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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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  • 11 Hide
    amdfangirl , March 20, 2012 8:19 AM
    One of these days, developers of GUIs will realise going "forward" doesn't equate to an increase of ease of use and functionality.

    Unity, Metro, GNOME 3, Etc.

    Alas, I must suffer each day for the Wacom preferences panel in GNOME settings. Ties me to GNOME 3 (or a derivative). How silly.
Other Comments
  • 0 Hide
    gz3ro , March 20, 2012 6:04 AM
    I think the akmod graphics drivers (also found in the rpmfusion repository) would be better than simply the proprietary drivers because they also work after kernel updates.
  • 5 Hide
    Verrin , March 20, 2012 6:26 AM
    I'm really disappointed with the direction Linux has taken in its user interfaces. I was a big fan of Ubuntu until they switched to Unity, and since then I've been jumping from distro-to-distro trying to find a desktop environment that feels comfortable, isn't terribly difficult to wrap my head around, and that is still powerful. I was using GNOME3 for a while with Linux Mint, but even with the heavy extensions, there are certain functions that I can't quite replicate from the GNOME2 heyday. I wasn't able to get into KDE or XFCE either. They feel aged and aren't quite as sleek as other modern desktop environments, even if you try to fix that by adding customs skins.

    In the end, I'm downgrading to a much older distro of Ubuntu, and supplementing it with Windows 7. I'll be keeping an eye in the coming years to see how these rusty GUI releases turn out-- hopefully for the better. But for now, linux has lost a lot of its useability and it's flare. I'll miss the days when upgrading to a newer distro actually felt like an upgrade, but maybe after all these mistakes, developers will learn and make Linux exciting again. I'll be waiting to see.
  • 5 Hide
    Anonymous , March 20, 2012 6:36 AM
    Good grief. What I wouldn't have done years ago for a job that would ask me to write a review on something that would obsolete itself in six months.

    Nobody, IMHO, who actually uses a computer for anything of value wastes their time with Fedora. You can't upgrade it, so your own personal enhancements and bug fixes are lost. Features you like are abandoned for broken replacements. Fedora is a nightmare and has been since it began. I began the adventure years ago with Red Hat 5 and finally gave up and moved to more useful distros after Fedora 8. Fedora is now for the masochistic.

    On the other hand, if you like superficiality, as in wallpaper and clock positions, and enjoy the animated struggle that comes with installing something new all the time and reporting bugs then Fedora is a good thing.
  • 2 Hide
    yumri , March 20, 2012 7:40 AM
    one thing which i would have liked to see on the comparesion would be open time of a Libre Word Processing file, close time of that file, open time of a database file, close time of it, open time of Firefox, close time of Firefox, open time of a typical website like this one, close time of it, install time of the OS, how fast does it run a batch file or equivalent in the OS, and etc. like that things which we actually do a lot besides gaming.
  • -2 Hide
    yumri , March 20, 2012 7:46 AM
    It also seemed like they had a basis towards the GUI way of doing things and thought all users had forsaken CLI scripting for their installs and updates. as if you are getting Fedora you most likely know it was command line based in the start and really is still easier to do everything from command line then from any other route well Ubuntu is made with the GUI interface in mind so things are easier to do with that then with command line mainly because they hid the terminal screen in the newer versions of it.
    With that Fedora is also made for workstations and Ubuntu made for end user support 2 differnet applications so why only show benchmarks of end user things and not anything on network support, domain support, VM thin client viability, accessing files from the network, etc. like that things which Fedora is good at not just things which Ubuntu is I think this article was basised and another should be made with more benchmarks to not be as basised towards one or the other.
  • 11 Hide
    amdfangirl , March 20, 2012 8:19 AM
    One of these days, developers of GUIs will realise going "forward" doesn't equate to an increase of ease of use and functionality.

    Unity, Metro, GNOME 3, Etc.

    Alas, I must suffer each day for the Wacom preferences panel in GNOME settings. Ties me to GNOME 3 (or a derivative). How silly.
  • -1 Hide
    palladin9479 , March 20, 2012 8:23 AM
    Now I'm waiting for them to do a Solaris 10 or 11 review. Their both available on x86 so they don't even need to purchase new hardware. Come on it's a "real mans" OS.
  • -7 Hide
    Anonymous , March 20, 2012 8:57 AM
    You've completely missed extensions.gnome.org and gnome-tweak-tool, and as a result your review is not an accurate reflection of gnome-shell. Gnome-tweak-tool gives things like "Have file manager handle the desktop" and "Trash icon visible on desktop", plus shell, window, and gtk theme selection, font configuration, and gnome-shell extension management. Extensions.gnome.org provides, well, gnome-shell extensions. Things like "Static Workspaces", which gives you a fixed number of workspaces. Or "Alternative Status Menu", which puts power, reboot, suspend, and hibernate on your status menu. Or "Applications Menu", which provides a Gnome2-like list of windows on the current workspace.

