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GNOME 3: Why It Failed

Fedora 16 And GNOME Shell: Tested And Reviewed
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No desktop, no taskbar, no Ubuntu, no Mint. Panned by critics, shunned by users, Linus calls it an “unholy mess.” Saying there are a number of things wrong with GNOME 3 is an understatement. But how the hell did it go so sideways?

So Much Worse Than KDE 4.0

Many netizens have compared the launch of GNOME 3 to the launch of KDE 4.0 back in January of 2008. I don't see the correlation. In KDE-land, the dot-oh release represents a completely new design, a prototype of sorts. It's not really considered ready for prime time. While this is a truly bizarre way to designate versions, it's the way KDE does things. So, KDE 4.0 was never intended for mass consumption; it was a developer preview of the new series.

Meanwhile, on April 6th, 2011 GNOME 3 was released in its current state as ready for distribution.

GNOME 3 is not ready by any standard. It should have been released as a preview, and GNOME 2 should still be the flagship. If the GNOME Project was bent on breaking with every convention associated with traditional desktop interfaces, it should never have been released like this. Such a significant transformation has to be perfect or gradual, and this was neither.

Where Is The Demographic?

The GNOME 3 tagline is "made of easy." Easy for who?

Easy for new Linux-users, people coming from Windows or Mac? Considering that GNOME Shell is one of the most alien GUIs we've ever seen, none of that is likely.

Is it easy for current Linux power users? The lack of built-in configuration options and the slashing of functionality in GNOME 3 pretty much kills it for this group, too. So, no.

Judging from the the new tagline, marketing materials, and general simplification of the UI, it's clear that GNOME is going for the new-user market. However, it already lost the only two distributors (Ubuntu and Mint) capable of putting GNOME Shell into the hands of its target demographic, and there are no new consumer systems being sold with Linux (except Ubuntu).

So, when the power users are leaving, GNOME doesn't really seem to care. After all, GNOME 3 isn't designed for them. But what the GNOME Project leaders don't seem to understand is that new Linux users are like vampires, or werewolves, or zombies. Stick with me here.

New Linux users don't just spontaneously pop into existence, they have to be "bitten" by someone who is already involved. Average Joe, who needs to use his computer and doesn't care how it works, doesn't wake up one day and, out of the clear blue sky exclaim, "You know what? I think I'm gonna screw around with Linux today.” New users are typically converted by a friend or family member who gets them set up and interested.

By gutting GNOME of every power user-oriented feature (a functional desktop, virtual desktops, on-screen task management, applets, hibernation, and so on) it's losing that intermediate-to-advanced crowd that's responsible for bringing users on-board. The power user demographic isn't going to recommend and support GNOME 3-based systems if they've already jumped ship.

Just how does GNOME intend to put the GNOME Shell into the hands of new users? By chasing away its current base with a brand new interface designed to be "easy," and with no clear strategy for acquiring an easy-seeking audience, GNOME simultaneously shoots itself in the head and foot.

Deaf Ears And Dire Straits

What makes all of this worse is the way GNOME dismisses the complaints, chalking it up to the fact that people don't like change and that its users will acclimate. Fair enough. Except they won't get used to it. GNOME isn't the only free desktop on the block. The users will just leave. Even staunch supporters of the GTK (along with Linus himself) have left GNOME for the lower-end XFCE user interface.

GNOME already lost its top two desktop distributors in Ubuntu and Mint. And, barring a major change, we really can't see Red Hat wanting this for the RHEL default. While Ubuntu and Mint are big losses for GNOME, losing Red Hat would also mean losing Fedora, CentOS, Oracle Linux, and Scientific Linux. There was even some talk awhile back of dropping support for BSD and Solaris distributions in order to concentrate on Linux. Alright, so, no Ubuntu, no Mint, no new retail systems, maybe no BSD/Solaris, and a dramatic drop in power users. It's almost as if the GNOME Project is trying alienate everyone and cast itself into obscurity.

Beyond the immediate threat of nobody left shipping GNOME 3, the long-term problem is a fork cropping up and gaining momentum. Mint gave up on efforts to create a mod of GNOME Shell and is moving ahead with a full-blown fork, Cinnamon. There are already projects, like MATE, attempting to keep GNOME 2 in active development. That such an (allegedly) community-driven FOSS project is so stubbornly sticking to its guns, despite the avalanche of community backlash, is concerning. If GNOME doesn't wake up soon, the GNOME Shell may prove cataclysmic for the entire project.

Now that you have an understanding of GNOME 3's shortcomings, as well as its position in the “market” and how it got there, what can be done? Is there anything worth salvaging? How does it stack up against Unity? What's the takeaway?

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