Does GNOME 2 nostalgia harm the future of the free desktop?

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jan 21, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

For a desktop that was supposed to become defunct two years ago, GNOME 2 remains surprisingly alive. Linux Mint offers a direct fork in Mate, and recreates GNOME 2 with a series of extensions in Cinnamon. A new distribution called SolusOS now offers Consort, a fork of GNOME fallback, which resembles GNOME 2. Meanwhile, the GNOME project prepares to support a set of core extensions to reproduce the GNOME 2 experience. Hardly a week goes by without some distribution announcing a release that includes some form of GNOME 2.

All this activity is understandable, and even admirable to a degree. It's testimony to users' anger over GNOME 3 and the ability of free software to empower users.

However, increasingly I worry about the effect that these efforts will have on the future of the desktop. In the stampede to return to the past, the ability to innovate frequently seems to be trampled without anyone caring.

The lost year

After all, while GNOME 2 is a perfectly adequate desktop, it is hardly unique. Users who were unsatisfied with GNOME 3 could have found a usable substitute in Xfce. Alternatively, they could have reproduced the desktop of their dreams with KDE. And, in fact, in the first six months after GNOME 3 was released, many did consider these alternatives, and were reasonably satisfied.

Yet these alternatives were somehow not good enough. Instead, much of the development on the free desktop was distracted for a year in re-creating a technology that began over a decade ago, and offered little that alternatives could not match. 

Admittedly, the free desktop is no longer playing catch-up with its proprietary rivals, and, thanks to Windows 8, is now substantially ahead. Still, that's a year of development we won't get back again. Instead of considering what might come next, the community threw that time away on unnecessary projects that duplicated each other closely -- and in the midst of celebrating that accomplishment, nobody seems to have noticed any shortcomings.

Reaction and nostalgia

This lost year is a concern by itself. However, what may be even more serious is the conviction that it was time well-spent.

In the Linux Advocate community on Google+, Aaron Seigo recently asked the users of GNOME 2-type interfaces how they saw the free desktop evolving in the next five years.

Ikey, the founder of SolusOS, talked in terms of his distribution becoming more community-managed, hinting that this change of direction would be in response to GNOME's perceived unresponsiveness.
However, other responses implied that there was not much need for change. For example, Alessandro Ebersol wrote, "Problem is, I've never seen another shape of wheel but rounded. trying to create square wheels, these are the results: [GNOME]3, Unity, Metro UI."

Similarly, Andrew Wyatt, the developer of Fuduntu, a popular GNOME 2-based distro, predicted that "We'll start to see a slow shift back to a classic desktop experience. This experience has matured for over thirty years [and] abandoning it was a huge mistake."
I don't think I am misreading these comments when I say that they suggest that GNOME 2 is the epitome of the desktop, and that any major departure from it is therefore misguided. The future, presumably, will be in minor changes, while the basic design of the desktop remains similar to what it was in 2002.

Judging from some of the online conversations I have been having in the last six months, such views are currently widespread. They suggest to me not just a nostalgia for a desktop that some users have logged into daily for years, but a reaction against the entire idea of innovation. A few users are more specific in their criticism of recent interfaces, blaming the triumph of usability theory over actual consultation with users, or how new ideas were introduced, but a disturbing number -- perhaps a majority -- seem to be rejecting even the possibility of change.

The outlook is not true, of course. KDE's ability to swap out icon sets and maintain separate desktops for different tasks are both innovations that are substantial improvements over GNOME 2. Similarly, GNOME's future plans call for increased security features, including easier disk encryption and anonymized web browsing. Both these sets of features are evidence of just how much remains to be added on the desktop. 

Unfortunately, like Americans discussing issues like health care and gun control while ignoring how other countries' approaches to these matters, GNOME users tend to ignore KDE in their debates. And, in much the same way, the GNOME project has too little credibility for many to have a strong interest in its plans. Instead, the idea that innovation is both unneeded and impossible continues to spread like a stain.

The trouble is, such ideas do not have to be true to be influential. If nothing else, if enough users believe such views, then for practical purposes they may as well be true. If enough people believe that only minor innovations are possible, then nobody is likely to attempt major ones. Projects will become cautious about experiments, their developers will become bored and leave, and major changes will become even less likely to get past the brainstorming stage.