    Now, I admit that neither of these configuration options are immediately visible to a new user. Despite that, your review is bad, and you should feel bad.
  • 0 Hide
    zhihao50 , March 20, 2012 9:13 AM
    graph for POV-Ray is wrong, you said both of linux finished 4min before windows yet the graph show the other way around.
  • 1 Hide
    adamovera , March 20, 2012 9:29 AM
    Cowardly AnonYou've completely missed extensions.gnome.org and gnome-tweak-tool, and as a result your review is not an accurate reflection of gnome-shell. Gnome-tweak-tool gives things like "Have file manager handle the desktop" and "Trash icon visible on desktop", plus shell, window, and gtk theme selection, font configuration, and gnome-shell extension management. Extensions.gnome.org provides, well, gnome-shell extensions. Things like "Static Workspaces", which gives you a fixed number of workspaces. Or "Alternative Status Menu", which puts power, reboot, suspend, and hibernate on your status menu. Or "Applications Menu", which provides a Gnome2-like list of windows on the current workspace.Now, I admit that neither of these configuration options are immediately visible to a new user. Despite that, your review is bad, and you should feel bad.

    See pages 12 through 16.
  • 2 Hide
    adamovera , March 20, 2012 9:33 AM
    zhihao50graph for POV-Ray is wrong, you said both of linux finished 4min before windows yet the graph show the other way around.

    Thanks, good catch. The words are wrong, not the chart. Fixed it.
  • 2 Hide
    rex86 , March 20, 2012 9:45 AM
    I really really hate "Window snap". It's OK if you're working with one or two windows, but when you have more than three windows "Window snap" makes a mess of everything.
  • 1 Hide
    adamovera , March 20, 2012 9:57 AM
    rex86I really really hate "Window snap". It's OK if you're working with one or two windows, but when you have more than three windows "Window snap" makes a mess of everything.

    KDE has quad-snap, which rocks on a large monitor ;) 
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , March 20, 2012 9:58 AM
    Fedora is just an upstream testing ground for RHEL, not a real distro meant for people to use. That's why Linus says:

    "I use Fedora, but recommend Ubuntu".
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , March 20, 2012 10:26 AM
    I think xfce is far better than Gnome and kDE since both are resource hungry. In low end systems, xfce is atleast usable.
  • 0 Hide
    jeffunit , March 20, 2012 11:25 AM
    I wonder why fedora uses RPM.
    I wonder what RPM stands for.

    It isn't explained in the article, but it happens to stand for Red Hat Package Manager.
    Perhaps that is why fedora uses it.

    The is no special reason why 'parent distributions' are 100% free software, it is simply red hat's corporate policy.

    You might want to fix the typo on page 2, in the header which says 'whats new in fedora 15'.

    I happen to use fedora 15 and recently upgraded to fedora 16.
  • 2 Hide
    Anonymous , March 20, 2012 11:33 AM
    I use Ubuntu and I installed Gnome Shell form the repos just to try it. I liked Unity OK and I did not feel an undying love for Gnome2. After reading reviews and recalling KDE4, I was prepared to dislike Gnome Shell. To my surprise, I found that I prefer it to other desktops I have used. I will admit that the ability to add extensions and tweak the ui to your preferences is a big plus, but now that I have become used to it, Gnome 2 and Unity feels clunky to me!
  • 0 Hide
    nevertell , March 20, 2012 12:18 PM
    I've been using gnome3 (mint 12) on my X200s and it is wonderful.
    It is buggy at the moment, it crashes but never have I lost any work due to the shell crashing, you can kill it and it will relaunch itself without any problems. At first I thought that the interface is stupid, and I still use gnome2 on my 10.04 ubuntu desktop. BUT, I have to say, I am almost used to dragging my mouse to the top left corner of the screen when I want to switch workspaces/apps on my desktop as well :)  Yes, the end-user apps and GUI configs are not there yet, but the user experience is actually great. Because of the small screen real estate on my laptop, shell helps me save space and organize stuff more neatly, dynamic workspaces are really great, helped a lot during many serious presentations. The problem I have with it is that it is slower and it is really oriented for a window per application experience, I usually spend a minute managing windows before I get cracking on an image if I work with GIMP.
  • 4 Hide
    puddleglum , March 20, 2012 12:33 PM
    VerrinI'm really disappointed with the direction Linux has taken in its user interfaces.
    Linux isn't the only one going to this DBI (Ditz Blond Interface). I understand Win8 will force it on the rest of the world as well, and we all know this came from Apple (Thanx for nothing). At least with Linux we have other choices, even if they aren't as appealing as what we had in Gnome2.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , March 20, 2012 2:02 PM
    I tried Gnome3 for a while and while I found some features to be quite nice, I gave up on it eventually, as I felt it to be too awkward for daily use. Interestingly I had the same problems with it as the author - lack of convenient task switching, cumbersome handling due to being forced into the activities tab, lack of customizability.

    I'm now using Unity, while far from perfect provides me with a better usability than Gnome3 and the features I really don't like (global menu, overlay scroll bars, placement of window buttons) can be uninstalled or tweaked away with Unity.

    Gnome3 made me feel as if I'm forced to use the desktop in the very specific way the devs feel is right for me, not the way I feel is right - this problem exists to a certain degree with Unity, too, but for now I still prefer the direction Unity is taking and I feel I still have much more freedom for adjusting it.
    Eventually I might look into Mint and Cinnamon, which looks very interesting.
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