Is GNOME in Free Fall?

Between the arrival of both MATE 1.4 and KDE 4.9 and the emergence of SolusOS’ brand-new GNOME Classic on the scene, there’s no denying it’s been an exciting few weeks here in the world of Linux desktops.

That, in turn, has made it all the more difficult to witness the identity crisis that has apparently befallen GNOME itself.

“Core developers are leaving GNOME development,” wrote developer Benjamin Otte in a recent blog post entitled, “Staring into the Abyss.”

Not only that, but “GNOME is understaffed,” “GNOME has no goals” and “GNOME is losing market- and mindshare,” Otte wrote.Two hundred and thirty comments later — not to mention 500 or so more on Slashdot, as well as onTuxRadar and beyond — tongues are still wagging in every bar, saloon and watering hole across the Linux blogosphere’s vast lands.

‘A Transitional Desktop’

“It sounds like GNOME is in trouble, which is a sad thing,” lamented Robin Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor.

“I like the GNOME 3 desktop,” Lim explained. “It is nice, clean and is easy to navigate with a trackpad or keyboard. I have never understood why people did not like it.

“But I have never been one to customize my desktop with a lot of informational widgets,” he added. “A good desktop is one that gets me to launch an app in the fewest possible steps. Nothing more.”

Of course, GNOME is also “a transitional desktop,” Lim opined. “It is designed to do a good job as a traditional desktop that can easily be migrated to a touchscreen. Imagine manipulating GNOME 3 on a 7-inch touchscreen. Then GNOME 3 makes a lot of sense.”

‘I Don’t Need More Complexity’

Blogger Robert Pogson wasn’t so sure.

“For me GNOME has been irrelevant since they went from 2.x to 3.x,” Pogson said.”I have been using XFCE4 ever since,” he noted. “I can manage my own desktop, thank you very much.

“I run my own web and desktop apps for search,” he added. “I like to be able to see multiple windows and tabs and to click things. I don’t need more complexity in my desktop. I need less.”

‘I Can Sympathize’

As a KDE user, Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien said he could feel the GNOME team’s pain.

“We went through a few problems with the transition to 4.0, so I can sympathize with the GNOME folks,” O’Brien told Linux Girl.

At the same time, “it also seems like maybe GNOME just stopped listening to the users, and that is very dangerous in Open Source, since anyone can fork the project,” he added. “The key to a successful fork, of course, is the support of a user base.

“Will there be enough support from developers and users for something to take the place of GNOME? I don’t think I’ve seen enough to be convinced yet, but what Linux Mint has done is certainly suggestive,” O’Brien concluded.

‘We Know Better Than You’

Consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack saw the root of GNOME’s problems in a single line in Otte’s post: “The claimed target users for GNOME are leaving desktop computers behind for types of devices GNOME doesn’t work on.”

In other words, “the GNOME developers walked away from their existing user base, ignored the protests with ‘trust us, we know better than you what you really want,’ and went ahead and designed something completely unsuitable for keyboard and mouse input, and now they wonder where their users went,” Mack explained.

“If they are still confused as to why that strategy failed, there is no hope for them,” he added.

‘I Just Don’t Get It’

In fact, while “I wish I could say it’s just a GNOME disease, it seems to be industrywide with Ubuntu and Windows 8 both abandoning their users to chase the touch screen,” he opined.

“Even the mobile phone industry is suffering it,” Mack added. “I’m stuck with a two-year-old Desire Z with a slow CPU and not much RAM. Why? Because no one has put a decent slide-out keyboard phone on the market that I can buy from Europe since then, and I need the keyboard more than I need a faster CPU.”

Bottom line? “I just don’t get it,” Mack concluded. “I realize touch screens are great for some things, but they are harder for things like programming or even writing moderately sized documents, yet the entire industry seems to want to abandon the mouse and keyboard despite what their own users are telling them.”

‘One GUI to Rule Them All’

GNOME’s problem is that “they drank the ‘One GUI to rule them all’ kool-aid,” Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol told Linux Girl.

In fact, much the same problems exist “in a higher degree with Unity and in a lesser degree with KDE 4,” Ebersol opined.

“Think: The top-hits GNU/Linux distros of the moment are the ones that are adopting the classic desktop environments and the ones that are working to downgrade the existing DEs (Linux Mint with Cinnamon and MATE and SolusOS with a reworked GNOME 3 desktop),” he pointed out.

“It’s easy to tell people are not very much pleased with those ‘one GUI to everything’ DEs…,” he concluded.

‘GNOME Will Quietly Die’

“This is what happens when you don’t listen to your users in FOSS: it gets forked,” Slashdot blogger hairyfeet agreed. “They’ve had a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude for too long, so the users chose the highway.”

In fact, “the reason for creating GNOME in the first place, because KDE was built on QT and therefore wasn’t FOSS, is gone,” hairyfeet pointed out. “Now GNOME will quietly sputter and die while MATE becomes the new GNOME.”

