GNOME, the project responsible for what has been one of the open-source world's most popular desktop interfaces for well over a decade, is teetering on the edge of crisis mode. At least, that's what one developer suggests in a recent personal blog post ominously titled "starting into the abyss." Does GNOME, despite its rich and influential past, really face such a dismal future? Here are some thoughts.

Personally, I'd be pretty sad to see the GNOME project die. I haven't used the desktop environment on a daily basis since development on GNOME 2.x ended in favor of GNOME Shell, but I grew up as a Linux user with GNOME. The open-source ecosystem just wouldn't feel the same if I knew I no longer had the option of running GNOME software.

Yet as GNOME developer Benjamin Otte pointed out Friday on his blog, there's reason to doubt the future of the project. Some key contributors have moved on, leaving the team understaffed, in Otte's estimation. GNOME is also highly dependent on Red Hat, making it less flexible than Otte would apparently like. And perhaps worst of all, the project "has no goals" in that it lacks a clear set of objectives for shaping ongoing development efforts.

The Future of GNOME

The image of the GNOME project that Otte paints is a decidedly bleak one. Combined with the lack of universal enthusiasm -- to say the least -- with which GNOME Shell has been received, and the increasing popularity at GNOME's expense of alternative interfaces like Unity (which recently began spreading to Fedora, traditional GNOME territory) and Cinnamon, there's reason to believe GNOME's days may be numbered.

But while the disappearance of GNOME may now be more thinkable, it still seems like an overly fatalistic interpretation of the project's future. After all, GNOME isn't a small community of hobbyist developers writing esoteric code in an obscure corner of the open-source channel. It's one of the open-source world's largest and most important projects, on par with LibreOffice and Firefox -- and sine qua non desktop Linux.

GNOME is also about much more than the desktop environment software that constitutes the project's hallmark product. The team creates an array of related applications, like the Evolution email client and Banshee media player, for which demand will likely remain constant even if more users move away from the GNOME shell interface. Don't expect the project to sink into obsolescence anytime soon.

But all this said, what GNOME developers should perhaps do is focus less on trying to become the desktop environment of the unpredictable future, and more on addressing the clear and present needs of users today. GNOME Shell wants to be an interface for smartphones, tablets and other fancy devices on which Linux currently rarely runs, and that endeavor -- despite the best efforts of GNOME designers -- makes it less useful as an interface for the PCs on which most people are actually running Linux today. You can't be everything at once, no matter how much you might like to be -- or how much proprietary competitors, like Windows, think they can be as well.

From my perspective, the future of GNOME is full of decidedly brighter potential than Otte prescribes. But if the project is to remain as important to the open-source channel's future as it was to its past, it could stand to reevaluate and tweak its direction to focus more on what users actually need now.