Can GNOME 3 Become the Next Big Open Source UI Contender?

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Few Ubuntu users may have noticed, but GNOME 3 has been officially released now for several months. How does this open source desktop environment, so long in the making, compare to its competitors? Read on for an analysis.

Admittedly, I was no fan of GNOME 3 (or GNOME Shell, its core component) during its development process. As I've written in the past, I thought it was slow, unattractive and too committed to a particular software framework that made customization difficult.

Ubuntu's decision last fall to dump GNOME in favor of Canonical's in-house Unity desktop interface took my focus -- and the focus of plenty of other Linux users, since Ubuntu retains by far the greatest market share on the desktop -- off of the GNOME team.

Since I have my gripes about Unity as well, however, I thought it would be worth my while to give GNOME Shell another go, now that it's officially stable (whatever that means). And so I added the GNOME 3 Team Launchpad PPA to my system, did some quick apt-getting, and before I knew it was staring at an up-to-date GNOME 3 desktop.

GNOME 3, In Motion

To my surprise, GNOME Shell in its latest iteration actually worked relatively well. Not only was it stable -- more stable, in fact, than the normal Ubuntu 11.04 interface, which has been crashing my Intel Sandy Bridge graphics driver periodically for reasons I'm still trying to track down -- but it was also actually usable, a far cry from the last (beta) version of the interface I'd tested.

Because a video is something like 10 images per second (depending on the frame rate), and an image is a lot better than text, here's a screencast showcasing the features of GNOME 3 in action (I used xvidcap for the screencast rather than GNOME Shell's built-in screencasting feature, which I couldn't get to work and wasn't motivated enough to troubleshoot):

The Good, the Bad

There's a lot to like about GNOME Shell in its current form. It's functional, graceful and arguably more intuitive than Canonical's Unity, which suffers, for instance, from the lack of any means for adding virtual desktops other than editing gconf values by hand.

Naturally, though, GNOME Shell has room for improvement. For one, like Unity, it relies heavily on hotkeys, which is never good if you want to attract a non-geek user base. In addition, although the interface is pretty smooth overall, it suffers from occasional lag, even on my relatively powerful desktop computer. GNOME Shell had known issues with certain Intel-based video cards when I tested it in detail more than a year ago, and unfortunately these still seem to be the case.

Overall, however, GNOME 3 is certainly a contender to be the next great user interface of the open source world, where virtually all desktop environments have been in a flux lately as a variety of independent parties (beginning with the KDE team and KDE 4, which introduced radical new desktop concepts when it debuted in 2008) have tried to redefine the open source desktop.

Whether any of them will prevail remains to be seen. Unity has a leg up on its competitors thanks to Canonical's backing, but Unity is also far from perfect in the eyes of even loyal Ubuntu users. GNOME Shell is a nice achievement, but with Canonical distancing itself from the GNOME team, GNOME in general may never again enjoy the market share it held when it shipped with every Ubuntu release. And KDE still remains somewhat out in left field, only marginally more mainstream than Enlightenment, Fluxbox and other niche interfaces.