I suspect that this is all too likely to be the atmosphere of the free desktop in the next few years. All too likely, we are entering a world where a rearrangement of items in a menu becomes a major release feature.

Experimentation within reason

I am not suggesting that free desktop developers experiment wildly. Still less am I condoning the way that different desktop environments have introduced change in the last few years. 

In particular, the way that users' perspectives have been overlooked seems irresponsible. The days in which the developers in each project did what they pleased, and any complaints by users was greeted by invitations to code it themselves are long gone. 

These days, developers need to monitor carefully whether users want change, and how much change users will accept at any one time. To do anything less amounts to letting down the thousands who depend on them.

As the free software community absorbs the lessons of the last few years, there is no need to lurch from one extreme to the other. Yes, major changes should not be added without workable fallback settings, but that is a long way from endorsing a complete rejection of change. But today that complete rejection seems a more probable alternative than any search for middle ground.

This atmosphere might change if a major innovation becomes wildly popular. But otherwise, instead of enjoying an era in which the free desktop proves its superiority, we had better prepare for several dismal years of development.


  • Innovation for innovation's sake...

    GNOME 3, in any version, is part of the horrific offerings in Desktop Environments: Windows 8, OS X Mountain Lion, and KDE 4.x.

    The GNOME development team did not listen to their users; I had been a GNOME user for many years and found myself absolutely hating their current offering. In fact, I was shocked as I hadn't followed their development tree, downloaded the latest offering from openSUSE and was dismayed to see Ubuntu's UI implemented as my desktop.

    What's implied throughout this article is that those who prefer the "old" desktop wasted the Linux community's time; however, I have to highly disagree.

    Are we still using a keyboard? A mouse? If that is the case, then no progress has been made. Just because box "x" looks different than box "y" does not necessarily mean that it is. UI functionality is still stuck on the Xerox Star or Alto phase, regardless of how pretty it looks:

    Point. Click. Point. Click. Type.

    Depending on the application, this is not good progress; many command-line interfaces are still easier and take less time to implement than their UI counterparts. Physically moving my hand to the mouse takes more time than simply typing keystrokes; for instance, this response would have been god-awfully long using a mouse to select characters rather than typing.

    Your article implies that those who prefer GNOME 2 to GNOME 3 have hindered Linux development; I disagree. Until such time as I am dictating these words directly from my mind using a holistic, holographic interface built-in to my retinas, rather than using the keyboard and mouse, which use in a UI is essentially unchanged since circa 1973, then I will call it what this debate what it actually is: preference.
  • Nuh uh

    I think the writer is confusing "innovation" with "change for the sake of change".

    Innovation comes in basically two forms. One is the type of innovation where someone goes "gee, this thing I use is nice for doing X, but it'd be great if it could also do Y". Then that someone goes from there to improve the idea and build on earlier work, experience and innovation.

    The other is the type where someone goes "you know, we have this thing that does X - so boring! It's so totally old fashioned, anyone can do X! Let's do something totally different, scrap X, and focus on our great new vision Z".

    The problem with the latter approach is that advancement of ideas doesn't really work that way. I mean, hey, maybe it will turn out that the GNOME3 interface is the best thing since sliced bread, that sometime in the future we'll all remember back and wonder how come people were still using regular desktops when GNOME 3 was already invented. Who knows! But right now, people are used to working with a certain type of desktop. People are used to certain functionality, and taking that away is hurting their workflow. There is such a thing as making an innovation too soon, being too advanced for its time. Maybe GNOME3 is one of these, or maybe it's just a bad idea, we don't know yet, but we do know that a LOT of people find that it goes too far with change, breaks the functionality and workflow of people too severely, and thus look for alternatives.

    And that's fine. The writer seems to suggest that we should just grit our teeth and purposely use something that is "new and different" even if it lacks in functionality and doesn't work as good, just so we could support the developers' efforts to "innovate". That's where I disagree - I think it's the exact opposite. We NEED to shun things that don't work in practice, no matter how "innovative" they are, because only that way the truly good, usable and functional ideas float to the surface. It's the survival of the fittest at work, which is the best thing about the Linux ecosystem. When someone breaks functionality, like GNOME3 has done, 10 more are ready and willing to take its place - this is a good thing. Fragmentation, schmagmentation - sooner or later, the inferior ones will drop off to obscurity or niche applications, and the very best ones, the ones that offer the best user experience, the smoothest workflow, those will survive and become the new thing.

