If Gnome developers are to be believed, the desktop of the future arrived last week when the release candidate for Gnome 2.30--which could become Gnome 3.0--was made available.  My CPU needed a workout, so I recently compiled the new desktop and gave it a run.  Here's a look at the desktop environment that--like it or not--may soon be coming to a computer near you.

Although there's no official word on when Gnome 3 will become the default desktop environment in Ubuntu, Mark Shuttleworth suggested last summer that the October 2010 release, or Ubuntu 10.10, would be a likely target.

Given my experience with the new Gnome, I'm not convinced that's a good idea, unless a lot changes on Gnome's end between now and the fall.  But I'll save my criticism for another post.  Below, I'll focus on what Gnome 2.30/3 actually does, and how it's so different from its predecessors.

Gnome 3 will take a radically new approach to the desktop in two respects: in the way windows are managed, and in how applications and user data are organized.

Gnome Shell

On the window-management front, Gnome 3 employs Gnome Shell, which redefines the way users interact with their windows.  Gnome Shell encourages heavy deployment of virtual desktops, and essentially does away with the taskbar-based approach to moving windows in and out of focus.

Gnome 3's default desktop looks like this:

Gnome 3 Default Desktop

By clicking the "Activities" button in the upper-left corner (or pressing Alt-F1, or moving the mouse cursor into the upper-left corner), the user is presented with a side panel from which she can manage windows, create new desktops and launch files or applications:

Gnome 3 Activity Overlay

Gnome 3 Activities Overlay

Of course, words and screenshots can only say so much.  To get a better idea of how Gnome Shell handles window management, check out the screencast we made last fall, or the numerous similar videos around the Internet.

Zeitgeist

Gnome 3's second major innovation centers on making folders and directories a thing of the past.  Rather than forcing users to open a file browser in order to access their data, or navigate through a hierarchy of menus to launch an application, Gnome 3's Activities panel features a search box where users type what they're looking for and are presented with corresponding launchers:

Gnome 3 Launching Opera

Gnome 3 Searching for File

Gnome 3 Searching for "network"

In my experience, this feature, called which is based on Zeitgeist, works surprisingly well compared to other real-time data indexers available on Linux--namely the disaster known as Tracker.

The search feature wasn't perfect--in particular, it seemed not to index new files very quickly--but if it can be made 100% reliable, it would be a great alternative to the traditional directory hierarchies on which operating systems have relied for four decades--and which remain deeply inadequate for the needs of most users, judging by the cluttered desktops and misplaced files that most computers users struggle with constantly.

Will it Work?

In a nutshell, Gnome 3 is what you see above.  It represents huge changes to the way most people interact with their computers, and it's fair to expect its integration into Ubuntu to be accompanied by a bit of controversy, to say the least.

After using Gnome 3 for a few days, I have a lot of personal--and critical--thoughts regarding its viability as a desktop solution, at least for people like me.  Stay tuned for those.