I’ve written a few things from time to time about changes in Gnu/Linux Desktop Environments that have taken place over the past year. 2011 has seen tremendous changes in the Linux desktop; from Unity in Ubuntu; to the transition from Gnome 2.3 to Gnome 3 Shell; and to the growing number of people who are finding Xfce and Enlightenment (e17) and KDE more to their liking because of these changes.
This is the time of year when many Linux distros come out with new versions of their Operating Systems (Fedora, OpenSUSE, Sabayon, Ubuntu and Linux Mint, to name but a few), and I’ve been trying out some of these new distros to see how Gnome Shell is progressing. I’m especially interested in the upcoming Linux Mint 12, since I now am running Mint 10 on the computer that my wife and I use a lot. The Release Candidate for Mint 12 came out this past week and I’ve played around with the Live CD a couple of times now.
I have to say, I’m a little disappointed; or maybe I should say underwhelmed. It’s kind of a mish-mash at the moment between features of the old Mint with the new “MGSE” (Mint Gnome Shell Extensions), resulting in two different ways to do several common tasks and not the usual coherent integration of visual style that we’ve come to expect from Linux Mint. Though of course, this is not the final release, and there are naturally a lot of bugs that need to be ironed out from this totally new redesign of Mint. I’ve tried other distros with standard Gnome 3 Shell (Fedora and OpenSUSE) and find it nice to look at but severely lacking in usability. And Compiz doesn’t work in Gnome Shell/Unity, so desktop effects are limited. At least Mint’s Gnome Shell extensions (and Gnome tweak) make it a little more configurable; but still, Gnome Shell and Unity are, in my opinion, a huge step backward for the Linux desktop experience. Come on, people! I need my wobbly windows and fading transition effects! I need a panel I can right-click to modify and move wherever I want on my screen!
My first experience using Linux was Ubunt 8.10, Hardy Heron, three years ago. When I discovered I could download and try out any of dozens (hundreds!) of different distros from Live CDs that cost absolutely nothing, I was ecstatic! Back then Ubuntu had a slightly plain, almost retro look compared to the Macs I had been using. But it was very easy to use, intuitive, and it worked pretty darn well. After a little time reading forums and experimenting I learned I could do so much more with Linux than I ever could with the Mac or Windows. There was so much I could change and configure about the way the operating system looked and the way it worked. And there were other Desktop Environments besides Gnome to choose from! There was Compiz for groovy desktop effects, tons of different window manager themes and icon themes to download that I could change and rearrange with a couple of clicks! And a universe (and multiverse) of free and open source software I could easily install in several different ways. I had a few brief problems at first, but thanks to Linux forums I discovered I could fix any occasional glitch all by myself. What a sense of empowerment! And don’t even get me started about the wonders of the command line!
After less than a year of using Ubuntu I found Linux Mint, and today I’m using Mint 10 on our main computer and Bodhi Linux on another desktop and a laptop. I’ve installed other distros; like Dream Linux, Xubuntu, PCLinux OS, Fedora, Mandriva, Moon OS, Pardus Linux and Pinguy OS; using Gnome, KDE, Xfce or Enlightenment. But for now, standard Linux Mint 10 (Gnome) and Bodhi Linux (Enlightenment) are tied as my favorite distros. And they’re both based off Ubuntu. I’m very familiar and comfortable using Ubuntu (and thus Debian) based distros.
So this is what I don’t understand: After several years most Linux distros have progressed rapidly, thanks to the open source development mentality, to become easier to use, faster, more reliable, more elegant, and more compatible with hardware and peripheral devices. But with Ubuntu ditching Gnome for Unity, and the Gnome Developers making some drastic changes from Gnome 2.3 to Gnome 3 with Gnome Shell, it seems to me like that progress has been stopped in its tracks.
I know, I’ve heard the rationalizations. They want to appeal more to the masses; to the trend of more people using notebooks and netbooks and other portable devices, so they took the look and features of a netbook OS and came up with Unity and Gnome Shell (which to me are pretty much indistinguishable). But I just don’t understand why you would take a Desktop Manager that is easy to use and highly configurable like Gnome 2.3 and then take many of those features away; make it less functional. That makes no sense!
To me, the great thing about Gnu/Linux-based operating systems is that there isn’t just one flavor. And as I’ve said before; that’s probably the worst thing about getting the masses to try a Linux operating system: too many choices. With Mac OSX what you see is pretty much what you get. And the same with Windows. It takes years for a new version of these OS’s to get released, and even then, you pretty much know what to expect. There aren’t any drastic changes to the way it works. And the changes are evolutionary; you expect the new version to do more than the previous, not less.
So for the majority of Windows and Mac users who aren’t used to being able to change the look or usability of their OS, the new Ubuntu or a distro with Gnome Shell may be simple and attractive enough to get them to try it. Certainly the price tag and freedom from viruses and malware is a big plus. Trouble is, the vast majority of computer users still don’t have a clue what Linux is, though Canonical, Redhat and the Free and Open Source Software community may gradually be changing that. The thing I love about Linux is what makes it so difficult to promote. There is no single Face for that elusive thing we call ‘Linux’, and despite Mark Shuttleworth’s efforts there may never be.
Of course, that diversity is also a great strength. I, and a lot of other Linux users really love Gnome 2.3. And even though it’s being phased out for a less friendly, more rigid Gnome 3; the world of Open Source is all about innovation. There are always new extensions for Gnome Shell and Unity popping up, and there’s MATE, which is now in its infancy but may bring the goodness of Gnome 2 to Gnome Shell. There is always hope! But at this moment my Linux Mint 10 is working beautifully. And after checking out the alternatives, I’m going to keep using it for as long as I can.
Another alternative that I find more attractive all the time is to just bypass all this fuss over Gnome and Unity and use an Enlightenment distro like Bodhi Linux. e17 is so customizable that it takes a while to learn, but for people who want full control of their desktop and eye candy without Compiz, it’s the Cat’s Pajamas!
If things with Gnome aren’t much better a year from now, I think all my computers will be running Bodhi. I know I forgot some points, but that’s my rant for tonight! Thank you. Comments are welcome.
Speaking of Linux Mint and their more user-friendly tweaked version of Gnome Shell; there’s another very good Linux distro called Pinguy OS that is coming out soon with their new version based on Ubuntu 11.10. Pinguy OS comes totally pre-configured with a ton of applications, codecs and utilities pre-installed. Here’s a preview from their blog that looks great: Pinguy OS 11.10 Alpha Shell Released. Both 32 and 64 Bit.
So for the best of both worlds (combining Gnome 2 and 3), it looks like interesting times ahead for Linux Mint and Pinguy OS. In the evolving world of GNU/Linux, there are always alternatives!