Why 2017 Will Be Awesome

Why 2017 Will Be Awesome

Article from Issue 196/2017
Author(s):

2016 was a wild ride – and 2017 promises to deliver even more FOSS goodness.

It's something of an in-joke to say "$CURRENT_YEAR+1 will be the year of Linux on the desktop." This started back in the early 2000s as a more serious statement, reflecting the optimism at the time. Linux was on the brink of major success, after all; just a few things needed to go right, and Microsoft's days of dominance on the desktop would be over. Many of us had been using Linux as our daily desktop OS for years, but we were still waiting for that final big breakthrough.

So why didn't it happen? Some would argue that it took a long time for desktop distros to become really polished and user friendly, while others would point to the relative paucity of commercial triple-A applications. I think, however, that the biggest factor involved was simply users' reluctance to change. Consider how many Windows users clung on to XP while Vista, 7, and 8 came out and how much the Microsoft Office Ribbon interface was (and still is) hated by a large number of people.

No matter how much Linux improved, most people stick with what they know. Now, in the meantime, Linux has come to dominate smartphones, tablets, embedded devices, and the cloud, building upon its success in the server and networking spaces. So as 2017 gets underway, can it finally crack that especially difficult desktop nut? Surveys point to Linux attaining a 2%-3% desktop market share, which may seem tiny but is impressive growth from the 1.5-ish% we were used to. And there are many things coming up in the next 12 months that could really help. So let's see what's in the pipeline ….

Wayland

It feels like we've been talking about Wayland forever, and, indeed, it has been in development for almost a decade now. In case you're not familiar with it, Wayland is a display server protocol and implementation that serves as a replacement for the old X Window System. If this all sounds like gobbledygook to you, consider this: the X Window System is the base graphical layer on your Linux desktop, which talks to the graphics card, draws dots on the screen, handles mouse input, and does other jobs. On top of that, you have graphical widget toolkits such as Qt and Gtk, which provide buttons, menus, and other facilities, and then apps and desktops such as KDE and Firefox use those toolkits to create shiny apps.

Now, the X Window System (aka X) has been around since the 1980s and been the de facto standard graphical layer on desktop Linux distros since forever, so why is it being replaced now? It's true that X has done a decent job over the years and offers some nifty features, such as network transparency, where you can easily run an app on one machine and display it on another. (Yes, you can do this with VNC and the like, but those just copy pictures over the network, whereas X actually sends specific drawing commands in a more elegant fashion.)

X had its limitations, though. There was a lot of cruft in the codebase, and many of us were still dealing with performance issues and "tearing" when dragging windows around on the screen. There were security concerns as well, where one program could capture keyboard input from another. Wayland was conceived to replace this old codebase with something newer, smaller, and smoother, and has been "just around the corner" for a while.

Until now, though, only one distro actually used it by default – and that was RebeccaBlackOS, a novelty distro that nobody took seriously but actually did a good job of showcasing Wayland (see Figure 1). It did highlight, however, that Wayland – or more specifically, programs running on it – still had issues. There are many graphical toolkits (and different versions of those toolkits) in use, along with graphical apps, that use the base X libraries, so getting everything running smoothly on Wayland has been a gargantuan task.

Figure 1: RebeccaBlackOS was the first distro to use Wayland by default, but now more mainstream distros should adopt Wayland.

2017 might be the year of Wayland. Fedora 25, released in November last year, was the first major distro to use Wayland by default (with an option to switch back to X if users experience problems). Fedora has long been a cutting-edge showcase of new technologies, but it's still used for serious work, so this was a major step forward. I expect some of the other mainstream desktop distros to follow suit in 2017, with the exception of Ubuntu, of course, which is due to adopt the Mir alternative display server at some point.

LibreOffice 5.3

LibreOffice 5.3 is due for release in late January or early February, so it might already be available by the time you read this. As usual with any LibreOffice release, much work has gone into improving file filters – especially for compatibility with Microsoft Office – along with bug fixes and performance improvements. But there's plenty to talk about in terms of new features, as well. Writer, the word processor, now includes proper table style functionality, letting you apply and switch between styles just as with any other part of a document.

In previous LibreOffice releases, you could only apply some "auto-formatting" to a table in a document (i.e., adding colors, bold, italics; changing font sizes; etc.). But this was a one-off job, so when you modified the table, you'd have to apply the formatting all over again. It was tiresome and prone to problems. With table styles, you can apply a specific style to a table, modify that table, and the style effects will remain in place.

