript. There are going to be so many extensions in the next year, that you’ll be able to turn it into the exact opposite the loonies intended it to be. It will become usable pretty quickly. So, if by that time the kde guys come up with a new broken DE, I wiil have a choice. For now, I’m good.

    • Kevin S.

      What a lot of words used to keep repeating the same platitude over and over again. Seriously, do you think that the existence of smartphones and tablets has caused people to change the way they use computers that have actual physical keyboards and mice/touchpads? You fail to explain why it’s a good idea to optimize an OS interface for a touchscreen when a substantial part of the user base still uses more traditional input devices.

    • At least in the USA, the average user is far, far below your assumptions. They don’t know what a browser is, even though they use it every day, or event know if they are using Windows 7 or Windows XP on the computers in front of them. I should know. As a financial accountant, I manage banking access for 200+ office managers for my company.

      When my parents Win XP install died, I added dual boot Ubuntu, and they didn’t notice a difference and didn’t know if they were in Windows or Ubuntu. Even my own wife… we were married for 10 years before I discovered she didn’t even know the ALT-TAB command this year.

      In short, don’t assume most people are above 100 IQ.

    • gB

      Perhaps Gnome 3 will find a new audience somehow but I have yet to speak with a long time Gnome user who is not either waiting patiently for Gnome to “fix things”, in the process of finding a replacement or has already switched to something more suited to a 3+ button mouse, a desktop keyboard and a non-touch screen monitor, which to a lot of users equals getting things done quickly.

      Then again, perhaps they have seen a future where we all work in the service industry, hitting the pretty buttons for your burger, your fries and your beverage. Next up Gnome4; requires a bar code scanner and payment processing terminal. Mouse and keyboard not supported.

    • hornet

      I’m still with Gnome 2.Why? Because i’m efficient. It’s hard to learn and memorize so many changes. Let’s look migration from WinXP over Vista to Win7. They made some changes, but the changes were not so radical so users have not so many problems adopting new interface. The same should be with Gnome and other gui’s. If not users will be confused.

    • blades

      to say that users want to see all of their documents in one place is one thing, but i suspect you’ll find that the kind of people who use a mixture of online and offline documents don’t need or want the hand-holding. casual users (e.g. my parents) only ever use local documents – it’s only the technical early adopters that use the technological solutions available online. and even then, why should i use google docs over openoffice and ftp? there’s no real advantage once you’re at a certain technological level, and spreading my content over multiple providers is stupid when i have no need to do so.

      as to android et al. changing the ‘way we use computers’ i think you’re very wrong about that: most people haven’t changed at all. not only that, but gnome shell isn’t an attempt to change that: it’s an attempt to impose a workflow as a one-size-fits-all solution. it’s workspace-based, for a start, which doesn’t suit everyone’s tastes. personally, i like a virtual desktop with everything on it. i don’t want a workspace for document editing, and one for music, and one for browsing – i want one desktop where i alt-tab or maximise/minimise windows. i don’t want grouping of applications so that i now have to use alt-tab *and* arrow keys to locate particular instances of windows. and, most particularly, i don’t like using workspaces. they make sense on small screens, perhaps, like mobile phones and tablets, but when i have multiple large monitors then my desktop real estate is more than adequate to show me several applications in parallel. hell, right now i’m looking at my email, this web browser, and i have an ide open for working on code. i’ve also got a bunch of monitoring tools visible to show me useful information. gnome-shell’s idiom of ‘one full screen app at a time’ doesn’t cut it for me.

      the weird thing, though, is that i still like gnome-shell. i think that the minimal ui is nice, and with some of the available tweaks it can become quite usable. i still miss things like gnome-do and a side-bar to show me what applications are currently running (because i’m a grown-up and it doesn’t ‘distract’ me). i get irritated that there’s a permanent top bar that can’t be moved to the side of the screen (on a widescreen monitor, the largest usable area is the width of the screen, not the height, and i’d rather sacrifice a bit of the width instead – but obviously, that’s not an option). there’s the shortcut/running apps bar, but that’s usually hidden, and the tweak puts it in the middle of the two monitors and can’t be adjusted, so that’s no use. but, overall, it’ll do. i just hope that the tweaks can help sort out the usability issues that i dislike.

      i guess, ultimately, it’s about removing choices from users. gnome2 provided options for how people choose to work. gnome3 removed them or provided inferior versions of them. gnome3 removed most of the customisations that people used routinely. if you remove people’s choices, they tend to shout. and that’s exactly what happened in this case.