Discuss this Video 18

Clive (not verified)
on Aug 3, 2011
All I can say is that after GNOME 3 came out I found it so terrible I just tried KDE and liked it so much that I'm still using it. If the GNOME 3 interface remains as dumb as it is now I don't see myself ever returning back.
Kevin Bush (not verified)
on Aug 3, 2011
I wonder if the gnome-shell haters of the world have actually spent any time with it. I'm in love with it. It just gets the hell out of your way so you can get your work done. Like any new project, it was quite buggy in the beginning, but the latest stable releases are exactly that, stable.
Grishnakh (not verified)
on Aug 3, 2011
You don't need multiple desktops in Unity. The Unity designers have decided that that is too confusing, so that's why it's so hard to add them. Don't do it: they know what is best for you. If you disagree, then you shouldn't be using Unity.
Robert Paske (not verified)
on Aug 3, 2011
I get so tired of the airheads blabbering about their favorite GUI. I never hear them talk facts. Intuitive, less clicks, more abiltity to do jobs, just "super wallpaper, more plasma crap. Have the thinking people of the industry gone goofy. To hell with plasma, wallpaper, how about better computing. I think a lot of the people out there are nothing but dufuses Move over to game machines. Leave the computering to people who really use it. That's my opinion, what is your's. Rp
Jo-Erlend Schinstad (not verified)
on Aug 3, 2011
Clieve: KDE is great! It's not for me, but I certainly understand those who like it. That's one of the things I like about Unity; you stop focusing on being a GTK-only shell, and begin to incorporate Qt in the most popular distro of all, because that's a sane thing to do. Kevin Bush: These things aren't for everybody. That's a good thing though, because there are many choices for the old way of doing desktops, and three ways of doing modern desktoping. I think it's fantastic that KDE and Gnome is cooperating on this, and I think that's why Canonical is worth the little something to the community. Grishnakh: True. Everyone has been focusing on making Unity great for the masses. Those you want the flexibility you're talking about, has not been left out in the cold in any version of Ubuntu. It does take five seconds to switch to Gnome Panel, though, but I think that's something most powerusers can live with as a one-time thing. Robert Paske: right. I agree. Lots of people are complaning things about they don't really understand. But in my humble opinion, being able to thing about a file and let the file manager display it automatically is a cool feature. Sure, you do need a helmet and you need to write a plugin for it, but I still think this is a valuable addition to how desktops are used. Lots of people think it's only for geeks and tablet users though :)
Jo-Erlend Schinstad (not verified)
on Aug 3, 2011
ken.h: Well, I think one of the things that make Unity great is the integration of Zeitgeist. This makes it much easier to navigate through large amounts of data and I think that's more useful on the desktop than on the tablet. I don't actually understand why people think Unity is so great for tablets, although I can see how it's less useless than gnome-panel. Bill Dwyer: I'm not a member of the Gnome team. And I'm not working for Canonical. Actually, I have no other agenda than to dispel these destructive and unfounded rumors. I know several people who were going to switch back to MS Office because they believed OpenOffice.org had been dissolved and would no longer be developed. One of the main obstacles for people adopting GNU/Linux is the idea that there is no consistency and that you can never know if your system will work tomorrow. I don't understand why people would want to spread the FUD that's been holding us back for so long. I was one of the first people to propose that Xfce should replace classical gnome, btw. And I still think that's a natural and logical progression. I also think Lxde should replace Xfce as the user-friendly, lightweight desktop environment. That way Xfce can drop some of its constraints and focus more on making a conservative, old school, but user friendly DE.
Bill Dwyer (not verified)
on Aug 2, 2011
You think Gnome 3 is great now because it's new, use it for 3 to 6 months on a desktop computer and see how tired you get of that left side launcher and all the hotkey combos. This isn't anything new, I bought a small program in 2004 or 2005 for Win XP that gave you a launcher except you could choose the position and it was more flexible. I scrapped it after about 3 months! I don't know if they think every laptop and netbook owner is going to scrap Win 7 for Gnome 3 or what, but I have no desire what so ever to use it and I'm beginning to feel the same way about KDE. I'm checking out Xfce and LXDE, they are both quicker and once you learn them better than Gnome 3 or KDE!
Bill Dwyer (not verified)
on Aug 2, 2011
@Jo-Erlend you sound like a member of the Gnome team, defend it at all costs! Sorry, what VAR Guy said is true. Gnome 3 will be the next Win ME!
Ed Larsson (not verified)
on Aug 3, 2011
