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Is Gnome Desperately Chasing KDE? - page 2

Too Radical and Disruptive?

  • April 22, 2009
  • By Bruce Byfield

The GNOME Shell, GNOME Zeitgeist and Usability Changes

I confess that I am still trying to compile and install the GNOME Shell on one of my computers, so I am undoubtedly missing many of its details. But the screencasts on the project page and the discussions about it on the desktop-devel-list are enough to start raising the alarm.

Judging from the screencasts, the GNOME Shell seems to position and resize windows far more efficiently than Metacity, GNOME's current window manager -- and, for that matter, better than any window manager I have seen. It also features a zoom for the simultaneous viewing of work spaces similar to the one in the KDE 4 series.

However, as someone who values his screen space, I am less thrilled by the removal of the application menu and applets from the panel and the dumping of them on to the screen.

Nor do I see any advantage to displaying applications as search results in alphabetical order. At least in the existing menu, you have the option of arranging menu items in meaningful categories. So far as I can judge, the GNOME Shell menus seem clumsier than the existing ones.

GNOME Zeitgeist raises similar concerns. By abandoning the traditional file hierarchy in favor of other search methods, it also abandons one of the last links between the desktop and the command line. That may not concern anyone who plans to work only on the desktop, but it means that, if they ever want to run a command from the prompt, they will need to learn another metaphor for file locations. Moving away from traditional file management may save time in the short run, but in the long run it may seriously limit users.

Such changes would not matter much if they were offered simply as alternatives. Personally, I forgave two of the most radical changes in KDE 4 -- the Kickoff menu and the move away from icons on the desktop -- because I was eventually given a choice of whether to accept them.

By contrast, the discussions about GNOME 3.0 suggest that users will not be presented with choices. Rather, the possibility seems strong that users will be presented with the new paradigms and expected simply to get used to them.

In the past, GNOME has had something of this tendency (it was the main reason, if you remember, that Torvalds criticized it), but GNOME 3.0 threatens to exaggerate this tendency until it is unbearable.

If that happens, then GNOME 3.0 will be a far more radical departure from the traditional GNU/Linux than KDE 4. It will also make the complaints about KDE 4 sound like an employee feedback session in the presence of the boss, and send users stampeding to KDE. In fact, just making the GNOME Shell and GNOME Zeitgeist the default options might be enough to remove GNOME from competitiveness.

The Canonical Factor

The wild card in the future of GNOME is Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of the Ubuntu distribution and of Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial sponsor. Last summer, Shuttleworth began a campaign to make the free software desktop surpass Apple's for usability in eighteen months.

Since Ubuntu's default desktop is GNOME, GNOME is the main focus for Shuttleworth and his Design team. They are already in the process of persuading GNOME to accept their modifications to the notification system, and while these modifications have received criticism, they seem likely to be accepted as the first of many over the next year.

Canonical's usability changes, in themselves, could have a large influence on the future of GNOME. Additionally, though, these changes could give Shuttleworth and Canonical a major voice in what happens in GNOME 3.0.

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