The sad state of linux desktop environments

I run Ubuntu on my desktop and have since Ubuntu’s first release (4.10) and the current release, 11.10, is the first that I am going to skip over entirely.  The reason is that the choice of desktop environments is poor.  I upgraded my HTPC to 11.10 and tried every desktop environment available: Gnome Shell, Unity, KDE 4, XFCE, LXDE.  Not 1 of them seemed like it would fit my desktop needs.  I have a nice Gnome 2 desktop with plenty of customizations to fit how I work but upgrading to from 11.04 to 11.10 would cause me to lose all of that and force me to learn how to be as productive in a new desktop environment.  I really cannot afford to take that time when I have so many projects going.

It’s easy, and common, to pick on Ubuntu but the truth is there is many distributions are making the same errors of not providing a path forward for the existing desktop environment.  My advice to all distros regarding Gnome 3 is the same as I would have given for KDE 4: don’t switch to the latest DE until it has matured.  Any distro shipping Gnome 3 right now has made a mistake in my opinion.  Right now Gnome 2 is mature, stable, polished, and most importantly has a large existing user base.  Ubuntu in particular should have shipped Gnome 2 through it’s 12.04 release.  There are a lot of business users on 10.04 and if 12.04 breaks their desktops they will not be happy, or they may choose to simply not upgrade and you end up with a situation similar to Windows XP.

I understand that the Gnome developers wanted to work on something new and exciting, just like the KDE developers.  I think the Gnome 3 work is good and useful as is the KDE 4 work.  However, without the resources of a Microsoft or an Apple to do user testing a linux distribution should not switch quickly to a new, relatively untested and immature desktop environment.  I’ve used all of the desktop alternatives out there and my choice for my desktop is to continue using Gnome 2.  When Apple rolled out OS X it was after a ton of user testing that no one who used it wanted to go back.  Gnome 3 has not yet reached that level, and until it does it should not be shipped in any distro catering to a large user base with a goal of stability and productivity.  There is, of course, a place for distros who want to be more cutting edge to include such software for people to experiment with.

So Ubuntu, Fedora, Mint, are all making a mistake shipping Gnome 3 in their latest release.  If it were up to me to set the direction for their next releases I would include Gnome 2 or MATE and make that the default desktop for people upgrading from releases prior to their latest.  In the case of Ubuntu that means 12.04 would give a seamless upgrade to everyone running 11.04 and earlier.  I would also recommend including Unity and Gnome Shell as options for people to try out so that they can make the switch on their time and terms.  I think that would be a policy of mine: continue to support how users are working now but give them options to change how they work if they so choose.

Would that be a lot of work, asking that every distro maintain every desktop environment that has ever been released.  Not so much effort I think, and largely what has happened with window managers in the past.  With forks of Gnome 2 and KDE 3 being maintained by developers including them as an option in a distro is certainly a benefit to the end user.  The DE landscape might become more fragmented but that is still preferable to forced upgrades for people who are satisfied with their current DE.

On December 1st, 2011 the Gnome Shell Extensions website went live for version 3.2.  So distros that shipped Gnome 3.0 are out of luck, like Ubuntu 11.10.  But to me this is the sort of thing that should have been in place long before anyone was shipping this software, particularly as the default desktop.  By mid-2012 Gnome 3 will probably be in a place where it could be shipped in a distro, but shipping it before then is just asking for user complaints as they struggle with the forced upgrade, bugs, and inconsistencies common in early releases of new software.

As for Unity, I think it’s too early to know if that development effort was a mistake.  The Canonical folks tried Gnome 3 Shell and didn’t like it.  So they decided to build Unity.  Well, first of all, this should have been a clue that Gnome 3 wasn’t ready to be shipped.  They could have shipped Gnome 2 and Unity as an option for people to try.  And I do think that people have raised a good point that the Unity development may have sapped development from other parts of Ubuntu 11.10, leaving Ubuntu 11.10 unpolished compared to previous releases.  I do not care for Unity and I would not use it on my desktop or laptop or HTPC but it may be a good effort if it proves to be a good DE choice for netbooks, tablets, and similarly sized devices.  In the long run that could be a big win for Ubuntu, but enough to offset the short-term loss of users upset by being forced to switch to Unity, that remains to be seen.


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