For about the past two years, the Linux world seems to be in a state of confusion over which Linux distribution has the better desktop environment. Now that we have more choices with GNOME3, Unity, MATE, Cinnamon and others, Linux no longer has a distinctive “face,” but worse yet, the newer environments are often inferior to the older environments, such as GNOME2, that they were meant to replace.
Different distributions often bundle a variety of significantly different environments that require more effort to pick up and use Linux now than it did when GNOME2 and KDE were the top two contenders.
Now, it’s a war over “who has the better GUI” as radical ideas are incorporated to improve desktop appearance and apparent ease of use while trying to stand out from the crowd.
What is a Desktop Environment?
In short, a desktop environment produces the GUI (graphical user interface) that allows users to interact with the Linux operating system. It’s the point and click interface with graphics and icons. The desktop environment is a package of software that runs well together to produce the entire GUI. Common desktop environments today are GNOME, KDE, Unity, MATE, and Cinnamon.
What is a Window Manager?
Do not confuse a desktop environment with a window manager, which is a separate component used by a desktop environment to handle the appearance of the X window system. There are many window managers available: metacity, kwin, emerald, enlightenment, twm, fvwm, and mwm, to name a few. For example, a window manager is responsible for the appearance of the title bar, window borders, and window behavior (does it scroll up or maximize when double-clicking the title bar?).
Even though a window manager can be replaced within a desktop environment, each desktop environment tends to prefer a certain window manager by default. For example, GNOME uses metacity while KDE uses kwin.
The Linux GUI is a Modular Design
The Linux GUI is comprised of layers that can be swapped with different parts while keeping the rest of the system the same. For example, if you think metacity is ugly, you can replace it with emerald to produce fancy, transparent title bars. The mix and match possibilities are endless (with varying degrees of success), and this level of customization is one aspect that gives Linux its flexibility. This design gives Linux users the freedom of choice to tailor their systems to their own liking and gives Linux its appeal.
Identical GUIs in Different Distributions
In the years before 2011, most Linux distributions looked pretty much the same. Even though other desktop environments were available, GNOME2 and KDE (KDE3 and KDE4) were the top two choices. This had advantages and disadvantages.
The advantage was consistency. If you knew how to use GNOME2 in one distribution, then you could easily pick up and use a different distribution using the same GNOME2. For example, Ubuntu and Fedora both used the GNOME2 desktop environment by default, so a user could easily migrate from Ubuntu to Fedora without having to relearn the GUI. GNOME2 was GNOME2 no matter which distribution was using it.
The disadvantage involved conformity. Aside from changing the distribution’s default wallpaper and icons, all GNOME2 distributions looked identical. There was no way for users to visually differentiate Ubuntu, for example, from Red Hat or Fedora upon first glance or without taking a deeper look at the system.
However, this made most Linux distributions look alike. It is easy to spot a Windows GUI or a Mac GUI since they have remained fairly consistent over the years. You know a Mac GUI when you see it, and you recognize a default Windows GUI when you see it no matter the OS version, but individual Linux distributions had no such visual identification. Linux, in general, had its own look and feel with GNOME and KDE, but there was nothing to make Fedora or OpenSuse stand out from the crowd of other distributions using GNOME or KDE.
Somewhere along the line (for various reasons), many desktop environment and Linux distribution developers decided to “upgrade” their perfectly working environments in an apparent effort to make them look more modern and make them easier for new Linux users to operate.
This is where the problems began because how do you improve a desktop environment, such as GNOME2, that is easy to use and works surprisingly well?
Many other desktop environments were available, but none really gained mainstream acceptance. GNOME and KDE remained the favorites until Canonical released Ubuntu 11.04 with the Unity desktop environment.
Everything seemingly changed overnight. GNOME3 became the new GNOME while abandoning GNOME2 completely, and KDE4 with its slick Plasma interface gained popularity. Of course, these and other environments were in development long before the release of Ubuntu 11.04 and Unity, but Unity changed people’s thinking. Somehow, GNOME2 was no longer in vogue.
After all, the most popular Linux distribution usually sets the standard. So, when Ubuntu modernizes its GUI, other distributions feel the need to modernize too.
So, what’s the problem? Isn’t change good? Not always, because newer is not always better. New technologies survive only if they are better than what people are already using by being faster, more efficient, simpler, smaller, or by offering superior benefits.
