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GNOME Shell – the UI revolution is well under way

openSUSE community manager Jos discusses the paradigm shift in UIs brought on my the mobile computing revolution...

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This past year has seen some interesting developments in the Linux desktop arena. GNOME 3, obviously, has been a big bang. But I would also mention the wide spread of Xfce 4.8, which shipped with openSUSE in March 2011. As I wrote in a review at the time, it’s a really impressive release. As usual for Xfce, there have not been any major releases since then – the project tends to take a while to push out major features. Then again, Xfce does not aim to shake up the infrastructure (like KDE did with version 4) or the user interface (à la GNOME 3). Keeping things simple and familiar has its advantages, so why do KDE and GNOME make us change our ways?

As with KDE’s 4.0 release, GNOME 3 has attracted many complaints and negative publicity. While KDE aimed to keep their interface essentially the same (although failing to reach feature parity for at least another two years), the GNOME community decided to make an even more radical change. Did they do the right thing? I think they did. While incremental changes can get you far, by their nature there’s a limit to how far they can stretch. KDE bumped into those barriers four years ago and set out to create a future-proof infrastructure. GNOME 3 did the same a few years later, recognising that the way many of us use computers has changed radically.

Yes, if you’re a kernel developer, you probably work in much the same environment as you did ten years ago; but for us mere mortals, Facebook, Gmail, iPhones and Android have radically changed what we expect from our UIs. Even Microsoft has made invasive changes in the recent past with the Ribbon, while the upcoming Metro interface is optimised for tablets. And for good reason. Most of us use computers differently compared to a decade ago. Where we used to open a file manager and navigate to folder with ten files, we now have our data online. We share and like our files and Tweet and Digg our way through the internet in ways unimaginable just a few years ago.

Bringing these concepts to the desktop just makes sense. If your are working in Google Docs, having a file browser which only shows you local documents just doesn’t cut it any more. Chat is not something you might use now and then any more, it’s a basic part of a modern workflow. And sharing files is something which should be as seamless as possible. GNOME 3 attempts to do this with the heavy integration of chat and microblogging in the shell and new applications like the ‘document browser’, which brings local and online documents together in one place. Likewise, KDE’s Plasma Active project integrates Share, Like and Connect buttons directly in their tablet shell and uses the NEPOMUK semantic framework to connect local and remote resources.

Xfce does not, which is fine – if you are a kernel hacker, but if you’re more like the average home or office user, your needs have evolved. While Xfce might offer a familiar interface, it doesn’t offer the most efficient UI any more. That said, while GNOME Shell and KDE’s Plasma Active attempt to create more effective environments for us, they’re not necessarily ready – a lot has happen, but there’s still more work to do. Both projects will have to experiment to find out how to get it right, but they’ve started and must be applauded for that.

As a final note I should stress that I don’t think change for the sake of it is good. If reality changes, however, you have to be prepared to change with it. GNOME and KDE are doing that at the cost of their users adapting to new environments and new technologies. The long-term net result should be high productivity with a short-term hump in the road as we get accustomed to these new ways. Since both projects already offer ways to customise your environment (GNOME through its ‘Shell extensions’ and KDE via Plasma technology), I really think it’s time we all joined the revolution!

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