Updated: March 24, 2011
Gnome 3 is going to be the next major Gnome desktop release. It will replace the existing version with a radical new interface, which is focused on a modern, Web 2.0 like approach to computing. All right, but is it any good?
I will try to give you two perspectives - that of a casual user and that of a veteran productivity user. After that, we will discuss Gnome 3 in general; what it is, what it isn't, how it should be treated and used, whether it can revolutionize the desktop market, and a few other things besides. However, before we begin, do note this is still an early release, so everything could and can change.
I downloaded the first Gnome 3 preview, which is built on top of openSUSE 11.4, using SUSE Studio. Now, a full review of the latest openSUSE coming soon; at the moment, let's focus on Gnome 3 thingie.
What a casual user would think
OK, let's try to imagine what a typical user needs - or wants.
A casual user is, for the lack of better word, controlled chaos waiting to unravel. Casual users have virtually no understanding what they are doing. The focus of their computer activity is social media, porn, downloading music and videos, maybe some mail, and if they are really, really advanced, they might actually keep their data backed up on a separate partition. With those people in mind, Gnome 3 is being modeled. Let's take a closer look.
Not much has changed since I trialled Gnome Shell some time ago. You get a very reasonable desktop, very slick, pretty and whatnot. You also get smooth transition effects, including menus and notifications. The choice of colors and fonts is smart. Gnome 3 looks expensive.
The Volume menu:
In the left top corner, there's the Activities menu. This opens a slideshow-like window, where you have your application shortcuts and your open windows spread across several workspaces.
You can also click on Applications, to get the list of all installed software.
You can play with your shortcuts to get the desired looks:
Overall, the interface is a curious blend of cool effects, pretty looks and hybrid, non-linear actions that fall in between netbook and smartphone usage. This could appeal to modern users, who envision the computer as a Web portal, if not quite as ready to store their data in the cloud. So far, so good. Now, let's examine a few other, less cheerful things.
No minimize and maximize buttons
This is the source of all the buzz lately. You have digg and reddit articles garnering thousands of clicks just because they are debating the addition and removal of said buttons. First, you can get them back, and rather than just whining, I will show you HOW, once we discuss the power user further below. Second, I'm gonna do my lip service and debate the two buttons some more, as if the topic has not been churned to pulp already.
The audacious claim is: morons (average users) don't use them, so let's remove them. This means being essentially different. Not good or bad, right or wrong, different. Mind, the functionality is still there - you can min/max by double-clicking on the window border, right-clicking on the window border or using shortcuts. It's just the visual bit trimmed out.
The question is, how are the crowds going to respond to this? In other words, how is the inefficient computer usage going to be influenced by this change?
95% of all computer users worldwide run Windows or Mac. For them, the typical interface revolves around top and bottom taskbars, with a handful of desktop icons in between. Average users are set in their ways and nasty habits and nothing short of physical violence will make them budge.
In this sense, the removal of the minimize and maximize buttons could lead to confusion, especially with new converts. Furthermore, regardless of the two buttons, Gnome 3 offers a completely new look and feel, which the typical user has had no chance to see or work with elsewhere.
This could work, mostly with young and open-minded people. However, I think there might be a lot of confusion when it comes to configuring software or peripherals. With a clean and self-sufficient desktop in front of them, people might expect automagical configuration like in Mac. This could lead to anger and resentment.
Gnome 3 has a lot of potential, especially among the Generation Y crowds, people oriented on instant gratification and online use, less focused on the internals or productivity. The target audience won't necessarily care for the extra work required to achieve the same results like with conventional desktops, as long as it looks pretty.
What a power user would think
The first thing the power user will notice is that he does not have a classic menu, no shortcuts, no place to put his icons, no right-click, nothing really. The power user will feel neutered and frustrated. It funnels down to visual clues, which are little more than bling-bling, but they don't contribute to one's productivity.
Get your minimize and maximize buttons back
Not to worry. Fire up gconf-editor, then edit the following key: desktop > gnome > shell > windows > button_layout. Then, in the right pane, edit the button_layout value to something like :minimize,maximize,close.
Log out of the session, log back in, and you're back to how it ought to be. However, you're still not getting any other functionality you need.
What else? Nothing else. You are starting at a pretty desktop. But you don't need a pretty desktop, or at least, it's secondary in importance. You want to be able to quickly shuffle your programs and keep multiple windows in focus at all times. You must have visual indicators to what your system is running, and there are few of those in Gnome 3.
Totally counterintuitive, inefficient, not really productive, the lack of panels and right-click functionality is a sore, annoying loss. Power users will find the polished, rounded looks nothing more than a costly distraction to their work. Ok, now, let's have a so-called discussion.