This applies to computer GUIs as well. The point of having a GUI in the first place is to make computers easier to use. This is why GUIs are more popular than command line interfaces (CLI). People would rather point and click than type commands. In this case, a GUI is “better” than a CLI in terms of ease of use.
The same principle applies to transportation. People drive vehicles instead of riding in horse-drawn buggies because vehicular transportation offers many advantages, mainly speed.
GNOME3 and Unity Are a Step Backwards
Now, let’s apply this reasoning to recent Linux desktop environments. Rather than pointing them all out, let’s focus on two of the most ubiquitous: GNOME3 and Unity.
Simply put, GNOME3 is an “unholy mess,” in the words of a prominent Linux kernel authority, and this author wholeheartedly agrees. But why? It’s newer, so shouldn’t it be “better?”
After using GNOME3 personally for a few years, I find that it offers nothing but frustration because GNOME3 always gets in the way of using the computer. More effort is required on my part to achieve the same results using GNOME2.
New themes are harder to install. Many familiar GNOME3 packages offer reduced functionality that requires installing additional software to make the system as usable as GNOME2. It takes too many mouse clicks to get from point A to point B. Multiple workspaces have been eliminated in favor of virtual workspaces, and GNOME3 runs slower than GNOME2 on older hardware. Instead of making the GUI desktop seamless with open windows, the GUI now takes a “whole screen” approach that makes the system feel isolated.
Unity is Canonical’s darling, and if you want to use Ubuntu, then you are going to use Unity whether you want to or not because Unity is now so closely integrated into Ubuntu, that it can never be removed completely. Many programs and essential system packages depend upon Unity even if a user starts a session with an alternative environment.
Visually, Unity looks is a cross between Mac OS X and the iPhone. Most notable upon first glance is that the title bar buttons are located on the left, and the context-sensitive menu bar located at the top of the desktop changes to accommodate the active application. In addition, the icons possess the distinctive, rounded square appearance found on the iPhone. It seems as if Canonical is trying to emulate the popular Mac GUI in an effort to appeal to new users.
However, if I wanted a Mac, I would have skipped Linux and chosen a Mac in the first place, but I chose not to because the traditional GNOME2 interface offered the features that made computer usage extremely easy and quick.
Just like GNOME3, Unity gets in the way of using the computer for the same reasons. The entire environment is oversimplified to the point where the level of control power users seek is harder to obtain than in GNOME2. It takes too many mouse clicks and too much effort to move from point A to point B.
Why Did They Do This?
Apparently, this is an attempt to make Linux easier to use than ever before in an effort to accommodate new users. However, in doing so, control over the computer has taken a back seat to simplicity. GNOME3 and Unity are too icon-driven, too dumbed down, and too simple. This might be fine for timid Linux users, but for those who understand Linux and wish to achieve powerful results in the least amount of time, GNOME3 and Unity constantly get in the way. Instead of becoming second nature for the user, they continually remind the user of their presence and require the user to think about how to use the computer in order to achieve results.
What Was Wrong With GNOME2?
GNOME2 offered many advantages that made it easy for new Linux users to adjust to Linux. Since most users came from a Windows world, GNOME2 was the perfect introduction because it offered a level of familiarity that Windows users could relate to.
In fact, GNOME2 was more logical to understand than the Windows GUI and eliminated many conflicting questions such as, “Why must I go to the Start menu to shutdown the computer?” With GNOME2, an unobtrusive power icon was present by default, and users intuitively knew what to do. This design reduced user hand-holding and made it easy for people to enjoy Linux.
Now, that has changed.
GNOME3 and Unity, despite months of usage, remain cumbersome, obtrusive, and in the end, offer a thoroughly frustrating experience even for proficient Linux users. Forget new Linux users. Too many users comfortable with Windows give Unity or GNOME3 a try only to throw up their hands in aggravation and give up. “No, thanks. I’ll stick with Windows because I am already familiar with it. This is too hard to learn because it’s too different from what I already know.” The simpler GUI design of Unity and GNOME3 was supposed to solve this problem, wasn’t it?
This rarely happened with GNOME2 because GNOME2 offered a point of familiarity that Windows users could use as a springboard from which to dive into deeper waters. By starting Windows users off in Linux from a point they were already comfortable with, they were willing to stick with Linux and use it. Now, with GNOME3 and Unity, people just give up and return to the comfort of Windows.
Again, what was wrong with GNOME2? GNOME2 did many things right. If GNOME2 made Linux easy for Windows users to learn, why throw it away?