Similarly, “I’m really starting to not care about GNOME’s future; the most appealing vision of GNOME seems to be a look back to the past, in the form of MATE,” Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza told Linux Girl.

‘Room for Another Desktop?’

At the same time, “that does make me wonder: If others feel the same way I do, is there now room for another desktop environment to take a place in the forefront of the Linux ecosystem?” Espinoza mused.

“I imagine that if GNOME tanks, KDE will gain numerous users, but I still wonder if there might be a void that could be filled by something that might even be a little different from the desktop environments that we’ve seen so far,” he added.

So what can GNOME do to “win back users and developers,” as the TuxRadar article asks?

“I think there is nothing the GNOME team can do but wait it out,” Lim suggested. “The Linux community, which was once the bastion of cutting edge thinking users, has now grown into a rather conservative bunch. Sooner or later they will come around.”

In the meantime, “I think there should be more concern about the future of Linux desktop distributions in general, which are focused on yesterday’s devices and not tomorrow’s,” Lim concluded.

‘They Need to Create a New Brand’

On the other hand, “a lot of great change comes from staring into the abyss,” Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, told Linux Girl.

“GNOME is a venerable old project, and I have a hard time seeing it go away,” he noted. “However, if they really want to create a desktop that will win hearts and minds, there is one incredibly important thing they need to do: create a new brand.”

A brand is “a promise made and a promise kept,” Travers explained. “If users don’t feel that a real promise has been made to them, or that it has been kept, they will not use the software. The GNOME 3 political issues are then a symptom of a potentially serious issue.”

Travers’ suggestion? “The new brand should be ‘GNOME: The UI framework,'” he offered. “This brand would position GNOME to move into new environments includingtablets and so forth, and give GTK apps greater reach, and it might not be that hard to do, as Cinnamon is showing by supporting the GNOME 2 desktop paradigm.”

‘They Need to Support GNOME 2’

First and foremost, “they need to support the GNOME 2 look and feel,” Travers opined.

“GNOME 2 was highly optimized for helping users who were familiar with Windows and Mac figure out how to find their software,” he explained. “The interface was highlydiscoverable and easy to use. This is a very different approach from GNOME 3, which is highly keyboard-centric and great for power users, but it is disorienting and has a learning curve.”

Cinnamon helps, but it’s not a GNOME project, Travers pointed out.

“I think that having an official option inside GNOME would be a very good thing,” he suggested. “If they can’t do that, they need to highlight Cinnamon. This sort of thing helps convince developers to port apps to GTK3.

“Having a soft interface change option would also go a long way towards ensuring that users don’t feel alienated, which is a big problem currently,” he concluded.

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.


  • Does anyone remember the Gnome-Shell in Ubuntu 10.10? I set it up and it was quite useable. Nice looking panel that had just about all you needed. They just had to improve on displaying the current applications.

    Also I had said, "Why not move the Activities to the right corner." Since most people are right-handed it is much easier and there is an ‘arc’ when you move the mouse pointer that automatically goes to the right corner. All I got was, "Do you have any studies to back that up?"

    Well, no I don’t, but just try it yourself. You’ll see the mousepointer goes to the upper right. At least for me. After all, 70%-90% of the population is right-handed.

    • Ubuntu is considering alternatives to Nautilus 3.6, including staying on Nautilus 3.4, joining the development of Marlin or Nemo, or even starting their own file browser project themselves.

      Since Marlin got early desktop handling support just a couple of days ago, I understand it’s under Canonical’s radar now.

  • Apparently Gnome still hasn’t gotten the message. Reading about what’s coming in the upcoming version of Nautilus (3.6) that will be included in Ubuntu 12.10, Gnome is dumbing down the venerable filemanager even further (from WEB UPD8 article):

    "There were also some features that were removed from Nautilus, like the "Text beside icons" option for the icon view. There’s also no more "Extra pane" feature, sidebar tree view, option to show the statusbar or the option to create a new file – these were removed a while back."

    These new changes coming in Nautilus 3.6 has prompted the Linux Mint developers to fork Nautilus for the next version of Linux Mint. The new fork will be called "Nemo".

  • I can’t believe that you neglected to report that we are planning a second fork similar to MATE but with significantly different goals. I guess since we haven’t formally announced it – you get a pass.

    You do seem to ignore everything our project is doing though I’m curious as to why – ignoring us is something that isn’t really in the communities best interest.

    Our plan is to take all of the work we currently have in Fuduntu’s GNOME 2 and merge it into the sources (we are still working from the forked Fedora sources but are applying and maintaining patches). Afterwards, rebrand it all so we can integrate it with GNOME 3, and then move it forward fixing bugs and continuing to beautify and modernize the product while retaining the classic desktop.

    This is what I have so far: – It just needs to be cleaned up a little more and rebranded.

    Ideally we can build a community around it external to Fuduntu where it can also be adopted by other distributions. I’m starting to put the formal plan together and then I’ll get it out there in hopes that we can build something great.

    I’m hoping I can get the plan together and up on our blog for comment this week or next.

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