Is GNOME “Staring into the abyss?”

A leading GNOME developer thinks the once popular Linux/Unix desktop interface has lost its way.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
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

Editorial standards