08 March 2012

On Zombies and Desktops

I know Bruce Byfield as a good journalist, when I see an article is written by him I usually make the time, read it and most of the time agree with it (not 100%, I am a human, not a sheep). I think I even quoted his articles as good examples on occasion. This is why I am surprised to see such a bad piece, where he is wrong on all accounts, maybe because the article titled The GNOME 2 Zombie addresses a topic I happen to know some, I am able to judge better the text quality?

Anyway, that is yet another piece about the GNOME debate, this time with a new angle: GNOME 2 is dead and buried, still its users want it alive, as Bruce says, a zombie. Then the author tries to investigate why some people like the GNOME 2 interface and makes the effort to demolish all their arguments. And, in my opinion, he utterly fails. He identifies 7 sins about he argues are capital and should make people hate GNOME 2 instead of loving it. Here it goes:

Tools No One Wants to Use

Here are a number of examples: Epiphany, Evolution, Abiword and Gnumeric, which are GNOME applications, he say, included by default by some distros, he says, and used/wanted by virtually nobody, he says. Where should I begin? OK, the first thing that struck me was Bruce saying "For instance, Epiphany is a Mozilla-based browser with fewer features than Firefox" which shows how little research was made before writing this - Epiphany changed from Gecko to WebKit years ago, if the rest is equally researched should I continue reading? I read, since I trust Bruce.

I use Fedora and Epiphany was never a default, the distro always had Firefox as the default (many others did the same), still I kept Epiphany as a backup browser, along with Seamonkey: useful when you need multiple profiles on the same website at the same time. Evolution? I always preferred Thunderbird, but I know plenty of people using Evolution, which is more integrated. As for Abiword or Gnumeric, when they were a default this happened on the live CD, where there was just not enough space for a full OpenOffice.org/LibreOffice.

And, last, I suspect Epiphany and Evolution are defaults in GNOME 3 too, so what's the point?

The Applications / Places / System Menu

This is a diatribe against the menu system "GNOME 2's three-part menu might be called its main identifying feature. No installation is without it. Yet, for all its omnipresence, it's irritating to use." It is pretty much a personal opinion and one made by an author who started by acknowledging he is a full time user of a different desktop environment, KDE, so biased. What can I say here? Of course other people, those who prefer GNOME 2 thins it is an easy to use feature, not an irritating one. For me, using it is a reflex.

The Classic Menu

Another diatribe, this time against the Applications menu "An extreme example of this problem is the infamous Debian menu, which may list everything installed on the system, but also goes at least five levels deep." A sane distro and an average install won't have something close to that. Yes, sometime I may have to vertically scroll the menu on the small display of my netbook, but I found this preferable to the small and fixed-sized start menu in Windows 7 or KDE, where you have to flip page after page before reaching what you need.

The Stagnation of Applets

This time he start by being right, in the last GNOME 2 iterations, applets became less and less useful. What Bruce misses is this was a deliberate move of the GNOME 3 developers for the transition, so if there is something at fault, is not GNOME 2, but GNOME 3. Users will definitely prefer the applets in GNOME 2.28 rather 2.32.

As a reminder of the bias, we are served a comparison with the KDE widgets. Thank you, we were aware about that :)

Controlling the desktop from the file manager

The author find awkward to control the behaviour of the desktop (icons, trash, external media) from the file manager, preferring a separate System menu item (after he complained in the previous items about the menus' length). And he wonders "Exactly why the arrangement made sense to developers in the early years of the millennium has never been clear to me." I guess it make sense to have them this way when you have checked the option to use the file manager to handle the desktop. And is not like to change this setting multiple times a day. Is something minor.

Useless Default Icons

Having the Computer and Home icons on the desktop are not the fault of the GNOME desktop, is getting users what they are used to have since... Window 95. And it does not takes more than a couple of clicks in TweakUI to remove them. This issue is filler, totally minor, put here just to increase the sins count to 7. Myself, I removed the Computer icon from the desktop but still have Home, is one click faster than going to Places.

Over-Simplified Designs

This starts with the strawman of Linux Torvalds criticising GNOME 2 for lack of features years ago (after which Linus moved to use GNOME himself, after which he moved to the even lighter Xfce) and then goes to compare applications from GNOME and KDE and find GNOME apps missing features. This is yet another strawman: if an app is light in features in GNOME 2, it will be light on features on GNOME 3, so is not a reason not to miss GNOME 2 in GNOME 3.

There are a few examples, I will pick one: Brasero versus K3B and at first I will agree, K3B has many more features than the default GNOME solution, years ago I used myself K3B as the CD burner on my GNOME desktop, but since those years I didn't feel the need... a feature I have not used in 3-4 years I would call unimportant. And if I need the advanced functionality, I can just install the app - this is what I do for video editing, not happy with the GTK+ alternatives, my video editor of choice is Kdenlive, I may not enjoy the sight of QT widgets, but is more important to get the job done.