In the spreadsheet Calc, wildcards are enabled in formulas for fresh installations (i.e., new installations that don't inherit settings from a previously installed release). This improves compatibility with other office suites and makes it easier for new users to work with formulas, in that they don't need to mess around with regular expressions any more. Calc also includes a new set of default cell styles that are much prettier and have more descriptive names than in earlier versions.

Additionally, a "safe mode" has been introduced that aims to identify and fix problems with user profiles. If LibreOffice is behaving oddly, users can start the suite in safe mode and either create a fresh profile from scratch or disable certain settings and extensions to narrow down the cause of the problem. This has been requested by users for many years and should help cure many headaches where users can't use the suite properly because of a corrupt or misbehaving user profile.

The biggest change in LibreOffice 5.3 is the new NotebookBar (see Figure 2). This is part of a larger user interface concept called MUFFIN, the "My User Friendly and Flexible INterface." While MUFFIN is a jokey name, much like the code names for Ubuntu and Fedora releases (Beefy Miracle, anyone?), it's used to describe a design approach in which users choose what works best for them.

Figure 2: LibreOffice 5.3 will introduce an (experimental!) NotebookBar interface as an alternative to traditional toolbars.

Many LibreOffice end users have requested a Ribbon-like interface for years, and indeed other combinations involving toolbars, menus, and sidebars. With MUFFIN, users can switch between four user interface setups: the standard dual-line toolbar, a single toolbar mode, toolbar(s) with the sidebar, and the new NotebookBar. It's important to note (no pun intended) that the NotebookBar isn't a clone of the Ribbon, but rather a new design that aims to organize buttons and operations by categories.

Currently, the NotebookBar is still very much in development and is marked as an experimental feature in LibreOffice 5.3. So, in other words, it's not being pitched to end users as a new default interface, but something to try and provide feedback on as the designers and developers iron out bugs. Whether it will become the default GUI layout in LibreOffice 5.4 or 6.0 remains to be seen, but in any case, it's good to see progress on this front.

Some pundits have been complaining that LibreOffice is going down this multi-interface route, saying that the dev team should focus on a single, all-encompassing GUI instead. There's some sense to that argument, but when you have some users clamoring for a shiny new interface and others that would rather die than give up their toolbars, this might be the best compromise to give the suite (and community) a healthy future.

Gnome, KDE, and Xfce

All being well, Gnome 3.24 will be released on March 22nd. It looks to be a largely evolutionary release, rather than revolutionary, which is expected at this stage of the desktop's maturity. A lot of work has been put into Epiphany, the web browser, which will have experimental support for HTTPS Everywhere [1] for improved security, along with syncing of bookmarks via Firefox Sync. Moreover, the bookmark management dialog has been redesigned to be easier to use, while the whole codebase has been relicensed from GPLv2 to GPLv3.

Gnome 3.24 will also include a new version of NetworkManager with improved Bash auto-completion and various fixes, while Gnome Music uses Cairo for cover scaling. Even the todo applet will see some new features, such as subtasks, while Gnome logs is faster when performing searches. If you spend a lot of time using mobile data, you'll be happy to see a new option in Gnome Software: "Only download updates on non-metered connections." In other words, Gnome won't try to pull hundreds of megabytes of data from the net when you're connected via your mobile phone or similar device.

Meanwhile, KDE Plasma 5.9 is due to arrive at the end of January, so it may well be available for your distro by the time you read this (especially if you run a rolling release distro). One of the most requested new features that will hopefully make it into 5.9 but may be pushed into the following release is a global menubar – as in Mac OS. The Kirigami UI has been bumped up to version 2 and now includes keyboard navigation for those who hate having to reach for the mouse, and Snap package support may get squeezed into 5.9, as well.

Over in Xfce land, no release date has been set for version 4.14 of this desktop yet, but it may arrive this year. By far the biggest change will be the porting of all core components from Gtk2 to Gtk3 – which may seem like a long time coming but will be a welcome update. Additionally, dbus-glib will be replaced by gdbus. The Mate desktop (a continuation of the Gnome 2 codebase) should also complete the transition to Gtk3, and version 1.18 should be released early in the year.

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