Is GNOME “Staring into the abyss?”

Is GNOME “Staring into the abyss?”

Summary: A leading GNOME developer thinks the once popular Linux/Unix desktop interface has lost its way.

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GNOME 3.4
GNOME 3.x is losing supporters and developers.

Benjamin Otte, a leading GNOME developer thinks GNOME, once a popular Linux/Unix desktop but now more often used as a foundation for other desktop interfaces, is “staring into the abyss.

I can't argue with him. I think GNOME lost its way when it decided to move from its excellent 2.x release series to a barely usable GNOME 3.x line in 2009. Like many Linux users, I loved GNOME 2.x and hated GNOME 3.x. I'm far from the only one who disliked GNOME 3.x that strongly. Linus Torvalds, Linux's father, would like to see GNOME forked and the current GNOME 3.x buried.

It's not like this was hard to predict. When GNOME first announced that it was going to take a very different direction with GNOME 3, many GNOME supporters doubted this path's wisdom. By October 2010, Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical, Ubuntu's  parent company decided to create another Linux desktop, Unity, instead of using the GNOME 3.x shell. While Ubuntu Unity has it critics, GNOME 3.x has lost many, indeed probably most, of its users.

By July 2012, of all the major Linux distributors only Fedora remains a steadfast GNOME 3.x supporter. There's a reason for that: Otte states that GNOME is a Red Hat project.

GNOME 3.4 with Fedora 17 Picture Gallery

"If you look at the Ohloh statistics again and ignore the 3 people working almost exclusively on Gstreamer [an open-source multimedia framework] and the 2 working on translations, you get 10 Red Hat employees and 5 others. (The 2nd page looks like 6 Red Hat employees versus 8 others with 6 translators/documenters.) This gives the GNOME project essentially a bus factor of 1.”

Bus factor? It's engineering/developer slang for how many people would need to be hit by a bus before a project would be dead. The lower the number, the more likely it is that the project is too fragile and could easily die. In other words, if Red Hat ever decided that GNOME wasn't worth investing in, the project would be dead in the water. You can see why Otte thinks this when he also observed that core developers are leaving and that GNOME is understaffed.

What's more important though is that “GNOME has no goals. I first noticed this in 2005 when Jeff Waugh gave his 10×10 talk. Back then, the GNOME project had essentially achieved what it set out to do: a working Free desktop environment. Since then, nobody has managed to set new goals for the project. In fact, these days GNOME describes itself as a “community that makes great software”, which is as nondescript as you can get for software development.” He's right. That's not exactly inspiring.

Otte is also painfully aware that:

  • Distros are dropping GNOME for other environments instead of working with GNOME.
  • Previous supporters of GNOME are scaling back their involvement or have already dropped GNOME completely.
  • Most important desktop applications have not made the switch to GNOME 3. From talking to them, it’s not a priority for most of them.
  • The claimed target users for GNOME are leaving desktop computers behind for types of devices GNOME doesn’t work on.

And, that even people inside the GNOME community feel like they're not even being given a chance to say anything about GNOME changes, never mind being heard.

Still, as depressing as Otte's take is, others point out that “GNOME is also about much more than the desktop environment software that constitutes the project’s hallmark product. The team creates an array of related applications, like the Evolution email client and Banshee media player, for which demand will likely remain constant even if more users move away from the GNOME shell interface. Don’t expect the project to sink into obsolescence anytime soon.”

In addition, several of the desktop interfaces that have been replacing pure GNOME, such as Ubuntu and Mint's Cinnamon are based on GNOME. Meanwhile, at the annual GNOME developer meeting, GNOME developers Xan López and Juan José Sánchez still have big dreams for GNOME. They propose releasing GNOME 4.0 in March 2014 and have set a target of 20% market share for the desktop by 2020. That was meant as a joke, but I find it a painful one. GNOME may never have gotten to 10% of the desktop market, but at the rate it's going pure GNOME may end up with less than 10% of the Linux desktop market.

While I wouldn't call the GNOME programmer get-together, as Otte does, a “self-congratulating echo chamber,” I also can't see GNOME in and of itself becoming important to the Linux desktop again. GNOME is going to stay important, but it's no longer going to be leading the way on the Linux desktop. GNOME's day as a leader is done.

Related Stories:

Fedora 17 & GNOME 3.4: Return to a useful Linux desktop (Review)

Linus Torvalds finds GNOME 3.4 to be a "total user experience design failure"

New Desktop Interface Flops

Linux Mint's Cinnamon: A GNOME 3.x shell fork

Linus Torvalds would like to see a GNOME fork

Topics: Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software, Software Development, PCs

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86 comments
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  • I would say this is a catastrophe

    A disaster. It spells the end of GNOME and quite possibly Linux. But please SJVN, don't just write 1 blog about this topic. Please make sure you write at least 5 a week just in case the first 4 don't "stick".

