Gnome 3 – early observations

Gnome 3 is “stable and […] could lead to an even better desktop than the one we previously had but which lacks features and flexibility at the moment”. – Linux Mint Blog

Linux Mint 12 was released last week.  I was hesitant to upgrade my OS from the previous version because I knew it was using the new Gnome (3.2, opposed to 2.32), and I fear change, but I’d been having a problem with the window manager for a while (maximised windows would be a few pixels out from of where they should be so when I close them it often doesn’t register properly and closes other windows I have open behind – it’s all very annoying) and wanted to reformat anyway, so . . . I 3.2ook the plunge.

Gnome 3 looks quite nice, but in practice I don’t feel it is an improvement on Gnome 2.32.  It simply doesn’t have enough configuration flexibility anymore.

I previously posted about my clean, simple desktop running on Linux Mint 11.  I had a single panel at the bottom with the few programs I regularly use, and quick access to a menu listing only those programs I may actually click on one day.  It was a pleasure to interact with.  I was productive.  But Gnome 3 (check out a video demonstration here) makes this sort of simplicity impossible.

The focus on simpler interfaces is one I understand.  Make it easy for an unfamiliar user to find what they want.  Streamline the settings so they’re easier to follow.  This makes GNU/Linux more accessible.  But one of the effects of this, in both Gnome 3 and Unity (Ubuntu’s new desktop environment), is the severe limitation on customisation.  I am now left with a permanent panel across the top of my screen that I can’t remove or hide (panels are distracting and take up precious screen real estate) and I can only alter its contents with the assistance of specialised ‘extensions’ that I can install.  For example, there is an accessibility icon in the panel by default, and one of the most popular extensions simply makes it disappear.  Extensions aren’t such a bad idea, but because there are so few of them available, and because their options are usually (always?) limited to ‘on or off’, there’s simply not much you can do.

But it’s not just the extensions that restrict the user; the options for system settings are also heavily ‘streamlined’ – or in some cases entirely absent.  I had to find the command for the old printer settings program (I’m surprised the package was installed) in order to add a network printer because the new interface didn’t have the options I needed to configure it!

I was going to go into a longer rant detailing the problems, but Hitler does a more entertaining job =)

It may seem like power and average users are losing out here in order to appeal to a new audience.  However, my experience makes me a little optimistic.  I can remember a few years ago when Kubuntu (Ubuntu with KDE instead of Gnome) first shipped with KDE4.0 rather than KDE3.whatever.  The new KDE looked amazing, but there was little users could do to customise the experience.  It wasn’t until 4.3 that it could finally begin to compete with KDE3 in terms of usability.  But this was intentional – it takes a while to build a desktop environment, make it stable and add features.  And it’s better if the wider community is involved during this evolution.

I’m hopeful this is what will happen with Gnome 3.  It has just been shipped with Linux Mint, a distribution quickly making its way to the top of the GNU/Linux polularity contest, and many power users are playing around with it, writing new features and sharing them with others.  One day Gnome 3 may be just as configurable as my old desktop.

(I’m also optimistic because I recognise similarities between the Gnome 3 desktop environment and operating systems on mobile devices.  I long for the day that I can get GNU/Linux on a mobile phone, so I hope this is part of the conscious direction for development.)

I can deal with the new environment for now.  I’m even getting used to the menu.  (I believe this is what is called the ‘acceptance stage’.)  But next time I plan to reformat I might finally give XFCE a spin.  (And not just because it has a mouse mascot – though that certainly adds to the appeal!)

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