Getting things done
You sort of had the two sides of the coin, although I'm sure bias leaked somewhere. Now, let's try to analyze Gnome 3 as a product, an enhancement, a software feature that is designed to transform your experience in some way. In fact, I'd like to focus on productivity, if I may.
When it comes to using your desktop seriously, Gnome 3 becomes problematic. For power users, the simplified interface and the extra cosmetics are actually detrimental to their productivity. Gnome 3 is not intuitive when it comes to working with files and programs and having more than one application in focus.
In fact, let me be blunt.
Your computer is not a smartphone
For example, not having the right click makes sense for casual users, but not for geeks. You don't want the right click on your touch screen, but when you're using your desktop or a laptop, then you do want it. After all, your mouse has a special BUTTON for that.
Netbooks could also benefit from Gnome 3. This kind of interface MIGHT work on small, low-power machines designed for lightweight activities, like mail, browsing, some silly games, but little else.
However, if you want - or must have - tens of windows open and be able to see them at the same time, including say, a text editor, an HTML editor, an image editor, a browser, several folders, and maybe a digital scanner, then having only one visible at a given time is a terrible loss of productivity.
It is called multitasking - and it may be too difficult for the inbred majority of consumers out there, but then, they already have their iPhone and Android, leave the desktop alone to people who actually want to get things done.
On a typical desktop, you can have desktop icons and panel/taskbar shortcuts, which let you start applications in a single mouse click. With Gnome 3, you have none of those, so you have to go to Activities first, then start a relevant program. This doubles the amount of steps you need to do to get things done.
There is no reason to make changes for the sake of change. A good example is the tabs on top phenomenon. Utterly pointless, and yet it seems to be the rage these days. Now, developers are making yet another change that has one purpose - be different, and are spending countless hours justifying their work. Thousands of websites are recycling the same stories, how this or that.
But very few websites address the actual NEED for Gnome 3. Is this kind of thing necessary? The focus on singletasking rather than multitasking; the focus on reducing productivity; the smartphone one-size-fits-all approach.
Now, Linux is trying to make it big. But it cannot make big by changing its looks every few months. Take Windows as an example. The interface has remains the same since around Windows 95. Even today, users can revert to the classic looks and run their product the same way they did in the past.
Mac still lets their users RIGHT-CLICK and get things done. They don't need to do it, but they CAN. They have the ability to minimize and maximize windows. And they enjoy a very beautiful and streamlined work environment, which is also cool, slick, modern, and fun.
Here's my Macbuntu:
Decent and good-looking. Very lovely, built on top of Gnome 2. You don't need more than that to dazzle the crowds. It is a perfect blend of productivity and aesthetics. So why bother with ideas that are just plain wrong?
Now, can you imagine anyone running Gnome 3 in their company? Say, a VNC server. Do you really foresee engineers and software developers connecting to a VNC machine that runs Gnome 3 or any other effects-rich desktop environment? Do you expect companies to start purchasing expensive cards with 3D acceleration for their servers, wasting time and money and CPU cycles on inserting third-party modules into the kernel just to be able to run Gnome 3? What do you think they will prefer - a 2D VGA card or a raging gaming thingie, just so they can compile in Fortran? Gnome 3 is a toy. A beautiful, aesthetic toy. But it is not a productivity item.
Comparison to Unity
I did throw a few hints here and there. Time for a head-on collision. Unity is another product of arcade thinking. It may work on Netbooks, but the decision to use it as the default desktop on Natty is ridiculous, to say nothing of the fact it is not really usable in any sense and requires a powerful graphics card to work, poor people can get stuffed. Still, you get Gnome available, too, so you will be able to switch and get back to work. I don't know what will happen once Wayland is released.
Gnome 3 does not let you fallback to Gnome 2. So you won't have that comfort. Then again, it is hard to tell what will happen once Gnome 3 is released and what kind of fallback Unity will use then, if any. There's a bit of a row between Canonical and Gnome people, each trying to tell us why their choice of the desktop interface is the best.
Now, if I had to use one, which one would I choose? Unity makes more sense, believe it or not, from the usability perspective, although both are far, far from being usable. Gnome 3 does not require a mighty card to run, which is a bonus with anyone using older hardware. Gnome is also more stable and less buggy, at the moment. But given supposedly sane working environments, Unity has a few significant advantages.
First, you have the ribbon visible at all times, so less mouse clicks. Second, you have some indication of your open applications that somewhat resembles a normal desktop. Third, you can actually turn your machine off.
Speaking of being able to turn your machine off ...
I hate this slogan. It is the most racist and condescending piece of crap ever invented by the rich and lazy. Yes, if you live in USA or Europe, then you have running water and electricity, food is available aplenty, you rarely ever worry about dying in some horrible war, you have advanced medicine to assist your pointless eking, and you have broadband.
