September 11, 2009 by Noah
Update: I've posted a sequel where I ran an experiment in a virtual machine to see just how bad it is.

Half a year ago the roadmap for GNOME 3.0 was announced, and it involves a new window manager called GNOME Shell. They plan to have GNOME 3.0 ready for public consumption in 2010, around the release of Fedora 13. I tested the GNOME Shell back then and it was awful; since then, it hasn't improved a lot, either. And I'm not optimistic about where it's headed; I think GNOME 3.0 is going to be a terrible, terrible mistake.

If you aren't aware, GNOME is a desktop environment for Unix, and is the default desktop environment for both Fedora and Ubuntu. The other major desktop environments are KDE and Xfce.

GNOME has been said to resemble Windows 98 - true, its default theme is pretty gray and boring, but GNOME is flexible enough that it can be made to look just like OS X or Vista or anything else.

The KDE desktop environment looks an awful lot like Windows as well. KDE jumped from versions 3.x up to 4.0 about a year ago, and KDE 4.0 looks a lot like Windows 7. But on the whole, the desktop still looks and acts the same; KDE's version jump was a natural evolution of its desktop, not a complete change to something completely new and unfamiliar.

GNOME, not wanting to be 1-upped by KDE's version jump, decided they'd bump GNOME 2.x up to version 3.0 -- and entirely redefine the desktop metaphor while they're at it. GNOME 3.0 with its GNOME Shell has almost nothing at all in common with GNOME 2.x.

Here is a relatively recent article about GNOME Shell, so you can take a look.

But that's not why I dislike it. I just thought I'd give some background first. This is why I dislike it:

GNOME Shell requires 3D hardware acceleration. What? Let's compare the current desktop environments: Xfce 4.6 and older, KDE 3.x and older, KDE 4.0, and GNOME 2.x and older... all of these desktops can be run on bare minimal video hardware. You know how Windows Vista, and Windows 7, have "Basic" themes? If you run Vista or 7 on a computer that either doesn't have a kickass video card, or you simply just don't have the drivers installed yet, you get to use the "Windows Basic" theme. Windows has a fall-back to Aero.

But GNOME 3.0 will have NO such fallback. If your video card sucks, or you don't have the drivers, you can't use GNOME 3.0 at all. What will you see? You'll see the X11 server crash and leave you at a text-mode prompt. You will have NO graphical user interface at all; you'll be stuck in text-only mode, because your video card must be kickass for GNOME Shell to load.

Most people have ATI or Nvidia cards, you say? Well, it's well known that ATI and Nvidia have proprietary, closed-source drivers; the companies simply refuse to open up their video drivers as free software. And because Linux is a free and open source operating system released under the GNU General Public License, Linux isn't legally allowed to include ATI or Nvidia drivers "out-of-the-box."

So, when you pop in your Ubuntu or Fedora CD to install it on your computer, the installed operating system can not legally contain Nvidia or ATI drivers. Without the drivers, your video card can't do 3D acceleration. If you were on Windows Vista or 7, you would see the Windows Basic theme; if you're on Linux with GNOME 3.0, you'll see NOTHING! You'll be at a text-mode login prompt, and when you log in, you'll be at a text-mode bash prompt. No graphics, no windows, nothing but text.

This wouldn't be the end of the world for me personally, but then again I know a great deal about Linux. I would be able to install third-party software repositories and install the Nvidia or ATI drivers all at the command line; or at least I would know how to install an alternate desktop environment such as Xfce so that I could get a GUI and then fix the video problem manually. But the average user, or newbie to Linux? They'll be stuck.

I'm curious to see how Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) is going to deal with this. Are they going to stick it out with GNOME 2.x and ignore GNOME 3.0? I imagine that's quite a likely scenario. Because consider this:

Ubuntu is known as the newbie-friendly Linux distro. It's the easiest one to get set up and running, it's easy to use, and when you log in for the first time it even asks you if you'd like to install some proprietary hardware drivers. Ubuntu can't legally install these automatically but it makes it easy for the user to install them afterward.

What if Ubuntu upgrades to GNOME 3.0, a new user installs it on their computer, and the new user can't even get the desktop to load? They have an ATI card and they don't have the drivers installed, and therefore GNOME 3.0 absolutely will not start because it absolutely requires hardware acceleration. They're a complete newbie to Linux, they know nothing about the command line, but they're stuck at a text-mode prompt. Know what they'll do? They'll switch back to Windows and never be fooled again when somebody wants them to give Linux a try!

Of smaller importance, by reinventing the wheel, the GNOME developers are basically starting over from scratch almost. This means that some of the more complicated problems that the GNOME dev team have tackled in the past may come back. Dual monitor support, for example. The jump to 3.0 is quite likely going to be a large step backwards for the GNOME desktop environment.

I am not a fan of where GNOME is heading. And if the GNOME dev team end up fscking this all up in the end, I'll just be forced to use a different desktop environment. Although, I really don't want to have to resort to that...

I love GNOME 2.x. I can not stand KDE. KDE is just completely annoying to use. Xfce isn't too bad; it shares a lot in common with GNOME (they both use the GTK+ GUI toolkit)... but Xfce feels far behind GNOME 2.x - it feels clunky and old-school, and it lacks certain features that GNOME 2 has, such as integrated dual monitor support; for dual monitors in Xfce you'll have to resort to Nvidia's config tool (if you have an Nvidia card), otherwise you're screwed.

