This article is reprinted from.
Your future is all used up. -- Marlene Dietrich speaking to Orson Welles in Touch of Evil
Almost exactly one year ago, GNOME 3 was released with much fanfare. But to the surprise of many, it was not warmly welcomed. Indeed, it has polarized the Linux community, mainly because it was such a radical departure from the familiar and popular GNOME 2. Although some praised the new interface, it seemed that many more geeks were not impressed, leading to a rather bitter war of words on various online community forums.
The main reason for all the controversy was that GNOME 3 boasted a much "cleaner" interface. By "clean," I mean that the desktop was far less cluttered. Visible menus and icons were far fewer than in GNOME 2, but the trade-off was that to access all the features of GNOME 3 it was necessary to use various esoteric keyboard combinations, including CTRL, ALT, SHIFT and even the previously-unused Windows key. In addition, right-mouse clicks and "hot corners" are crucial to making GNOME 3 functional. Many users feel that GNOME 3 is less intuitive than GNOME 2, and that productivity may suffer as a result.
The reasoning behind all this was to save screen real estate so that GNOME 3 could be run on the new generation of small-sized portable devices such as netbooks, tablets, and smart phones. With hot competition from Apple, Google and (to a lesser extent) Microsoft, GNOME developers decided that Linux could not afford to be left behind. If portability is the future, then GNOME must adapt.
Another way to view the situation: GNOME 2 was "desktop-centric" while GNOME 3 is "application-centric." That is to say, when you're in GNOME 3, the application takes over the screen and the rest of the desktop basically disappears. That can be a useful feature when screen real estate is scarce, but it makes it harder to get an overview of the many other important functions that a desktop computer can perform.
The previous solution to this dilemma was to simply run two totally different Linux interfaces: one interface for a desktop computer (i.e. GNOME 2) and something else (i.e. Android) for a portable device. By trying to be both, GNOME 3 may be guilty of overreach, trying to do too many things at once. The result is a compromise that satisfies no one. One of the critics of this approach includes Linus Torvalds, who wrote to GNOME developers in a now: "I want my sane interfaces back. I have yet to meet anybody who likes the unholy mess that is GNOME_3!"
Seeing the lack of love being heaped on GNOME 3, several projects were born to preserve GNOME 2. Examples include MATÉ (a GNOME 2 fork by Argentine hacker Perberos), Cinnamon (GNOME 3 extensions to make it resemble GNOME 2), and Ubuntu's Unity which ditches GNOME altogether.
GNOME 4 - the Swiss Army knife
Despite the backlash, not everyone agrees that GNOME 3 was overambitious. Indeed, one experienced GNOME developer assured me that the opposite was true. "The real problem with GNOME 3," he said, "is that it wasn't ambitious enough. We made too many compromises to suit desktop users. In fact, computers that do useful work are so 20th century - we've moved on."
Thus, rather than compromise with GNOME 4, developers have doubled-down. While GNOME 3 sought to bridge the gap between desktop and portable devices, GNOME 4 goes one step further - it's meant to power ALL computing devices, even those which don't have a keyboard, mouse or screen. As such, it offers a refreshing break from the rigid, specialized operating systems of the past. Thus, we have one interface which can run anywhere. Think of it as a Swiss Army knife - one device that does everything, none of them well.
No doubt that after its final release, GNOME 4 will be bundled as the default desktop in many distros. For the beta version that I tested, you've got to download and install it as a separate package which you can find on SourceForge. As an Ubuntu user, I had to install GNOME 4 from a DEB file, but RPM packages are also available. After installing, I did a reboot and then, at the login screen, selected GNOME 4 as my desktop manager. I was soon greeted by the cheerful GNOME 4 default screen which, I can confidentially say, has the cleanest interface I've ever seen on my monitor except when it's turned off.
One glance at the following screenshot and I think that all will agree that the GNOME developers have really outdone themselves this time. It's obvious that they've given the whole "desktop" metaphor a complete rethink. Gone are menus, icons, task bars, minimize and maximize buttons, the archaic Start button, wallpapers or even a command prompt. Rather, we are presented with a pleasant default blue screen (note that the color is non-configurable). It is the bold simplicity of this approach that makes GNOME 4 so powerful.
The great advantage of this uncluttered screen design is that it allows GNOME 4 to be configured for numerous devices besides desktop computers, tablets or cell phones. For example, developers have already ported GNOME 4 to other useful devices such GPSs, headless servers, digital rectal thermometers, water meters, garage door openers and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Thus, the official GNOME 4 motto is "One interface, run anywhere!" Advocates for disability rights are particularly enthused by GNOME 4, believing that it could be the first GUI system that puts seeing and totally blind users on an equal footing.
Although newbies might at first be put off by the seemingly blank GNOME 4 screen, more experienced users should have no trouble learning the simple keystroke combinations that allow one access to thousands of powerful Linux applications. For example, if you want to start Firefox, Chrome, or any other web browser, all you've got to do is hold down the CTRL-ALT-F12-SysReq-Scroll_Lock keys simultaneously while typing "browser", which will pop up a menu displaying all the browsers currently available on your system, inviting you to choose one by hitting ESC and typing the browser's name. If you want to start an editor, just do the same key combination and type "editor." What could be simpler?