But 80% of this planet cannot take any of the above for granted. Activities in your Gnome won't help a starving child in Sudan nor reduce the radiation leaks in Fukushima. Get a grip. You don't need to be connected while you're sitting on the crapper. You don't need to be connected when you go for a little hike in the forest. Most of all, you don't need to be connected when fighting for survival.
So how this relates to Gnome 3? Gnome 3 does not have a shutdown button inside the desktop session. You can only suspend your useless porn and microblogging, you cannot turn it off. You are also Available, in case you need to be raped by an invading army.
Gnome 3 is the logical continuation of not caring what you do, where you store your files, how much power you consume by keeping your applications open or never shutting down your computer. Because, let's face it, it is so difficult to concentrate on opening and closing programs, or Gods of the Internets forbid, minimizing the windows. Such a tedious task, when you need to respond to your tweets and your chirps.
Activities - like terror attacks, malaria, famine, genocide, and suchlike. Can you have those in your shell? If you can't, and your entire experience focuses on just using a handful of programs, then we're not talking about any activities.
One size fits all - there is still time
No need to panic, yet.
You may feel that you are being robbed of your intelligence and force-fed the Web 2.0 religion, which means you must be using Failbook, you don't care what you're doing really, just enjoying yourself, music and friends, right. You realize that software developers are desperately trying to make a statement, ignoring facts.
For the vast majority of people, this may hold true. They don't know what Linux is and how it works and what it means. Give them pretty colors and they might use it. They won't be fast, productive, effective, or anything like that. But they will be counted in the market domination statistics.
It is very hard to be impartial when you know you are not one of the herd, you use your machine to get things done and you don't care for oligophrenic trends. There might come a moment where you must switch to Gnome 3. Luckily, that day is still far off. Gnome 3 will be released somewhere toward the end of this year, maybe early 2012, when distros will start embracing it. Hopefully not, but you can't stop the herd.
Meanwhile, current versions of RHEL and SLES ship with normal Gnome, so there's support for RHEL6 until 2017 and SLES11 until 2019 or so. If you opt for Scientific Linux or CentOS, which use Gnome 2.X, you can continue enjoying the normal looks for at least five or six more years. Ubuntu Lucid is a long-term release, so it will be supported until 2013.
So you have somewhere between two and six years to decide whether you want the new Gnome and look for alternatives, in case you find it inadequate for your needs.
And there's hope, too!
Let me tone down my doomsday message a little. First, anything can change, and probably will. Gnome 3 may reach unprecedented levels of quality and usability. Moreover, Linux Mint developers have rumored they will use Gnome 3 as a basis for their future work. Given their current success with modifying Ubuntu releases, it is fair to assume they will not follow the mainstream nonsense and focus on practicality and beauty, as they did so far. Thus, there's hope. But for now, it's a big unknown. And therefore, I must end on a somber note.
I believe Gnome 2.X will be the last version of Gnome I will be using, at least based on my current findings, but hey, anything can change. And despite major progress with KDE, I'm not looking forward to the inevitable switch down the road, should the jab come to stab.
Gnome 3 is very pretty. It's slick and modern. It works well, too. It could sway the Windows and Mac users over into the Linux fold. But let's forget ideology for a moment. I want to get things done. I don't really care what kernel I'm running or what flavor of code was used to weave the experience for me. I repeat, I want to get things done. Period.
The by-product of Gnome 3 could be more investment in Linux, more games, more software, hopefully new and exciting products that we can't even imagine today. It might happen, although I doubt it will happen any time soon or in large numbers. However, I refuse to be the manure used to fertilize the market fields. I don't want to be the scapegoat for the future generations of Linux. I want to be left in peace and allowed to use my computer without interruptions, including but not limited to new GUI every three months, new regressions in software, new and wicked surprises.
I am not a child. My computer is not a toy. It's a serious tool. I can't have my tool remodeled and reshaped every six months. I use my software for complex tasks that require stability and predictability. Taking away those renders everything meaningless.
Now, if Linux desktop cannot promise that, then I won't be using it, plain and simple. Free does not mean developers can play silly with my soul. I'm not saying ditching Linux, because in the business environment, with no GUI running, things are calm and logical. But at home, well, who would have thought I'd seek solace in the conservative familiarity of Windows.
For me, Gnome 3 is a great disappointment - in people. There will always be alternatives, yes, I don't want to be the permanent refugee, wandering from one distro to another, from one desktop to another. I want stability. I want a rock-solid baseline.
Don't mistake conservative for inefficient. I just want my efficiency. Can you promise that? If not, then we shall have to part ways. Unfortunately, Gnome 3 does not have what it takes to be my desktop. And so we say goodbye. For now. Linux Mint, let's hope you can deliver. Like Princess Leia says: Help me, Linux Mint, you're my only hope. Stay tuned for updates.