GNOME: Can this Linux desktop be saved?

After taking a design path that sent many of its users running to other desktops, GNOME seems to be giving its users what they want: a GNOME 2.x style desktop. But, is it too late? Will GNOME fans come back?
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
Is GNOME really trying to make a comeback? Can it make a comeback?

Once upon a time, GNOME, along with KDE, ruled the Linux desktop. Then, in 2010, GNOME's designers decided to ignore their users' wishes and introduced a radically new desktop interface: GNOME 3.

Many users hated it. Not even two years later, even GNOME's programmers were wondering if their interface was "staring into the abyss?" Now, GNOME developers have woken up and are offering a way for GNOME users to go back to a GNOME 2.x style interface.

But is it too little, too late? Will GNOME actually be offering a real, return-to-the-past desktop interface?

Earlier, it appeared that GNOME was going to leave its disgruntled 2.x interface fans entirely in the lurch. The GNOME developers had announced it was dropping its "fallback mode" from the forthcoming GNOME 3.8 release. This mode was meant for user without the graphics hardware or CPU power to support GNOME 3.x Shell's 3D desktop. While far from perfect, many users used fallback mode by choice because it looked a lot like the old, familiar GNOME 2.x interface. This decision did not go over well.

Even before this programmers and users alike had been quickly moving away from GNOME 3.x. Canonical, Ubuntu's parent company lead the way with its Unity shell, a GNOME 3.x fork. Others, such as Mint with Cinnamon and Arch with MATE have their own takes on the classic GNOME 2.x interface. Other users, such as Linus Torvalds, Linux's creator, turned to XFCE and other older interfaces.

The result has been that all these desktops have gained fans at GNOME's expense and GNOME has finally decided to do something about it. GNOME developer Matthias Clasen wrote, "We certainly hope that many users will find the new (GNOME 3.x) ways comfortable and refreshing after a short learning phase, we should not fault people who prefer the old way. After all, these features were a selling point of GNOME 2 for ten years!"

Therefore, since GNOME has "a pretty awesome extension mechanism in gnome-shell... We've decided that we will compile a list of supported gnome-shell extensions. This will be a small list, focused on just bringing back some central 'classic' UX elements: classic alt tab, task bar, min/max buttons, main menu."

Exactly how GNOME will let users easily access this? That's a question that remains unanswered. Clasen wrote, "We haven't made a final decision yet on how to let users turn on this 'classic mode' -- it may be a switch in gnome-tweak-tool or something else."

In addition, GNOME will not be making the GNOME shell "itself more tweakable," adding: "We still believe that there should be a single, well-defined UX [user experience] for GNOME 3, and extensions provide a great mechanism to allow tweaks without giving up on this vision. That being said, there are examples like the a11y menu[2] or search[3], where the shell will become more configurable in the future."

That's not exactly the kind of news that I think will bring GNOME fans flocking back. I, for one, would like a firmer statement on how they'll be enabling users to control their desktop. After all, the real reason why so many programmers and users left GNOME was its "my way or the highway" approach to the user interface. If GNOME ends up not making it simple for its users to switch to a GNOME 2.x style desktop, they're not going to come back. 

Besides, many, if not most, users have already switched to the GNOME 2.x style Cinnamon or MATE interfaces. Still, at least one user, who really hated GNOME 3's UX. is back in the GNOME fold: Torvalds, Mind you, Torvalds isn't crazy about GNOME but he recently said “It has been getting less painful. They have extensions that are still too hard to find. You can make your desktop look almost as good as it did two years ago."

And, if nothing else as Bruce Byfield put it in Linux Magazine, GNOME has proven it can listen. It's been a long, long time since they've done that.

Personally? I'm not going back. Cinnamon is now my user interface of choice. Still, it's nice to see GNOME paying some attention to its user-base. And, who knows, GNOME may yet make a comeback.

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