Previewing Gnome Shell in Ubuntu

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If all goes according to plan, Ubuntu 10.10 will sport Gnome 3, which represents a radical overhaul of Ubuntu's default graphical user interface in the form of Gnome Shell, when it debuts a year from now.  In order to get a taste of what this desktop of the future will look like, I've spent the last few days using the development version.  Here's what I've found.

Gnome has been around now for a decade, and its approach to the desktop hasn't changed remarkably in that time.  Gnome 1.x doesn't differ in any fundamental way from the 2.2x versions available in the latest Ubuntu releases.  Traditional Gnome also behaves similarly to the interfaces of most proprietary operating systems.

That will all change with Gnome 3, however, which will bring a totally new interface to the table in the form of Gnome Shell.  As the Gnome developers described it:
...the shell idea is not just about changing the panel and the window manager. It's about changing the way you start an activity and how you switch between two different activities.  Or more generally, how you manage your different activities on the desktop.

Changing the way we access documents (via a journal, like GNOME Zeitgeist [3]): having to deal with a filesystem in their daily work is not what makes users happy -- on the contrary, they generally just want to access their documents and not to browse their hard disk. Providing new solutions to this problem (using timelines, tags,  bookmarks, etc.) is something that has been of interest in our community for a long time, but we never completely jumped in. We simply should.

Gnome Shell in action

Gnome Shell is a lot harder to describe in words than to demonstrate, so here's a screenscast of the new interface in action, based on a build I completed a few days ago using the latest code:



The development version of Gnome Shell still has some significant bugs that need to be worked out and can be choppy at times, but the video nonetheless demonstrates the major changes to the interface.  Taskbars and docks have been replaced by an overlay that allows all windows to be managed from one location.  Virtual desktops can be added and removed as needed.  Recently accessed files are accessible with one click.  And Gnome Shell is its own window manager, rather than relying on metacity or compiz.

Too intuitive?

These new features are great and offer a lot of potential for improving productivity.  After using Gnome Shell for a few days before switching back to traditional Gnome, I'm already missing the former, and wish it were stable enough now to be used every day.

While it offers great new approaches to managing workflow, however, the new interface of Gnome Shell takes a lot of getting used to.  It may arguably be more "intuitive" (whatever that means) in the long run, but users accustomed to drop-down menus and taskbars will likely find themselves quite uncomfortable the first time they use Gnome Shell.

The beauty of Gnome 2.x is its simplicity.  Anyone who's used any kind of GUI-equipped computer before--or who hasn't used a computer at all--can sit down in front of traditional Gnome and figure things out pretty quickly.  There's not much ambiguity in the well labeled Gnome menu, and Gnome manages windows and tasks like every other mainstream desktop environment created in the last fifteen years.

But since "intuition" for most people has more to do with what they're used to than anything else, I worry that Gnome Shell will turn normal users off to Ubuntu and Linux by forcing them to learn a new interface.  Maybe that won't be the case--maybe non-geeks are less set in their ways than I tend to believe--but this obstacle should nonetheless be a point of consideration for Gnome and Ubuntu developers.

For the time being, Gnome Shell remains in heavy development, and may see significant changes before it reaches maturity.  As it exists now, however, it looks very promising, provided it can reconcile a radically progressive interface with normal users' desire for familiarity.