    So there's no need to cry about the "death of innovation" because in fact, Cinnamon, MATE, Consort, Xfce et al. are all part of the process of innovation. Competition is good. In economy, a market is healthy when there is as much as possible competition. In a healthy market, competition forces the companies to innovate to gain an edge, and that is exactly what is happening with desktop environments now. The situation will be turbulent for a while, with new projects coming up and old ones dying, but it will all peter out once we get some clear market leaders. In real economy, the market leaders would likely go on to become the next monopolies. But in the free software ecosystem there is a beautiful thing - the GPL. It ensures that if those leaders in turn become complacent and arrogant, new contenders will be ready to take their place. It's survival of the fittest, and it's good, right and beautiful.
  • Yes

    By trying to keep the legacy Gnome 2, it means freeze in the past while the entire world is in constant change. What I do not understand is how come those complainers have not switched to different desktop environment like XCFE, LXDE or Enlightment given the choice and fully knowing Gnome Shell looks different but still has the old paradigms. Clearly a case of those refusing to listen what happened.
    The presence of forks only means pursuit of fame and more fragmentation i.e. difficulty to maintain those forks while based on the same core. All those wasted works could be achieved through extensions (Cinnamon is one of them). The recent forks made the mistake to relied on Gnome Fallback which was actually a temporary solution until Gnome Shell runs of software rendering thanks to LLVM. Gnome Legacy is coming for Gnome 3.8 which should be created by the very community despite the change of API (happening on all software).
    What needs to be addressed are these people themselves wanting their UI thinking those creating the UI owed them. Some journalists did horrible attempting to claim Gnome Shell is worse than Gnome 2 without ever trying to analyse Gnome Shell for what it is.
    Time to rethink ourselves about formulating a constructive critics that will interests developers (who are also users like ourselves).
  • Gnome 2 discussion

    Seems to me (a committed Gnome 2 user) that somewhere along the line here almost everyone has missed the real point. Objections come not from technophobes, but from people who want to keep a familiar user interface. It may be the case that DEs are being over-developed into pseudo-operating systems. I for one prefer the option of having an OS with a desktop sat on top of it to provide the UI.

    The vast majority of users (myself included) neither know nor care much about the underlying technology - what we do care about is the usability as we experience it. Call that shallow or whatever, but it is true. That being the case, there is little or no demand for frozen technology - who would want to make a daily commute in a 1920s Model T - but there is clearly a significant demand for a familiar UI. How many amongst us would be happy driving a car which is fully push-button controlled, including the steering and brakes, at 70mph along a busy motorway? Doubtless it could be done, but how many takers?

    Personally, I am more than happy to have a souped-up engine (OS) in my distro of choice, but please leave my UI alone. Surely, if developers can introduce all sorts of new UIs, they can also replicate an old one. I have tried Mate and Cinnamon, and they have very strong selling points, but both fail me in what may seem a very small area - using Evolution to integrate my panel calendar with google calendar.

    Gnome Fallback is nearly there, and all it needs for me is to return the right-click functionality to panel editing. Going from a single click to a system which requires two hands to depress two keyboard buttons and apply a mouse click simultaneously is not my idea of “progress”. On the other hand, it does not seem anti-innovationalist to ask for the existing option of a simpler way to do something to be retained. New choices are the road to enrichment, whilst restricting choice by simply abandoning tried and tested methods will only lead to a poverty of experience.

    Old is not always bad, but neither is new always good. Nor should change be confused with “progress”.
  • Nostalgia? Try again.

    I am not yet so ossified that I can't deal with significant desktop changes periodically. I rarely scream for more than 15-20 minutes at Microsoft's latest renaming/relocating of their network controls, for example.

    But Gnome 3 wasn't an improvement, it was quite the opposite. Critical desktop resources that I used all day long were ripped out and left with no alternative. Access to non-blessed applications was made difficult-to-impossible. Just because something's cleaner and prettier doesn't make it more usable.

    I'm running Cinnamon these days. It has a lot of the aesthetic appeal of Gnome 3, but it still supports most of the monitors and controls that I need to get actual work done.