Actually, I need to backtrack and point out in the above example that I am talking about the left CTRL-ALT keys. In GNOME 4, the left and right CTRL-ALT and Windows keys serve different functions. In fact, if you use the right keys in the CTRL-ALT-F12-SysReq-Scroll_Lock example, rather than start your browser you will instead take a screenshot. And instead of hitting ESC, if you hit the TAB key, your machine will automatically burn a CD. Now all this might at first sound complicated, but I'm happy to report that after a few dozen attempts, I got the hang of it. The learning curve of GNOME 4 is short and sweet, and in no time at all you'll be able to start applications, print and even connect to the Internet. Everything you need to do on your computer is no more than a few hundred key strokes away.
Shutting down can be a bit tricky. As yet, there is no icon, menu or keystroke combination to turn off the machine. However, this does not mean that shutting down is difficult. Indeed, on a desktop computer, all you need to shut down is pull out the power cord from the wall socket. Sadly, the on/off button is disabled in GNOME 4, but the good news is that the developers have promised to add this feature to GNOME 5. Meanwhile, if you're running GNOME 4 on a portable device with a battery (i.e. laptop, netbook, tablet or smart phone), pulling out the power cord (if any) won't shut down, so you'll have to remove the battery as well, though in most cases this is pretty easy. If using an iPad or similar device (where the battery is internal and cannot be removed by the user), you must return the device to the manufacturer to shut it off.
Naysayers be damned, full speed ahead!
One of the first and most surprising issues to pop up soon after the first preview of the GNOME 4 desktop was made available came in the form of a Cease and Desist letter from Microsoft's lawyers. "The design of the GNOME 4 default screen bears an uncanny resemblance to a patented design that Microsoft has used since at least 1995," the letter stated. "Microsoft will vigorously defend its intellectual property against infringement." Attached was a photo showing the patented design that was the default desktop from Windows 95 on through XP:
Starting from Windows Vista, the default screen was changed to simply read: "STOP 0x0000007B INACCESSABLE_BOOT_DEVICE" or something similar. Thankfully, the new screen is no longer blue.
The letter did set off a bit of a panic among GNOME developers. However, after volunteer attorneys working for the Free Software Foundation did some fact checking, it was determined that the patent in question was indeed granted in 1995. Since patents are granted for 20 years - and given the pace of GNOME development - the relevant patent is expected to expire before the final GNOME 4 release.
Criticism from Microsoft is perhaps to be expected. However, as a devout Linux geek I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that there are some in the free and open-source community who have also harshly criticized GNOME 4, even at this early stage of development. Although one would think that advocates of free software ("free" as in "freedom") would embrace change, the fact is that there are many computer users who are quite conservative and resist pointless change. Among the troglodytes is Linus Torvalds (again!), who made the following post in a heated Google+ discussion: "I just tried GNOME 4, and all I can say is 'WTF?' I mean, 'WTFF?'"
Also among the whiners is a mysterious Australian coder called Sorebrep, who has immediately begun work on a fork of GNOME 3 which he has named MATÉY. Although his declaration to preserve all the goodness of GNOME 3 has won widespread praise in various online forums, this approach is actually quite risky and is unlikely to succeed in the long term. The problem is that the GNOME 3 and 4 GTK+ libraries have the same names but are incompatible, so this will almost certainly lead to naming conflicts, resulting in dependency errors, lock-ups, crashes and other instabilities. Trying to maintain both the GTK+ 3 and GTK+ 4 libraries on the same machine would be a nightmare and is likely to prove futile - it is far too big a job for a single unpaid hacker.
For this reason, developer Clement Lefebvre (of Linux Mint fame) is resigned to the inevitability of GNOME 4, but plans to work around it. "We need to listen to our users," Clem wrote in the Mint forum, "and what our users are telling us is that they want GNOME 3. But since they can't have that, I intend to give them the next best thing - I'm beginning work on Nutmeg, which is basically a set of extensions to the GNOME 4 shell so that it appears almost identical to GNOME 3." Almost immediately after the announcement, the DistroWatch page hits for Linux Mint doubled - since Mint was already at number 1 in the page hit rankings, we may have to invent a new category, possibly number zero, but it hasn't been decided.
Despite the initial burst of enthusiasm for Nutmeg, another of the perennial dissidents, Mark Shuttleworth, remains unconvinced that any version of GNOME really represents the future direction of the Linux desktop. "Although I respect what the GNOME developers are trying to do, their coding base is a mess," Mark blogged. "Therefore, we will not be including GNOME 4 in the current or any future releases of Ubuntu. However, I am pleased to announce today that we are beginning work on the greatest desktop environment ever, which we have named Inanity. Our plan now is to have Inanity ready to be the default desktop for Ubuntu 12.10, and with luck it should be stable within the next five years."
At the present time, Inanity is not available for download, and reviewing it is beyond the scope of today's article. However, you can rest assured that I will have more to say about this promising project in the near future.
Linux is all about choice. With GNOME 4, MATÉY, Nutmeg and Inanity, we in the open source community are spoiled for choice! Personally, I'm very excited to see this competition for the hearts and minds of Linux desktop users... not to mention users of water coolers, refrigerators, sewing machines and hair dryers. Thanks to the highly flexible and intuitive interface of GNOME 4, I don't doubt for a minute that at long last we will see Linux running on every consumer appliance on the market. Users of closed-source operating systems like Windows and Mac OS X will be green with envy as we run LibreOffice or Firefox on a microwave oven or electric can opener!
So watch out world! Without a doubt, 2012 will be the year of the Linux desktop!