    • r_a_trip

      @gB: +1

    • Some times, regardless of how hard we try, people will always be resistant to change.
      It is not that they are bad but, adjusting to so many changes in such a short time is something we normally are not able to do. It is natural.
      The GNOME devs have tried to come up with something that can adapt easily to different scenarios, be it notebooks, tablets or PCs.
      We mostly come back to our senses when we have taken that particular DE for a spin.
      Look at what happened with KDE, most of us were a little skeptical about it at first but ultimately we came to love and enjoy it. All those annoyances are gone and we have moved on. Look at Win 8, is it gonna be similar to what we are used to? Definitely not!
      Trust me on that, you will thank the GNOME devs later. They have done a good job, yet there are still many things still missing.
      At least we still can save files to our own PCs and control the access to those file, unlike with Win 8 where Micro$oft have deliberately opened the backdoor in it for them to do whatever they want with your data. No offence, just saying.

    • djf

      They are now mobile tools – Gnome, Unity and KDE should be relegated the the tablet and phone gaming market – and kept off of the distro’s which serve desktops, servers and any display over 10.1″

      I don’t believe RHEL – or any business distro will be moving to either for a long, long time – if ever.

      1. In Gnome3 on a 22″ screen move the mouse all the way to the upper left corner to get at a desktop which will show up 22″ to the right.

      2. in Unity watch your application window freeze and little orange adjustment circles take over and move your application window three quarter of the way off your desktop- with no help from you.

      3. in Unity try to click on the left side back browser arrow – while the left side menu is racing to cover it up

      4. In Gnome3 try to use your mouse to make a desktop shortcut, move to another desktop, find a file without typing etc, etc – in three clicks or less

      5. Gnome3 and Unity no longer install on older hardware – an should not be used on newer hardware if you need to get work done – gaming though may be OK.

      And while some of the new extensions have brought back some of the basics – Gnome3, KDE and Unity lacked configuration options for over a year – and many are still missing – or the instructions for using them are lame or hidden.

      It has been like taking an american automobile and putting the break in the trunk, the gas pedal in the glove compartment, welding the gas cap shut and ignoring an update to the manual – because the american car buyer cannot appreciate change – and is afraid to get out of his rut …

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    • MOGH

      RE: Matador

      No one has shown not to appreciate the recent work of the GNOME community, however though, to appreciate any work by others, means it isn’t forced upon you. As market share continues poisoning the Linux distro community, choice in any selection of “free software” will become a problem that sooner then later, will reach you as well when, the choice of some package, feature or tool is removed that you use. So please, appreciate the work done for the replacements you must accept, like them or not.

      Many in the community appreciate the fact that a choice, is why they use Linux.

    • jack1059

      I think a lot of this is change for change sake. What is the real compelling computing reason for those changes? I just dont really see any. Cloud based data storage is simply not enough in my mind. Maybe the move to apps. Ill have to think about it more, but it sure looks to me like its meant to placate a public already hooked on the fast update to the newest shiniest ui thing.

    • The one main problem with the internet, is that it allows people with very little experience of what they are actually talking about to find a voice.

      I prefer to read articles written by experts, not novices, it’s hard to know where to start with this article, although I think it’s quite clear to anybody who actually IS an expert, what is wrong with the article.

    • John Jarvis

      I really don’t want to think of loading my desktop as starting or joining some kind of revolution. I don’t boot up my computer to revolt, but to get work done. Through the years G2 had evolved to meet the needs of its users quite well. I would just like to have many of those features back. I’m not a kernel hacker, yet I’m also not one who wants or needs hand-holding when loading documents. If I want my google docs then I’ll load up a browser. I certainly do not want the same interface for my off-line documents.

      I appreciate the work of the Gnome developer community, but please understand that by forcing these changes on people and not giving them a way to reasonably configure their shell they are only shooting themselves in the foot. People who use their computers as a tool for productivity do not like lots of change, especially when it is just because, “hey, this is shinier than the last one so we’ll go with it whether it works as well or not.” And it seems that when the devs respond to concerns about the change, the fault is that of the user, for being a stick in the mud and wanting to drag their knuckles over familiar ground, preferring the thing that worked before to the new shiny thing that doesn’t.

      Unfortunately the stubborn decisions by Shuttleworth with his bizarre fascination with the even more unusable Unity, and by the Gnome team, who caved into his demands and dumbed down the desktop to a level slightly above severe autism, mean that starting a few months ago, all the gains that desktop Linux has made are now wiped out, and we will have at least two years of an unworkable, unproductive desktop before us.