    On the other hand, one could argue that for this to be a disaster, GNOME would have to have been a success first. Since GNOME has never been a success, maybe you are right in not calling this a disaster. If a Linux GUI EPIC FAILS in the forest, does it make a sound?
    toddbottom3
    • "If a Linux GUI EPIC FAILS in the forest, does it make a sound?"

      Yes, it sounds like toddbottom3's horns on fire. Linux has, what - 6 mature desktop environments. And if windows metro fails - what's the alternative?
      vgrig
      • If Windows Metro fails

        I remind you that there is still a desktop environment in Windows 8 and that there are ways to avoid Metro completely on Windows 8.

        So no, Linux won't be an alternative for a failing Metro, or else the community would have become huge at Vista's release. The alternative will be to stick with the desktop part of Windows 8 (or just go back to Windows 7).

        I like Linux, I always have a couple of distributions installed somewhere at home but I've got to admit that I need Windows to accomplish most of my work (would be kind of hard to develop Windows application in Linux).
        lepoete73
        • "I remind you that there is still a desktop environment in Windows 8 and...

          ...that there are ways to avoid Metro completely on Windows 8."

          Really? What "ways"? If those "ways" are similar to Gnome's "fallback mode" - that's just part of original fail and not a help at all.
          vgrig
          • Classic Shell

            Puts back a Start Menu and login directly to desktop.

            It's on Sourceforge and already adapted for Windows 8.
            lepoete73
          • Yeah, so does gnome fall back mode,

            but at what cost?
            From Classic Shell website: "some of the features have been disabled because they are not possible on Windows 8"
            vgrig
          • "some of the features have been disabled because they are not possible...

            "on Windows 8 ...or no longer make sense - like the status bar enhancements, the copy dialog replacement, and the Up button", you didn't put the whole quote, they don't need to duplicate stuff that Windows 8 already does correctly.

            But it does add a Start Menu and a "Login to Desktop" option, at least in the Release Preview, we'll see if Microsoft will find a way to block them for the final release.
            lepoete73
          • "...or no longer make sense"

            because, what - it's not a full replacement to win8 UI? What's the point then?
            vgrig
          • "it's not a full replacement to win8 UI?"

            The desktop is fine in Windows 8, it makes me avoid Metro that's all that matters.
            lepoete73
          • Yeah, so does gnome fall back mode,

            but at what cost?
            From Classic Shell website: "some of the features have been disabled because they are not possible on Windows 8"
            vgrig
        • Errors

          Please do not talk about Linux in context when you mean GNOME. As GNOME is ported to other operating systems as well and is not exclusive for Linux. Example you can use FreeBSD or HURD operating systems instead. Linux and GNOME doesn't have anything to do each other.

          And there are lots of developers making Windows applications with Linux, you don't need Windows for that, unless you want very specific development tools what are available only for Windows.
          Fri13
      • That's the interesting thing about Windows Metro

        Linux has already been there and done that whole deal of putting a GUI for a small form factor on to a full desktop OS. It didn't work for GNOME 3, it hardly works for Unity, and it will fail even worse for Metro.

        Fortunately, Linux has so many other choices that GNOME and Unity dissapointments won't hold them back, and since MS has no alternative this will be a great opportunity for Linux. Now if only we could get Cannoical to see the light and fix Unity before it is as horribly lost as GNOME and Metro.

        Until then, Linux Mint Cinnamon will be the example.
        T1Oracle
    • Watch those crocodile tears fall

      It might well be the death of GNOME, but desktop Linux doesn't need GNOME to survive.
      John L. Ries
    • todd's bottom is scared of Linux

      An OS he's never used.

      Sounds like he prolly wants to take SJVN out on a date as well...

      lol...
      CaviarBlack
    • ... and quite possibly Linux.

      Linux is the world's most popular OS. GNOME is a drop in the bucket.
      ldo17
    • Toadbottom3 are trying to replace Loverock Davidson as the number one....

      EWindows fanboy or just wana imulate him? Loverock he's under the third bridge to the right ....holding his daily troll meeting, hurry up or you'll be late.............
      Over and Out
  • Can you develop a little bit more?

    1. What was the reason for Gnome3 to engage in such a disruptive path?

    2. Let assume, Gnome3 is dying slowly and becomes, lets say in 2014, marginally used. Which desktop environment will rise to pick up Gnome's "market share"? I suppose this will not Unity nor Cinnamon, as they are based on Gnome3, I suppose they will also die along with Gnome3.

    Thanks
    RelaxWalk
    • I suppose they will also die along with Gnome3

      Nothing will kill Unity. Canonical and Ubuntu have too much money and deveolpers behind it. They could just hire any key Gnome developers that they would need...like they hired the lead developer for Compiz to keep it alive.
      Version Dependency
      • No they don't

        Canonical may be paying A FEW paid developers ... but Unity has almost ZERO community developers behind the project.
        wackoae
        • Yes they do

          “but Unity has almost ZERO community developers behind the project”

          Almost, so you have no idea.
          RickLively