GNOME Proves It Can Listen

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Nov 21, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

With one announcement, suddenly the prospects for the free desktop have changed.

I'm referring, of course, to Matthias Clasen's announcement that, having dropped fallback mode, GNOME will support a core of extensions that will recreate the GNOME 2 interface.

This announcement marks a major reversal of GNOME's policy. For the past two years, the project has officially defended the radical redesign introduced by GNOME 3, making few -- if any -- acknowledgments of users' complaints.

In fact, eighteen months ago, influential members of GNOME were arguing against encouraging extensions for GNOME Shell at all. For instance, Allan Day, one of the leading designers of the GNOME 3, wrote in a discussion on the gnome-shell list:

"Facilitating the unrestricted use of extensions and themes by end users seems contrary to the central tenets of the GNOME 3 design. We've fought long and hard to give GNOME 3 a consistent visual appearance, to make it synonymous with a single user experience and to ensure that that experience is of a consistently high quality. A general purpose extensions and themes distribution system seems to threaten much of that."

In particular, Day argued that the panel be protected against extensions, calling it "vital for giving GNOME 3 a distinctive visual appearance. If we do have extensions, I would very much like to see the top bar made out of bounds for extension writers, therefore. We have to have at least *something* that remains consistent."

At the very least, Day advocated extensions being labeled as experimental, to make sure that nobody mistook them for an official part of GNOME.

Nor was Day the only one. Another developer worried, for example, that extensions would lead to fragmentation of the GNOME.

Despite such reservations, the GNOME Shell Extension site  was launched around the same time as the discussion. However, until recently, it remained low-key, and GNOME continued to do little to address user complaints -- signs that suggest that the views of designers like Day prevailed in the project.

I may be reading too much into the circumstantial evidence, but, from Clasen's announcement, it appears that a quiet palace revolution has been taking place in GNOME -- if not since GUADEC, when change in the project was first discussed, then at least since the GNOME Boston Summit in October. 

"While certainly hope that many users will find the new ways comfortable and refreshing after a short learning phase," Clasen writes, "we should not fault people who prefer the old way. After all, these features were a selling point of GNOME 2 for ten years!" 

From this conciliatory tone, it sounds as though GNOME is now doing what it was reluctant to do eighteen months ago. 

Meanwhile, Day is no longer talking about branding and keeping the design vision intact, but blogging that the user experience "isn’t just about the Activities Overview or System Settings" and focusing on application design instead. He says he supports extensions and themes, and claims that the above use of his comments was taken out of context.

Still, to all appearances, a reversal of GNOME's direction does seem to have occurred, and seems likely to create problems of its own. In particular, GNOME will have to make extra efforts to ensure that changes to core code don't break the official core extensions.

All the same, having criticized GNOME loudly and frequently for refusing to listen to user complaints, I have to applaude this long overdue outburst of common sense. Not only is GNOME making provisions for those who prefer GNOME 2, but it is doing so with a graceful compromise that saves face for everybody. 

The ripple effect
Clasen's announcement may or may not mark a change of influence and atmosphere within the GNOME project. However, the effects outside the project may be of even greater magnitude.
Over the last year, dis-satisfaction with GNOME 3 has created a diversity of choices on the desktop.  Alternatives like Xfce and LXDE have found a new popularity. So has Linux Mint, with Mate, its fork of GNOME 2, and Cinnamon, a series of extensions that recreate GNOME 2 on top of GNOME 3.

The question now is: will this diversity continue once the reason for it no longer exists? How many users return to GNOME now that it offers what they want?

If KDE's recovery from its own user revolt is used as an analogy, then I might be tempted to suggest that in another couple of years GNOME should be able to regain its former dominance of the free desktop. Possibly, it might lose a few percent of users, but it might be predicted to have approximately a third of the desktop.

However, the two user revolts are probably less similar than they might first appear. Unlike GNOME, KDE addressed user complaints a few months after they were made. Moreover, the complaints about KDE 4 had more to do with a lack of features rather than a revised work flow, and KDE showed by its systematic approach to restoring those features that it had always intended to do so. For these reasons, KDE's experience is probably not a useful comparison.

No doubt, some users will return to GNOME, prefering to rely on an established and once large brand. But whether the returnees will be numerous enough to send alternatives like Linux Mint or Xfce into a decline is another matter. Having settled on one re-creation of GNOME 2, many could see no reason for moving to another one, especially if the move offers no significant differences.

Chances are, too, that, having learned to distrust GNOME, some users will not be easily won back. At the very least, it will take time -- and, most likely, a few killer features -- to lure large numbers of users back to GNOME.

This uncertainty promises to make the next year or two on the free desktop interesting to watch. 

But for now, the take-away is that GNOME has proved that it can listen to users. Never mind that the project should have done so months ago. The software programmers-turned-diplomats who orchestrated the reversal have chosen to do a difficult thing, but it seems the right one for both users and the GNOME project itself.


  • Gnome is back to two

    Not before time!

    I know it's difficult, but actually once folk out here are using your creation, and remember to most of us our machine is just a tool not an end in itself, we don't want it to change on a whim so we have to re-learn how to use it.

    I've always thought that was a Micro$oft trait, and been really glad they don't sell hammers and screwdrivers or carpenters would have to go on a course to learn how to use every new one they bought!

    I've stuck with Gnome (on Ubuntu) but had to spend time and energy getting it back to something approximating to Gnome2 and hopefully there are plenty more out there who will just head right on back to the fold now we know it's safe.....
  • Too late, too late

    .. Specifically, 18 months too late. Seems like a classic Ivory Tower, doesn't it?
  • Pantheon Shell

    eOS Luna is coming along nicely now. Pantheon is faster than Unity and Gnome 3 shell, cleaner and lighter, but with plenty of visual appeal.
  • Gnome 3

    Too Little Too Late.

    With Cinnamon and Mate leading the way, who wants to wait and see what sort of waffling the Gnome 3 crowd will come up with next.

    Fool me once, shame on me, tell me I'm too stupid to know what I want/need in a desktop and I'll go elsewhere.

    In other words, couldn't care less what the Helen Keller crowd of Gnome 3 folks will do next.
  • Returning to Gnome 2 ???

    Proof will be in the puddin'......... One can only hope hierarchies will listen more and dictate less.

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