Xfce still has a year to get better, and GNOME 3 still has a year to not completely suck in the end. If GNOME 3 sucks and Xfce is still so clunky, I may even just be forced to abandon the Linux desktop altogether and go back to Windows. :(

Take a lesson from Windows (and literally every single desktop environment in Linux), GNOME 3.0 - don't make 3D acceleration an absolute requirement, and include a fallback version for basic video drivers. Otherwise a really good chunk of your user base will move on to other desktops, or move back to Windows. And if you keep this up, Canonical and Red Hat may even just have to drop you completely as their default desktop environments in their distros, for making life too complicated for the end users.



There are 16 comments on this page. Add yours.

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Cornwall posted on October 12, 2009 @ 05:00 UTC

The Gnome shell is an incredibly stupid idea. This will be what pushes me to use KDE once it's released

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Bob posted on October 23, 2009 @ 16:09 UTC

I completely agree. If and when Gnome 2 entirely disappears from my distros, I plan to switch to Xfce. (Hopefully Xfce will have a decent menu editor by then.)

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Michael posted on October 24, 2009 @ 10:57 UTC

I think the obvious solution will be to package both gnome-shell and gnome-panel, and enable gnome-shell in the appearance config like how compiz is enabled now.

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Tony Lovasco posted on October 29, 2009 @ 22:05 UTC

Michael: that's probably the best solution I've heard so far on this whole mess. I'd love gnome-shell as an option, but as the default? No way!

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Christoph posted on November 6, 2009 @ 14:54 UTC

Time goes on. Things develop, change an all this sort of stuff. Even the cheapest netbook has 3d-accel. drivers will come up, as they did up to now.

i also guess gnome 2.x won't die immediately. and there are other choices: xfce and the like.

it's importand to look for new desktop-experiences, since the ones we have now are more than 20 years old.

and it's just not enough for linux to only immitate those big systems and getting compared to them all the time...linux is grown up now!

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Adam posted on November 6, 2009 @ 23:57 UTC

I am running Gnome shell and don't have proprietary drivers installed. in fact i can't even use them because my ATI card is no longer supported by ATI for linux. it runs smooth and has very few glitches. i actually like the gnome shell it's the first desktop i've seen that implements the use of multiple desktops into the interface making them easy to use

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Knut posted on November 7, 2009 @ 09:25 UTC

I just discovered Gnome shell, and I must say I love the way it works. I'm accustom to using exposè on the Mac, and introduced it to my girlfriend. She is not very computer literate, but loves it. I find gnome shell to be exposè + more, packed in a absolutely lovely combination that really adds to my Linux experience.

I suspect - please note this is just a theory - that most people would prefer Gnome shell and will be capable of running it. I think it should be default in Gnome 3.0 if this is true. People with strong computer preferences will be able to turn it off rather than on (:

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Noah (@kirsle) posted on November 18, 2009 @ 00:39 UTC

I think at the very least, GNOME 3.0 should try to detect video performance before making Shell be the default window manager; and fall back to the classic gnome-panel if it fails.

This is like how, currently in Ubuntu, it will enable the desktop effects as a default but when you install it in an environment that doesn't have good video performance (e.g. a virtual machine), it still works, it just automatically turns off the desktop effects.

Windows Vista and 7 do this too; they give you the Basic theme as a default if your video card can't support Aero. But from the talks I've heard about GNOME Shell from their mailing list, they aren't interested in any kind of a fall-back.

The gnome-panel will stick around for at least a couple version releases (but probably not more than a year), but eventually GNOME Shell will be the only game in town. And anyway, gnome-panel will probably require an extra yum/apt-get installation even while it's still alive in the meantime, and users may still hit a rough spot when they freshly install Ubuntu and their GNOME Shell won't work.

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Alex Sarmiento posted on April 5, 2010 @ 00:56 UTC

Ill keep stick in kde!!! gnome is a looser

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rnojonson posted on April 25, 2010 @ 13:33 UTC

Gnome Shell is fine. If it is to become a standard feature you should be able to select it in the session manager or not when you log in, and be done with it.

Then there should be a simple theme changing mechanism. The side panel should have a hot spot like for Activities. And perhaps a second side panel for something like Conky.

I used KDE (confusing and cluttered), always came home to Gnome. I like XFCE and E17 looks very cool.

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Scared user posted on June 21, 2010 @ 04:05 UTC

KDE isn't a viable desktop for a business environment (anymore). It can't even do multi-monitor outside of nvidia twin view. That little problem is on not on their wont fix list, its on their WE DONT KNOW HOW TO FIX list. W-T-F. If Gnome goes to hell, its finally done for Linux. All the crap thats been said about Linux over the years is finally coming true.

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Baldemar Huerta posted on July 14, 2010 @ 04:21 UTC

Just like Obama. Change for the sake of change, and not for the better.

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Anonymous posted on July 23, 2010 @ 20:27 UTC

You guys do know that gnome-shell is a default for 3.0.0, but is not required, right?

You can keep running your normal 2.x-style panel and window manager just fine. Nobody's taking that away.

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Noah (@kirsle) posted on July 23, 2010 @ 20:29 UTC

gnome-panel in 3.0 is as good as deprecated; they've been talking about that since the beginning. Which means the gnome-panel might stick around maybe up until gnome 3.4 (one year or so) and then will be gone for good.

Unless they've changed their mind on that; this is just what I saw on their mailing lists earlier on in development.

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Sam DeRenzis posted on October 16, 2010 @ 10:54 UTC

Gnome Shell spells doom for Ubuntu, they'll need to switch to XFCE because Gnome-Shell isn't anywhere near as useful as Compiz and Gnome 2 together =p Sorry to burst your idiotic bubbles! All the Gnome team is doing is recreating their version of Compiz to look cool.

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Russ posted on November 17, 2010 @ 17:00 UTC

I hate not having my icons on my panels, E17 Enlightenment just made Beta 2. It is awesome, and I know where I am going, goodbye gnome.

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