I don't think it matters much what shell people choose to use. It's all subjective and it comes down to what makes each of us like doing and what makes us most functional when using our computers. Some people like KDE 4 a lot, others think it is flash over function. Some people like Gnome instead, others think it's a resource hog. In the end, I always prefer to have the choice to use whichever desktop environment or shell or whatever you want to call it. Some days I run LXDE, especially when gaming. Other times I like Gnome or KDE, or E17, or whatever. I just don't want to see the removal of choice from Linux, that's all. Innovate till the cows come home, just don't take away my ability to choose.
emariz (not verified)
on Aug 4, 2011
After running Debian Testing for about three years, I installed Debian Stable plus Backports in June, precisely because of Gnome 3. I loved Gnome's focus on simplicity, but Gnome 3's configuration options are just a joke. Before, one could use Gconf to fine tune Gnome, now one must install third party applications and extensions to achieve half the functionality. How to set the fonts's hinting, or the pointer's size/style, or focus-follows-pointer, or the icon theme, or the windows style, or the buttons style, or the power management options, or the fonts in the applications view...? I've been following Gnome 3 in other distributions and it doesn't seem that Gnome 3.2 will be ready for prime time either.
on Aug 2, 2011
Jo-Erlend Schinstad: we're certainly not trying to create conflicts or confusion. Perhaps language like "dumped" was a little rough. Thanks for keeping us honest.
lxskllr (not verified)
on Aug 2, 2011
I'm not a fan of Unity, or Gnome3, but I like that they're trying new things. My interest is in Xfce, and with the big changes to Gnome, I'm hoping the project picks up some energy with the influx of people that prefer "classic" computing.
ken.h (not verified)
on Aug 2, 2011
For those that actually try and help people switch to gnu/linux variant os's so that they can actually use the computer I hope unity amp; gnome3 crash amp; burn on the desktop. They may be good for tablets, phones, netbooks and small devices but not for the desktop/laptop. Hopefully, we will see other desktops that stick with the classic feel a lot are accustomed to become more prevalent in distributions. There are many not interested in the path developer's are leading towards. And the alternatives are out there and some distributions are happy to cater to those not interested. The 'split' so many seen coming is occurring...
Jo-Erlend Schinstad (not verified)
on Aug 2, 2011
Didn't it feel a little strange when you wrote that the shell is the core? Gnome Shell certainly is not the core. It is the shell. «Ubuntu’s decision last fall to dump GNOME...» Please stop saying that. Canonical and Ubuntu has _not_ "dumped" Gnome. It has replaced a very small, albeit highly visible, part of Gnome. But Ubuntu it has never in its lifetime used the entire Gnome by default. It has always used Firefox and OpenOffice.org, now LibreOffice, for instance. It has not used Gnomes browser or office suit. You're spreading misconceptions. Please stop doing that. Nothing good can come from it. «...Canonical distancing itself from the GNOME team...» Hey, that was a little dispute that lasted a few weeks about a year ago. Will you please let it go? «...GNOME in general may never again enjoy the market share it held when it shipped with every Ubuntu release...» It still does. Probably always will. That's why the main focus of the 11.10 cycle has been to move Ubuntu back to upstream, which was always the intent, but couldn't be done with 11.04 because of time constraints. Either you are misinformed or you are, for some reason, trying to create conflicts and confusion. In either case, it does not become The VAR Guy.
on Aug 2, 2011
Robert: I was thinking in terms of how many people are actually using these different desktop environments. The major distributions--Red Hat, Fedora and until recently Ubuntu--use GNOME by default. OpenSUSE offers KDE but has still been keeping up closely with GNOME Shell development, offering it as a preview in the 11.4 release. KDE can be installed on mostly any distribution, of course, and reliable data on its actual market share is hard to come by, but its standing as the second- or third-place choice on the leading distributions suggests that it is not as "mainstream" in that sense than GNOME or Unity. But don't get me wrong: I like KDE, have used it extensively in the past and certainly wouldn't go on record saying its worse than GNOME or Unity, just less popular at the moment.
Robert (not verified)
on Aug 2, 2011
KDE is marginally more mainstream than Enlightenment? Are you kidding? KDE is miles ahead of Gnome 3 and Unity at the moment.
liam (not verified)
on Sep 21, 2011
You don't need the tweak tool to change obscure settings, you can use either: 1. gsettings/gconftool-2 cli tool, or 2. dconf-editor gui (also need gconf-editor since they haven't finished porting all settings into the new format--when they do you should see a speedup on login and reads from settings in general). If you don't know that keys to use view the schemas in (red hat based distros) /usr/share/glib-2.0/schemas/. It has a number of options, and you can add more but that is beyond the scope of a non-advanced user. All the things you are looking to do are available looking into the above.
Jo-Erlend Schinstad (not verified)
on Sep 21, 2011
«... but Gnome 3′s configuration options are just a joke.» You mean you're surprised that the five month old Gnome 3 isn't quite as mature as the nine years old Gnome 2?
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