As for the conclusion... I don't understand what is the conclusion: GNOME 2 is dead and won't come back, GNOME 3 sucks due to its wrong design decision, forks as Cinnamon are weak and not long term solution, then... what to do? Probably move to Xfce or KDE, but Bruce forgot about this as a final conclusion.

As for the comments, there surely are people attacking the author for unknowingly criticise a desktop that he's not using himself, people appreciating the GNOME 2 menus and applets, people who notice some of the flaws in argumentation I mentioned before, but I find the most insightful what the reader Andy says: "You have focussed on small issues, ignoring the Big Picture. People are trying to keep hold on the Icons On Desktop metaphor, with Overlapping Windows, minimise/maximise etc. That's what there's a curious and unwanted shift away from recently, with Unity, Gnome 3 and Win 8 - and we don't like it!"


  1. +100 from me. Some more-or-less consenting comments:
    * Gnome2/XFCE menu is really useful. If you have sane number of apps, finding one there is easy as pie -- you want to fire up movie player, so you go to media and here you are. Compared to Gnome 3... Or Windows 7 where finding libreoffice is next to impossible unless you use keyboard (and search-by-type) :-D

    * I don't care about icons on desktop though -- I don't use desktop for any other purpose than space to place windows on :D Home icon, device icons -- all in places menu which is visible even with maximized windows. And shortcuts to the most used apps in bottom panel.

    * I cannot live with the concept window = task, because it does not hold true for my workflow, hence I need to pile up windows side by side, above themselves, ... And sort by virtual desktops. Cannot be done with Gnome 3.

    * And as for mail client... well I'm a little bit like linus with desktops here :D Started with thunderbird, until some odd bug driven me to evolution, which I started to like, but around the time of Gnome 3 arrival, I switched again to claws mail. And I'm really happy with that.

    * And web browser? Midori and Google Chrome as backup. Firefox only for those rare cases where java plugin blows up in webkit. And to be fair, I grew to dislike firefox, even on windows I prefer to use google chrome if available.

    1. I *never* maximize my windows when using the desktop PC, not even when just browsing (however, I maximize when using the netbook, which has a very small display), so I can click on icons.
      Well, there is an exception: full screen when watching movies or playing games, but that's an entirely different use case :)

    2. * I think that is the case of getting used to his/her own mess. On Gnome shell, you can select your favourite applications and assign them to the left dock. Same on Windows 7 when you assign your favourite program on the top menu. Old menu from Gnome is available via extension.

      * Extension is available for bottom panel on Gnome shell.

      * Speaking about windows, grab gTiles extension from extensions.gnome.org where you resize the window of your application to improve your production.

      Gnome shell is the Firefox of desktop environment with extensible core features. 130 extensions and growing are available to try out.

    3. you know a Firefox comparison is not a flattering one: Firefox has became a pig, with huge resources usage, lacking features users expect to be there by default, having the design principle "copy everything Chrome" and losing market share and user minds to Chrome every day.

  2. I think there is some confusion between "gnome3" and the "gnome shell".
    What we all hate is the "gnome3 shell", while the "gnome3" "fallback mode" is still mostly usable and can be made identical to che Gnome2 desktop. Which includes the applets, the colours and the general behaviour (Please note that gnome-applets are not installed by default, but they are still available as a separate package).
    See "Gnome Shell? Not just yet, thanks." for references.

    Stuff that leverages or forks the shell is not the way to go on my opinion.
    Our best chance to conserve a decent gnome experience is to help with the development of the classic mode _within_ the current gnome, while lobbying against its removal. Which is the only case in which forking or moving away for good may be inevitable.

    1. practically GNOME 3 is GNOME Shell, the "fallback mode" is/was intended as an interim solution for the transition, poised to be discontinued. Now that GNOME 3.4 has the Shell working with no hardware acceleration, expect the fallback to go away, perhaps in 3.6

    2. That's what I fear. That's what I want to prevent. That's what would finally convince me to support a fork of the "fallback mode" or to go the xfce way.

      Unfortunately the shell is a collection of ill thoughts. Starting from the underlying javascript crap, down to the silly design ideas.

      Keeping the fallback mode alive should be feasible. We need to fight for (and help) its survival.

  3. > but I found this preferable to the small and fixed-sized start menu in Windows 7 or KDE, where you have to flip page after page before reaching what you need.

    Me too, but switching to the classic menu (even called like that) in Plasma is a matter of 2 clicks!