What Would Linus Do About GNOME 3? Why, Use Xfce

Debates are always plentiful here in the Linux blogosphere, and the topic of desktop environments is no exception.

That may be more true now than ever before, in fact, thanks to GNOME 3, which has come to rival only Unity in the controversy it has caused.

It’s one thing when a mere mortal user criticizes GNOME; however, it’s quite another when none other than Linus Torvalds does. Yet that, it seems, is just what recently happened.

‘Why Can’t I Have Shortcuts?’

“The user experience of Gnome3 even without rendering problems is unacceptable,” wrote Torvalds in a conversation late last month on Google+. “Why can’t I have shortcuts on my desktop? Why can’t I have the expose functionality? Wobbly windows? Why does anybody sane think that it’s a good idea to have that ‘go to the crazy activities’ menu mode?

“I used to be upset when gnome developers decided it was ‘too complicated’ for the user to remap some mouse buttons,” Torvalds added. “In gnome3, the developers have apparently decided that it’s ‘too complicated’ to actually do real work on your desktop, and have decided to make it really annoying to do.”

As an example of “the crazy,” Torvalds cited the predicament facing a user who wants to open a new terminal window.

‘That’s Just Crazy Crap’

“So you go to ‘activities’ and press the ‘terminal’ thing that you’ve made part of your normal desktop thing (but why can’t I just have it on the desktop, instead of in that insane ‘activities’ mode?),” he griped. “What happens? Nothing. It brings your existing terminal to the forefront.

“That’s just crazy crap,” he added. “Now I need to use Shift-Control-N in an old terminal to bring up a new one. Yeah, that’s a real user experience improvement. Sure.”

In short, blaming those and other “head up the arse” behaviors in GNOME 3, Torvalds has switched to Xfce, he said: “I think it’s a step down from gnome2, but it’s a huge step up from gnome3. Really.”

‘I Agree with Linus’

It took a few days for the news of Torvalds’ comments to hit the wires of the Linux blogosphere, but once it did, “crazy” is a fair description of the speed at which it traveled. In no time at all, the topic dominated all others at every bar, saloon and watering hole in the Linux blogosphere.

Luckily, Linux Girl was ready, Quick Quotes Quill in hand.

“I agree with Linus here,” opined Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project. “GNOME 3 is an unholy mess. The interface requires too many clicks to find things and without 3D acceleration it is hardly usable. The GNOME 2 interface was good; GNOME 3 is both awkward and clunky.”

Still, “it is nice to be reminded by Linus that we have a choice,” Travers added. “I expect to help bring this choice to more of my Linux-using friends.”

‘A Beast I’ve Never Tamed’

Slashdot blogger yagu took a similar view.

“I don’t care much what Linus does or doesn’t do,” yagu told Linux Girl. “But I must agree Gnome is a beast I’ve never tamed.”

The proliferation of Linux desktops “blesses with choice,” yagu added. “I choose simple. It took me a long time to leave Tom’s Window Manager (twm), and I was long happy with FVWM (no idea what that stands for). Both were simple, functional, and highly configurable window managers, and I could basically create my own desktop experience.”

‘Noisy, Annoying and Distracting’

The “high octane desktop experience,” on the other hand, “I find only a modest leap for many of the reasons Linus gives for dropping Gnome 3,” yagu went on. “Highly textured and layered, these uber-window managers are interesting other choices for users, but I find them mostly noisy, annoying and distracting. Eye candy is nice but doesn’t contribute to my productivity at the end of the day.”

Yagu now uses KDE. He finds it “mostly functional,” he noted, but “would beg off were it not for some apps I find necessary which require KDE to run.

“Therein lies the rub,” yagu concluded. “I don’t want technology bleeding into all of my activities to the point that I must run some monster to do simple tasks. Gnome seems to have always been that monster for me.”

‘I Love Xfce’

GNOME 3 is “going in a direction people don’t want to go, where the set ‘people’ includes Linus,” Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza opined.

“I opted for Unity, so even people who like eye candy are dodging GNOME 3,” Espinoza added. “I don’t know where I’m going next; perhaps I’ll go back to Enlightenment just to be contrary.”

Consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack, meanwhile, is an Xfce fan.

“I love Xfce and have been using it for years,” he told Linux Girl.

‘It Just Works’

“It really seems that OS designers in general, and window manager designers especially, have forgotten what an OS is for: to allow me to get work done,” Mack pointed out.

“I don’t want the single most used software on my system (the WM shell) to be written in an interpreted language,” he added. “Fancy 3D spinning cubes to change virtual desktops might amaze other people, but they are actually SLOWER than just having the desktop switcher on the bar.