    I wasn't the only one complaining - to the degree that the Gnome3 team did patronizingly agree to restore some of the missing functionality. However, some wasn't enough, so I'll continue to avoid the Gnome desktop until it gains back enough functionality to be useful.

    Yes, my desktop is cluttered and ugly. Both the one on the screen and the one under the keyboard. But I don't get paid for pretty, I get paid for getting a job done.
  • desktop interface changes

    The design of the automobile user interface hasn't changed much in the last century either. It works well, it's adjustable, there's no learning curve in moving from one car to another, and yet it has evolved significantly in that time as well. Try driving a 1920 Model T, and you'll feel at home, but you'll also miss a lot of major improvements that you take for granted. In other words, auto UI design has seen a lot of innovation, but without the disruptive effect of change for the sake of change.

  • GNOME 3 is superior

    I have used GNOME 3 since it was added to Debian Wheezy. I've also used its Fedora and openSUSE implementations.

    Going back to GNOME 2.30 on Debian Squeeze (I had to work on my parents' computer) was a jarringly unpleasant experience. GNOME 2.30 is a nice, workable desktop, but GNOME 3 is just so much simpler and more elegant. Configuring GNOME 2.30 always took me a good while, whereas with GNOME 3 I can get it set up to my liking in a matter of moments. The GNOME team are continuing to do great work; the GNOME desktop environment is improving.

    I think that for those of us who hope to see the Linux Desktop continue to gain traction, a modern, elegant, simple desktop environment like GNOME 3 should be welcomed with open arms.

    For some reason it isn't. For some reason, users (and some developers) prefer these constant forks and modifications that, objectively, don't really make for a better experience. For instance, Mint's MATE and Cinnamon are gaudy, dubiously "enhanced" iterations of the mainline GNOME DE, yet we're supposed to believe that they're somehow superior -- AND that the incredibly small development teams working on them will do a better job than the GNOME project. It's absurd. We've already seen that the Mint folks can barely handle putting out a non-buggy release, so expecting them to beat GNOME at their own game is hard to swallow.
  • Straw arguments

    "The above article employs the standard old-is-bad arguments. It's evident in just about any marketing scheme which relies on change (use of the terms "past", "old", "legacy", etc. and implications that an update is needed). What's missing from the discussion is that GNOME2 had a healthy following and the majority of the community liked it (as evidenced by GNOME3 bringing back the fallback mode)."

    I have no problem with anyone disagreeing with me, but could you at least do me the courtesy of arguing against what I say instead of creating your own straw figures to discredit?

    I say absolutely nothing about GNOME2 (or Xfce, for that matter) being old. Nor do I suggest that GNOME 3 is better because it is new, or suggest anything from a marketing perspective. I'm saying that an inordinate amount of effort in the last year has gone into recreating what was already available.

    As for GNOME 2 being popular, if that wasn't so, there wouldn't be any discussion. But fallback mode isn't evidence of popularity -- GNOME provided it from 3.0 onwards with no input from users on whether to include it.
  • Standard arguments

    I'm sorry but the discussion is skewed from the start. The above article employs the standard old-is-bad arguments. It's evident in just about any marketing scheme which relies on change (use of the terms "past", "old", "legacy", etc. and implications that an update is needed). What's missing from the discussion is that GNOME2 had a healthy following and the majority of the community liked it (as evidenced by GNOME3 bringing back the fallback mode).

    The author's argument that "nostalgia" is harming the free desktop is bogus. It was GNOME3's massive change that harmed it. What was thrown away (to use the article's phrase) was GNOME2's lead in the Linux desktop arena. GNOME2 was almost ubiquitous amongst the mainstream distros. A minority of people (who happened to have control) then implemented MAJOR changes while ignoring feedback from the community. It soured the relations with the community and damaged GNOME's reputation.

    Personally, when I want a programmable button interface, I log into the AfterStep desktop. It has more-capable buttons and doesn't look like someone tried to wedge the front end of my cell phone onto my desktop. For now, I'll stick with the MATE desktop.

  • Consort correction

    My apologies -- I've corrected the reference
  • Consort is not a GNOME 2 fork...

    Consort is a GNOME3 Fallback fork and not a GNOME2 fork, see:
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