Sunday, 14 August 2011

Did GNOME Shell Miss the Mark?

Having played with a couple of tablets over the last week it occurred to me that these are the sort of devices the GNOME 3 Shell is said to be intended to run on, a reasonable assumption when looking at the design. However, the current breed of tablets PC's come with their own interfaces already, and they seem rather streamlined and efficient at what they're doing. Android tablets, HP webOS, the Blackberry Playbook and of course the iPad all have rather good interfaces in my view that are more than up to the job they're intended for, and probably superior to the Shell because they have been designed with just that one purpose in mind.

The GNOME Shell on the other hand somehow seems to try and present a sort of unified interface that can be used on anything from desktops, laptops, smartphones, netbooks, and tablets. While that is certainly a laudable approach and a neat idea, it just doesn't work very well. It's hardly likely that the Shell will take over tablets and become the way of choice of how users will interact with their machines. At the same time, apart from a few lonely voices, not many people seem happy with the state of the Shell for desktop usage, Linus Torvalds' outburst of course being the most prominent example, and it's not easy to see how that could be transformed from the current restrictive state. As an example, now instead of just clicking on terminal to open a second one, you have to get the open terminal to the forefront and open another one from the menu bar. Way to go, user friendliness. Can't you just see all those office and information workers, the ones that are not using one of the big proprietary OS's at work, queueing up to be retrained in virtually every aspect of how they are to interact with their computers from now on, just because some avantgarde developers somewhere thought this would be cool? The loss in productivity until they're 'there' will be massive, if they ever get 'there'. Not going to happen. The GNOME team have lost this one, an area where their desktop once dominated, KDE being the most likely beneficiary in the long term.

That other offspring, the Unity desktop, having evolved from the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, feels more natural in the way it reminds of earlier window managers, and doesn't necessarily feel like it is meant for the new generation of phones and tablets. At least to my mind it makes perfect sense on netbooks and desktops, if you like it that is, and although Unity just like GNOME Shell seems set to keep the ridiculously large icons just longing to be touched, it feels less radical overall. In the longer term it may even have more potential than GNOME.

In short, GNOME 3 and with it the Shell as the most prominent feature has missed the mark, and is currently of no good use to anybody but the few people who for whatever reason find it natural or who enjoy learning new interfaces and new ways of working just for the sake of change. Fortunately, there's always GNOME Shell frippery for a more productive experience, but it sure takes a lot of tweaking and additional tools and extensions on top of setting Nautilus to manage the desktop, and you wouldn't expect Joe Bloggs to get into all this. Or perhaps they're waiting for Windows 8 to bring about touch screen monitors on every desk, in tables and work surfaces. Shell could really shine there and maybe we're not doing it justice and it's just ahead of its time. But that would mean relying on the big boys once again to clear the way, latching on to the trends made popular by them.


  1. Canonical will no doubt integrate Unity with Gnome 3 at some point. Otherwise they'll be left supporting Gnome 2 on their own. Which I doubt they'll do. And Unity is basically just a big fat attention whore of a Compiz plug-in.

  2. Love your blog, I also share your opinion on Gnome 3, Unity .... who knows that the future hold, are they way ahead of time or just push of course, who knows, with open source you have to keep an open mind for change... I love it... Keep up the good works.

  3. Thanks for the feedback, guys. Let's see what the future brings, and if any of this new-fangled stuff will actually have more than 5 users in a years time.


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