“Xfce seems to get this,” Mack said. “It’s written in a compiled language, the interface is light and it has just enough eye candy to look nice (shadows, etc.). I dump the dock thing and have as many menu bars as I want. Dual monitors are handled well.”

In short, Xfce “just works and is efficient enough that I still have plenty of CPU/RAM left to get actual work done with my system,” Mack concluded.

‘If It Ain’t Broke…’

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet marveled that Linus was ever using GNOME to begin with.

“Isn’t Gnome the ‘we know what’s best for you’ desktop?” hairyfeet pointed out. “It would seem like a kernel hacker would want more control than that.”

In any case, too often in the world of FOSS developers seem to follow “the ‘If it ain’t broke we’ll break it!’ design mantra,” hairyfeet opined. “Is a world without bling like a world without sunshine to these guys?”

In the cases of both KDE3 and GNOME 2, for example, “you had well-vetted, well-maintained, low-resource code that most of the major bugs had been worked out of,” he explained. “So what happened? Did seeing Aero and the latest OSX builds just cause everyone to be so dang bling-deprived they couldn’t wait to toss stuff away?

“Slow and steady wins the race,” hairyfeet concluded. “If it ain’t broke, DON’T FIX IT!!!”

‘They Have the Choice’

Blogger Robert Pogson, on the other hand, took a higher-level view.

“GNOME 3, like Ubuntu’s Unity, is change for the sake of change,” Pogson told Linux Girl.

Still, “if the users don’t like it, they have the choice to use other interfaces,” he added. “Linus and I both like XFCE4. It gets the job done and lets me do what I need to do.”

Some people “do dangerous things; others do boring things,” Pogson pointed out. “There’s no explaining what people are motivated to do.”

Nevertheless, “as long as we have plenty of choice and the freedom to change things, it’s OK with me,” 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.


  • Still trying to figure out how to enable the fancy spinning cubes on my Gnome 3 desktop. That sounds more like the Sense 3 UI in the new HTC Android phones. Those things actually sell.

    I have been using Gnome 3 on Fedora 15 for almost a month. Unity for two months before that, and Gnome 2.3 for five months previously. I like Gnome 3 and prefer Unity over Gnome 2.3.

    For Gnome 3, I think the Favorite Applications menu should be visible when the screen is empty and disappear when the when an application is launched at full screen. The blank screen confused my friends when they tried it. Gnome 3 could use a few more shortcuts. Other than that, I actually like it a bit better than Unity. This must put me in the minority as I like both Gnome 3 and Unity. Both could use some work, but in my opinion are a step in the right direction.

    Resources… Fedora 15 with Gnome 3 uses about 175MB of memory from a cold boot and as I am typing this I am at 383MB. It runs fine on a four year old computer with 1 GB of RAM and a Core2 Duo processor.

    I do not think the new desktops are change for no reason. When you have a 1-2% market share, normally you would worry and try a different approach. Now Unity does feel like a rip-off Mac OS X, and the Application Launcher in Gnome 3 looks a lot like (and will look more like) the one in Android. It looks like the new application launcher in Mac OS X Lion too. People seem to find Mac OS X and Android "user friendly". Actually, Android is considered less user friendly than iOS. I wonder where that puts Gnome 2, KDE and Xfce

    I don’t think Gnome 3 is going anywhere, with the community being against it. I will probably be going back to Ubuntu and Unity soon. Who knows, Canonical may even drop Unity and move to something else. I kind of remember feeling the same way when I like RedHat’s Bluecurve desktop. And wans’t there a lot of similar uproar against Gnome 2 when it first came out:

    So fine, go the Xfce, and take the 1-2% of the PC community there too. To be honest about things I only using Linux again after a seven year absence. I used to dual boot it with Windows on a desktop, but when I move to laptops, had problems getting it to take use the power management features of my laptop. It became too much trouble to use.

    Seven years later I am back. I only run Linux again, because I now have a second laptop now which I retired from being my daily driver. It runs faster than the Vista OS this machine came with, with some hardware compatibility issues.

    Linux 1-2% share in the market is not bad, but it It is too small to get hardware manufacturers to give it full support. Run it on an AMD Fusion laptop, and you will cripple your laptop performance. Fedora 15 won’t put the laptop I am using this on to sleep. Ubuntu 11.04 will tell me that my laptop is on mute mode when it is not. Doesn’t anyone in the community feel like something should be done with Linux to gain more mainstream followers? It Linux, you can run any DE you want, you can even run it from the command line, but without a bigger market share hardware support will be mediocre. Like Gnome 3 or Unity, or not, if the new desktops get more users and manufacturers interested in Linux it will benefit every Linux user.

    Linux had it biggest shot at going mainstream in 2007 with the advent of netbooks, the threat was so real Microsoft extended the life of Windows XP. Sometime I think if Ubuntu had Unity back than, things might be a bit different today.