      Devs, please bring back the things that made G2 great — the Panel, the move-able and highly configurable plug-ins, the menus. Save gnome-shell for the tablet. Or give us an option of Tablet or Desktop configuration. A giant full-screen menu of applications on a huge wide desktop monitor looks like crap. Works on a tablet, but not a desktop.

    • MightyMoo

      I don’t use Twitter, Facebook, Googledocs, etc. I don’t trust the cloud any farther then I can throw my Hummer. Especially after incidents like what happened at Sony and other companies with their user accounts. I’m sorry it may sound troll’sh but that is just the way I feel.

      I am no kernel hacker either, I just want stuff that works the way it always has with a familiar and easy to use interface. Unity, Gnome 3.x, and anything else pushing mobile interfaces on the desktop systems take away from me using my desktop the way I want. Windows is about to join this club with Windows 8 and I won’t be paying for that either.

      My mother had a hell of a time switching from Windows XP to Windows 7. I told her what Windows 8 was and showed her a picture or two and her eyes just went wide. She said she would be totally lost again and have to learn things over and at her age she just wants to do her things and not jump through new hoops.

      Gnome 3x, Unity, Windows 8, and other things like them are nice for mobile devices. That is where they should stay and not on the desktop.

    • Jinnicky

      I used to laugh at Windows users when they had to re-learn how to use it every time a new version came out. I’m not laughing now.

      It looks like the KDE/Unity/Gnome developers have abandoned the desktop in favor of tablets, netbooks and phones.

      My desktop system has dual identical monitors. Under KDE 3 I could have a big desktop spread across the two monitors with one of my pictures spanning them. Configuration was very good on KDE 3. I could put icons where I wanted them on the desktop or panel.

      The KDE 4 developers have decreed that, since multiple screens could be different sizes the user should not have that option. I couldn’t move icons around on the panel.

      I switched to Gnome 2. It was a little harder to configure, but I got the desktop to work the way I wanted. I even have one of my pictures, which changes every 10 minutes or so, spread across the desktop

      Gnome 3 sucks on a dual monitor desktop. The panels only go on one monitor. I can’t put icons on the panels or desktop and haven’t figured out how to spread one picture across the desktop and have it change automatically.

      I’m currently using Debian 6 with Gnome 2 and looking at XFCE for the future when Debian stops supporting Gnome 2. MATE is another possibility.

    • nicholas

      i do not believe you need to be an expert to tell if something works for you or not. i love gnome shell. my 14 inch laptop rocks on it. i have been using ubuntu since 6.06 and in fact i was never quite happy with gnome2. and no, i am not a gnome developer. i write numerical software for hpc applications. initially what i hated about shell was it big window borders and ugly huge whitespaces. thankfully they are not there anymore. however everything else is brilliant. the integrated chat.. the way applications open.. just like synapse. in fact on 10.04 i had something very similar with synapse.. hot corner to select between applications and a dock. i can see that users of big desktops would be displeased with this… but then.. you should be searching for apps using the mod key.. not using your mouse to select categories and then go to applications. also.. i think that gnome dev should add an extension to use arrow keys to select between windows after pressing mod key

    • Ron

      I’m sticking with Gnome 2 in Ubuntu 10.04LTS until April 2013 when support for that LTS (and for gnome 2) ends. After that, I hope that Gnome 3 / MATE / Cinnamon will have matured enough to be usable, and hopefully configurable to look and work like Gnome 2. If not, then I’ll move over to XFCE or KDE.

    • Mike

      I find all the negativity about GNOME 3 to be sideways hilarious. Having used pretty much every DE in existence, I can honestly say that for workflow efficiency GNOME 3 blows the competition away.

      It may not be highly customizable yet, but that will change. Plus, the default environment is designed very well already. Everything flows smoothly and is simple but effective.

      Of course, this is what happens when humans are exposed to change. Many of them get so deeply ingrained in the status quo that once change occurs, they become completely disoriented and don’t give the changes a chance. Instead they just complain about them and make blanket statements like “nobody can use this.” That’s ridiculous, people absolutely can use it.

      Anyway, I see GNOME 3 as an incredible DE with an extreme bent on work efficiency. With only a couple extensions my environment is even more efficient. Given time, I can only imagine how quick and intuitive the experience will be.

    • Some people tell me they yet have to meet the first long-time Gnome user who loves Gnome 3.
      As far as meeting goes online… you just met one.

