2013 on the Desktop

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Dec 29, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

The desktop is supposed to be dying, but you would never guess from the number of environments available for Linux in 2013.

True, nothing radical happened in the last year. But the desktop diversity that has emerged in the last few years became more firmly established than ever, with half a dozen choices available where two or three existed five years ago.

Here's how the major desktops fared in 2013:

2013 was a growth year for Cinnamon, Linux Mint's most modern operating system.  The 1.8 release saw improvements to the file manager, and the creation of a control center to replace the multiple configuration tools in earlier releases, as well as the introduction of desklets, or desktop applets. The 2.0 release saw the addition of more admin tools as well as Cinnamon's emergence as a separate operating system, instead of  merely a shell on top of GNOME 3.

In addition, Cinnamon showed in 2013 that it was not just a GNOME 2 clone built over GNOME 3. The innovations in 2013 were small, such as away messages when the desktop is locked, or an overview for switch virtual workspaces, but they established once and for all that Cinnamon could go its own way.

After a couple of years of hostile reactions, the GNOME 3 release series came into its own in 2013, with official acceptance of extensions and the most advanced design and usability testing on the free desktop.

These changes seem to have largely quieted the talk of distributions defaulting to another desktop, although Debian is still toying with replacing GNOME with Xfce. However, although these changes remove or mitigate most of what users complained about, so far they seem to have done little to encourage them to return.

My guess is that most have found an alternative they can live with, and have no wish to repeat the process so soon. However, GNOME technology remains more popular than the desktop itself, being used by Cinnamon, GNOME, MATE, and Unity -- roughly 40% of Linux desktops.

KDE development in 2013 was largely behind the scenes. Many of the changes were transitioning to Framework 5, which uses Qt5, and noticeable - if at all -- only by increases in speed, especially in animations. This emphasis was so strong that the KDE platform and Plasma, the graphical interface sub-engine, are frozen and the recently released 4.12 is carefully labeled as being for Applications and Development Platform only

This emphasis appears to have done nothing for KDE's popularity one way or the other. The recent Linux Journal's Readers' Choice Awards still listed KDE as the most popular desktop, with just under one-third of the votes -- a figure similar to those recorded in LinuxQuestion's Members Choice for 2011 and 2012.

MATE, did not have quite as good a year as Cinnamon, Linux Mint's other desktop. However, the GNOME 2 fork did reach early maturity in 2013, with considerable work behind the scenes and numerous small enhancements.

MATE is less innovative than Cinnamon, and sometimes seems to get less attention. However, those who like the idea of a GNOME 2 clone are unlikely to want more than minor changes anyway. The whole point of MATE is its familiarity.

Like KDE's, Unity's development in 2013 was largely invisible to users. In Unity's case, the development had much to do with readying Unity for use across multiple form-factors.
The most visible change was the extension of Internet search on the dash, with the addition of dozens of smart scopes, or search links.
The feature has been controversial, with both Richard Stallman and the Electronic Frontier Foundation raising issues of privacy and security.
However, on Facebook and Google+, I have been seeing a few more people praising Unity -- something that never happened in 2012. So perhaps Unity may be slowly building an audience of users despite the criticism.
Xfce did not manage a new release in 2013, but nobody complained. The whole point of Xfce is that it doesn't change -- at least, not in any significant way, although you can find small enhancements in each release. Xfce promises a lightweight, user-friendly desktop, and that is what it always delivers, with a minimum of fanfare. After the user revolts against KDE, Unity, and GNOME in the last few years, I suspect that many see Xfce as an oasis of reliability.
Other choices
These are only the most popular choices, of course. Other options also thrived, notably LXDE. Like Xfce, LXDE can be hard to write about, both because of its minimalism and because all it does is deliver the speed and small footprint it promises, but in 2013 it continued the slow but steady increase in popularity that began a couple of years ago.
Another popular choice in 2013 was elementary OS, a desktop whose developers emphasize uniform aesthetics. This priority results in an interface that may seem limiting to advanced users, but is otherwise is by far the most attractive desktop available upon first boot currently available.
In general, however, 2013 was a year for improving the code that most users don't see, and of incremental instead of radical changes. By every indication, 2014 is shaping up to be more of the same -- and most users, so far as I can tell, wouldn't have things any other way. They've chosen their desktops, and are in no mood to change without urgent reasons.

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