    Anyway, I have written long enough. I am not a hard core Linux user. I use Mac OS X today which I like fine, would be happy to get a Windows machine after that, and I like running Linux too. I guess the view from my standpoint is that I can take it or leave it. I have the patience to stick with it. Most wont.

    • But you just hit the nail on the head of why Linux isn’t gaining share. To rip a line from a politician "Its the USER stupid!" which seems to be ignored so some dev can scratch an itch. That is fine if all you want is a hobby OS but if you want real share? you have to LISTEN to the users which sadly i have yet to see a distro or DE that really does that.

      And why all the aping of Windows and OSX? Do you know what people think when a DE rips one of the big boys? They think "third rate knockoff" and they are right. when you are at 1% you don’t gain share from aping, you gain share from forging new paths!

      We have been using the desktop metaphor for 30+ years now, if Linux wants to gain real share someone needs to do something fresh. Maybe a true 3D world based on compartments? Like have a compartment for Audio video where all the controls conform to that task. And the file folder thing can be replaced by contextual metadata. Sure you’d still have files and folders but the user wouldn’t need to interact with them, they would simply use search integrated into everything. I’d say that is one thing MSFT got right with Win 7, full OS level search. Take that to the next level and have the whole thing fully integrated with metadata so it could "read" the file and categorize it based on content and function. Think of it as an OS more like an office building than a office desk.

      But instead what we’ll see is more like Gnome 3 where they completely ignore what the users wanted (which was simply more Gnome 2) or KDE piling on the bling or Unity with their "this is not a democracy" bad attitude. Like I’ve said time and time again nobody listens to the users in the Linux community and that is why market share sucks. When MSFT got a big bomb in Vista they listened to complaints and fixed or got rid of the things that ticked folks off.

      When users complain about Gnome or KDE or unity all they get is bad attitude, like they are too stupid to "get it". Oh they get it alright, they get that you don’t care about what they need so they move on. Hasn’t anyone in the community ever heard of "the customer is always right"?

      • So I am not alone after all 🙂

        I do not know if you like Gnome 3. There are a couple of things I would like to change (don’t we all), but I think it is at least a step in a direction where it really looks nothing like Windows, and does not look too much like Mac OSX. At the same time it is not really "innovative".

        Your idea of compartments sound interesting. Sounds like you want to make an OS the super app, which is not a bad thing. Linux is already the most feature filled OS when it comes to "bundled" apps.

        A long time ago, when I was younger I actually enjoyed tweaking PC’s, solving compatibility issues, testing beta software. The PC was a tool and a hobby at the same time. Now I am older, and what I learned before gets me by today with less the user friendly environments, but I really prefer a desktop environment designed for the "STUPID". Nothing wrong with it just works out of the box.

        MS seems to be waking up realizing they cannot sit on their laurels. The most innovating UI I have seen lately is Windows Phone 7.

        • I don’t care for it myself, as with KDE it smells to me like bling for the sake of bling. Now don’t get me wrong a little bling is fine as long as it is USEFUL bling like the mini windows previews in Win 7 or the spinning cube to access multiple desktops in Compiz. Those at least give the user functionality for their resources. But too much in DEs, especially Linux, seems to be based on the goal of "Hey lets beat the iShiny in the bling dept!" which is frankly just a big honking waste of resources.

          Like I said someone needs to try something new if Linux is to breakout and you got what I was going for, have the OS be the "killer app" that ties all the different apps together. Like say have an audio creation app be tied into a 3D mixing console as the controls for all AV apps, or have all office apps tied into an office workbench. Again think of it as a building where you work, not a desk. Linux could probably pull this off using scripting to route the controls to the 3D surfaces thus making any app with a CLI capable of being tied into the new design without a rewrite.

          But as it is now we are basically seeing the same three things over and over. Windows ripoffs, OSX ripoffs, and iOS ripoffs. Two of those designs go back almost 30 years (Win NT and NeXT respectively) and the third is a smartphone GUI which frankly should stay on smartphones and NOT desktops. All I’m seeing on the DE front is more bloat and less original ideas, and that just strikes me as kind of sad really.

  • No one mentions resources here. I installed a distro (Sabayon/Gentoo/Linux) and found that my 4 gig of memory was barely adequate for all the things that I run – routinely. So, I re-installed the same distro, same kernel, but with the Enlightenment desktop. I loaded an insane number of applications, games, browsers, and CLI apps. Far more than I ever actually run on my home computer. I STILL had a gig and a half of memory, which is more than sufficient to start up a virtual machine, and do yet more work.

    Gnome3 has lost it. They need to get out of the woods soon, or all their followers will have abandoned them!

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