Discuss this Video 18

Andre Engelbrecht (winterweaver) 's status on Tuesday, 03-No (not verified)
on Nov 3, 2009
Simplicius (not verified)
on Nov 3, 2009
Thanks for the overview, Chris. Whatever they do, I hope Canonical will take a conservative approach to change. After the major misunderstandings, criticisms and general flaming that happened with the introduction of KDE 4, we don't want something similar to happen again, do we? BTW, "In order get a taste" -gt; "In order to get a taste"
dragonbite (not verified)
on Nov 3, 2009
Canonical SHOULD be conservitive. Ver 10.04 (10-4 good buddy) is an LTS, which means it is the focus of what businesses and organizations are going to use for the next 2 years (longer on the server, but the GUI is optional there). Canonical should not introduce a totally redesigned, new interface that people are not used to and, as the KDE 4 rollout has shown, it will take time to make it all work smoothly. Gnome shell would be best for Canonical to include in Ubuntu 10.10 so they have 18 months to test, tweak and develop into a completely viable desktop and to give the users a chance to get used to all of the changes.
Leolas (not verified)
on Nov 3, 2009
Gnome-Shell won't even be ready on April, so don't worry about Lucid using Gnome-Shell. BTW, I've been using it for a month, and I must say I really like it, even though it still misses many features that are in the ToDo list, for example a really well integrated zeitgeist -gt; http://live.gnome.org/GnomeZeitgeist or the dock... I'm updating it today for the first time in 1 week and a half, so I'll check soon if they added some new features in the last days. Sure, it will be a bit hard to use it the first times, but I think that people will easily understand how it works, because it's intuitive, and it's a bit mobilephone-like
on Nov 3, 2009
Simplicius: good point about the KDE 4 issues. They resulted from an interface that carried a learning curve for a lot of people, as well as the fact that there were still major bugs when KDE 4 was adopted. Canonical will hopefully avoid these mistakes with Gnome Shell. Also, thanks for catching the typo. dragonbite: from what I hear, Canonical is planning a conservative approach to 10.04 LTS. Gnome Shell is being saved for 10.10, for that reason.
Charlie (not verified)
on Nov 3, 2009
I feel this may not run well on older equipment, and for me and maybe a few others, we try to eeek out as much life as we can out of our systems. Maybe an option to run the new shell or old gnome at install time? This will allow me to benefit from the new kernel, but have the fall back up good ole normal gnome. Maybe Im old school, but simplicity does have its place.
László Torma (toros) 's status on Tuesday, 03-Nov-09 18:34:3 (not verified)
on Nov 3, 2009
Links 03/11/2009: KDE 4.3.3, Mandriva 2010 Released | Boycot (not verified)
on Nov 3, 2009
[...] Previewing Gnome Shell in Ubuntu If all goes according to plan, Ubuntu 10.10 will sport Gnome 3, which represents a radical overhaul of Ubuntu’s default graphical user interface in the form of Gnome Shell, when it debuts a year from now. In order to get a taste of what this desktop of the future will look like, I’ve spent the last few days using the development version. Here’s what I’ve found. [...]
Roy Schestowitz (schestowitz) 's status on Wednesday, 04-Nov (not verified)
on Nov 3, 2009
aikiwolfie (not verified)
on Nov 4, 2009
Looks as though the new Gnome Shell takes a lot of cues from the more useful features of Compiz. The question in my mind is does it provide enough of what I've gotten used to from Compiz to be worth switching?
eli (not verified)
on Nov 4, 2009
I like the look of the Shell very much. I do however, also like the current gnome. I hope when it does become stable, and part of Ubuntu by default, that I won't be left missing anything from my nice, simple gnome of today.
neo (not verified)
on Nov 6, 2009
GNOME Shell cannot be default in the next release of Ubuntu because Canonical is not invested in the development of it. Owen Taylor and others from Red Hat has invested heavily on it including development of the open source Xorg drivers to make them work together work with accelerated graphics. Red Hat has indicated that they want GNOME 3 to be out on Sept 2010 so Ubuntu will have to wait for it.
Jo-Erlend Schinstad (not verified)
on Nov 7, 2009
Charlie: We do have a distro that uses two panels and is suitable for older hardware. It's called Xubuntu. Xfce is really quite nice, and a very good alternative to GNOME. It would be nice with an even lighter alternative using LXDE. neo: I think you're missing the point. Investment has nothing to do with this. Even if Gnome Shell was entirely stable _now_, it probably wouldn't have been included by default in Lucid Lynx. At least, I hope it wouldn't. There have been much discussion around whether an LTS should be the first or last in relation to radical changes. I think it makes great sense to let LTSes be the last distro before big changes are made. That way, we already have good documentation when the LTS is released, we have a community of helpers and support companies that are well equipped to help new users from day one of the LTS release. These things are also important, not only the stability of the software itself. But obviously, using more mature software in the LTS also means more stable software, which is important both to companies and less technical users. These groups are probably the best candidates for LTS releases as well. Besides, the quality of Ubuntu has reached a high enough level that it's not so important to use cutting edge versions anymore.
F. Fellini (not verified)
on Nov 8, 2009
i must say it looks pretty slick in that video. Looks like its quite focused on getting people more productive without the usual distractions that all the 3d enabled concepts that different OSes introduced in the past few years. However I can't help but wonder whether by trying to clean up the desktop we are now adding significantly to the depth of hidden features under a series of menus while the direction of UI should be to unearth them and make them more accessible to users. Take clicking a button that reveals the features that were already in the old gnome panel to begin with, then opening more features that bury yet more menus. I has the appearance of regression. I guess I can't complain until I get to use Gnome 3 on a regular basis.
Nico (not verified)
on Nov 17, 2009
I'm exchanging ideas in Gnome shell mailing list and from the discussions I see and the idea we exchange, I can tell it's going to be much much nicer than what we already have. There's discussions of context and saving sets of applications, tabs with customized views etc... It's all a big brain storm but there's a lot of good out of it.
Romar Mayer Micabalo (not verified)
on May 16, 2010
Thanks for the overview Chris. I have also tried out gnome-shell under lucid and started to grow fond of it. Sure, a lot of things are missing like customizations, but yeah it's a step in the right direction. http://www.madforubuntu.com/apps-and-tools/my-glimpse-at-gnome-shell/ [http://www.madforubuntu.com]
David (not verified)
on Sep 14, 2010
People will NEVER mind learning a new user interface if it's better than what they are using already. Linux distros should take a clue from the mobile market. Besides, what plagues Linux since ever is the lack of hardware support, not the lack of fancy UIs. I guess Canonical and everyone else should try to maintain agreements in order to have good hardware support, even if at the cost of "freedom" (as in speech). As things improve, push for freedom. Linux should undermine the current SoHo PC model, not fight it directly.
GNOME Dev Responds to Criticism of Open Source Interface raq (not verified)
on Nov 13, 2012
[...] close to home, since we here on The VAR Guy started covering GNOME 3 and GNOME Shell as early as November 2009, back when they were still in early development. Our assessments haven’t always been glowing. In [...]
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