      I love Gnome 3, and when knowing the right keyboard shortcuts combined with some good extentions, for me this is much more effective (efficient) then the Gnome 2 environment (which is better then Openbox++, which is better then XFCE, which is better then KDE, etc.)

      Give it a try and invest some time and effort… it is worth it!

    • Sean

      While some people may be happy with Gnome 3, I can’t stand it. I always hated eye candy, I never installed compiz and if it came preinstalled I removed it. While this wouldn’t be a problem if Gnome 3 were going to keep Fallback mode, but apparently they’re not. I also hate the application centered UI as opposed to the sane task oriented one of Gnome 2. I multitask constantly and Gnome 3 makes that very difficult. I also think the Firefox style of adding extensions is a bad idea. I used to run Gnome 3 and I remember that when I updated to Gnome 3.2 on Arch damn near all of my extensions stopped working. Most of them never worked again. Right now, I have Debian Squeeze installed on my desktop so I can use Gnome 2 for another 2 years, and after that I’m just going to switch to Xfce on desktop. Even though I usually pure Openbox on my laptops I’ve been testing out Xfce 4.8 with Arch. I like it. It’s simple, it works and it stays out of my way. That’s all I care about. So yeah, I’m done with Gnome after Debian stops supporting Squeeze.

      Also, if I wanted a UI that looked like a tablet I would buy a f*cking tablet.

    • me

      I hope I will see some online courses that will show me how to use new DE effectively, to increase my productivity over legacy DE. I don’t think that new DE give me new value, so far I cannot see it. Maybe that such huge change needs better support in training material, training videos and howto articles to show legacy users how to change their habits to be more productive on new DE. Current situation at Linux desktop is close to disaster. Old DE were destroyed and new one are not ready yet. The best think Linux user can do is to hold at some legacy distro; how long can we hold our position? It was not real problem to live with the WinXP about 10 years. How long can I keep my legacy Linux distro where everything is managed by package dependencies? In Linux evaluation, there are some “regular” waves where you just have to hold back and wait for better distribution or to move to different direction. We are just now in such dark period and the future is unclear.. :-(

    • Don

      I’m not afraid of change. I changed from Gnome 3 to XFCE, and it was an improvement. I can get stuff done more efficiently. Not that it’s as good as Gnome 2 was. I read Linus’s rant about Gnome, and y’know, I agree with him.

    • spacegoat

      Mike said: “I can honestly say that for workflow efficiency GNOME 3 blows the competition away.”

      This is high sounding talk for the following dumbing down of task and application management:

      Task Lists
      G3- tasks visible by clicking an Activities button followed by a Windows button.
      G2 – Tasks permanently visible on a status bar, so no clicking required.

      Tasks – identification
      G3- tasks identified by looking at a list of miniturised windows that change according to the state of the application – causing users to squint. It is also slow.
      G2 – Tasks identified quickly by well know icons that never change.

      Applications Lists
      G3- applications visible as massive icon lists and a massive menu on the right. Large mouse traversal is required to actually find the application desired.
      G2 – Applications visible in a compact menu. Minimal mouse traversal required.

      Where is efficiency?

    • gnome3 is not revolution, it is a piece of unusable crap that crash 10-50 times per day with idiotic design flaws

    • Bernd

      On Fedora 15 i didn’t use G3 because i found it annoying. I used Xfce. But my daughter (15) used it and was charmed. So i decided i had to give it real try (with F16). And i am still using it. And i am still annoyed. Why: my workflow didn’t improve. I guess i am to old, fo change. I do use a lot of applications. So this bar on the left looks small and packed. I recognise the apps on the icon. Not the name. I’m an image thinker.I have to throw my mouse to the upper left to open a new desk on the right…. I hate it when the application is not active at that moment (and it never is). I appreciate the efforts of the Gnome developers in trying to make a better desktop. But i am not convinced they are on the right track. It is certainly not evolution. It is change.

    • Erich

      For me its gnome until squeeze is oldstable, then xfce. i see a bright future!

    • Michael

      KDE 4.x and Gnome 3.x are complete and utter crap. Stop defending their wasting OUR time because they won’t listen to what their users want.

      Xfce is about the only game left in town.

    • Cássio Nandi Citadin

      My experience in the last five years was:

      Gnome 2 -> Unity -> Gnome Shell -> Cinnamon -> Mate and finally XFCE 4.10.

      I’ve dropped every interface searching for the most new tecnology, but in the end, I stay with the more robust (and updated).