Against Human Nature
Unity and GNOME3 are completely foreign GUIs that require users to relearn what they already know and change their thinking in order to use the desktop. This is bad–very bad–because it neglects human nature.
Many people are adverse to exercising their brains, and they resist any form of change. People want to be able to look at something and instantly figure out what to do without reading the manual or calling for help. Technologies that do this rise to prominence because the people who demand this are in the majority.
Mac OS X and Windows understand this concept well which is why their interfaces have changed little over the years. Users familiar with one version of those operating systems can pick up and use a new version with minimal effort.
No such luxury exists for Linux since the desktop environment wars began. With environments like GNOME3 and Unity, users are forced to rethink how they use the desktop, and users who learn one, must relearn to use the other. Certainly, both offer advantages, but any form of frustration will render those advantages useless, especially to new Linux users.
No Way Out
The most dangerous aspect of disparate GUIs is that the developers have completely abandoned the older versions. Don’t like GNOME3? Too bad. GNOME2 has been discontinued, and there is no way to install and use it unless you use an older Linux distribution. Don’t like Unity? Again, too bad. Sure, you can switch to GNOME, but it will be GNOME3.
It’s as if the developers have decided what the future of Linux desktop environments should be and are forcing us to adapt to their decisions whether we like them or not.
This breaks the freedom of choice Linux once offered and makes Linux restrictive. Of course, a user can still change desktop environments by replacing Unity with KDE or Xfce, but if that is the case, why not install Kubuntu or Xubuntu to begin with?
Back to GNOME2…Sort of
GNOME2 worked surprisingly well, despite its default ugly appearance. However, GNOME2 is no longer an option, and the available choices are lackluster without a clear winner. So, the Linux world is stuck in a race of mediocre “improved” desktop environments until one rises to prominence.
What to do?
In the meantime, many disgruntled users are seeking alternatives that reclaim the simplicity and speed of GNOME2. We now see a surge of popularity in desktop environments, such as Cinnamon and MATE, that offer traditional GNOME2 performance while offering an updated look and feel that competes with Mac OS X and Windows 7. In fact, Cinnamon and MATE are gaining so much popularity that some Linux distributions are bundling them in favor of the newer GNOME3.
And that begs the question: If desktop environments identical to GNOME2 are in such high demand, why drop GNOME2 in the first place? Why not use what works or at least make GNOME2 an option instead of abandoning it completely and forcing users to walk down a certain path?
Not All Environments Have Changed
Desktop environments, such as Xfce and KDE, have been updated without changing their user-friendliness. For example, the Xfce environment that users loved years ago is mostly the same Xfce today, so for those wishing to use an updated Linux distribution with a traditional GUI, this is the way to go.
However, Xfce is by no means an influential, trend-setting GUI, and it possesses its own learning curve. Adapting to a desktop environment like Xfce can require as much effort as learning Unity or GNOME3, so little is solved. Pros and cons exist for every desktop environment, and much is determined by personal preference.
Reinventing the wheel made the developers turn it into a square. In an attempt to modernize and improve trusty GNOME2 (and the Linux desktop in general), the developers have forgotten and neglected what made it good to begin with, making the newer result inferior to the older design.
Looking at today’s desktop environments, such as Unity and GNOME3, shows that the developers are taking an all-or-nothing approach to reinventing the desktop and forcing users to adapt to their desktop vision by insisting that users interact with the desktop in a prescribed way…in addition to requiring more resources and running slower on older hardware.
Certainly, Unity and GNOME3 offer a level of simplicity and attractiveness appealing to the Mac/iPhone crowd, and each possesses its own advantages and disadvantages. Those growing up with the new environments will know nothing else and think that GNOME3 and Unity are great, but for those who have been with Linux for a while and have used GNOME2, among others, will spot the restrictive annoyances in the newer, dumbed down, cumbersome desktop environments.
Today’s Linux desktop environments feel like three steps backward rather than a step forward, and this is bad for Linux. It is good to see progress, but not at the expense of time-tested interfaces that work well for both new and experienced users and then forcing users to adapt without the ability to fall back to GNOME2.
GNOME2 was one of the main reasons this author switched from Windows to Linux in the first place, and now, the Linux world is doing the same thing that Windows is criticized for. GNOME2 was a superior desktop environment that made Linux a joy to learn, and now it’s gone without an adequate substitute.
The result? A plethora of “new and improved” mediocre desktop environments.