GNOME 3.2: Tactical Brilliance and Strategic Stubbornness

Wednesday Oct 5th 2011 by Bruce Byfield
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It's unclear whether GNOME 3.2 will be enough to reconcile users alienated by GNOME 3.0.

If you're still waiting for the GNOME 3 series to tolerate more than one work-flow, then GNOME 3.2 is going to disappoint you.

Although the new release contains dozens of improvements, both practical and aesthetic, it still supports only a single work flow, just like GNOME 3.0. Despite six months of protests, the GNOME team seems to have decided that, if it just ignores the complaints, eventually they'll go away.

That said, some of the improvements might just be enough to reconcile you to the GNOME 3 series. While some improvements are useful but minor refinements, others ranging from task-oriented documentation and accessibility improvements to online integration tools, would be welcome additions to any desktops.

GNOME 3.2 was released less than a week ago, but already packages are finding their way into major distributions -- if not of the final release, then at least of late betas in distributions' development releases.

However, the easiest way to explore the new release is download one of the openSUSE live images (available for 32 and 64 bit machines), and transfer it to a DVD or USB drive from which you can boot your computer.

Some features may not be available (for instance, the openSUSE), but enough are there to give you a general impression, especially when you use the release notes as a guide.

The Refinements

When GNOME 3.0 was released, it seemed like a reasonably complete desktop. However, after seeing some of the small additions to the 3.2 release, you might conclude that 3.0 was a bare desktop. Not that the new release introduces any major new functionality, but many of the small ones in 3.2 make work just that much easier - and each one has a cumulative effect on your general impression.

For instance, when you search in the overview, the results now include listings in your contacts, not just files. You also get previews of multimedia files in the file manager (although not, so far as I can see, of folders, as you do in KDE), and, in open and save dialogs, a list of recent files, which can be useful if you are saving groups of files to more than one location.

Notifications in particular show improvements, with counters that allow you to see -- for example -- the number of new emails awaiting you. In addition, notifications now give you a list of options when you plug in a removable device. This list looks strangely elongated in the long, narrow format for notifications, but is a welcome addition all the same.

System Settings are another area where the refinements are noticeable. Unlike KDE, which insists that panel backgrounds remain part of the theme, GNOME 3.2's System Settings include duplicates of settings found elsewhere, such as the keyboard settings found in the panels. The dialog also includes settings for Wacom graphic tablets, if one is detected.

Now, too, experts can calibrate color management on a system-wide basis in the hopes of having the screen display match printed output -- although, realistically, differences in batches of ink and the different absorbency and color in different papers mean that this age-old problem will continue to annoy designers. At best, GNOME's color management will reduce some of the problems.

Other refinements include a greater consistency of appearance, and other aesthetic choices. The only refinement which seems a mixed blessing is the slightly shorter title bars, buttons, and other widgets. The release notes suggest that this change will make it easier to use GNOME on small screens -- presumably because slightly less space is taken up.

However, the change also means that you need to point the mouse with greater precision on small screens, so whether you'll think the change is an improvement depends on what your priorities are.

Accessibility, Documentation, and Online Integration

During the development of GNOME 3.0, one of the complaints was that the backend changes were not being communicated to accessibility designers. Perhaps as a result, accessibility is a priority in the 3.2 release, with Orca -- GNOME's main claim to accessibility excellence -- being made compatible to the new backend, and an online keyboard being added.

In addition, accessibility features can now be activated on the fly, with the potential of being used when applications from other desktops are run on GNOME.

Another major background improvement in the new release is in the documentation. If you read the release notes, their comprehensiveness seems to signal a new emphasis on documentation. On the desktop, this emphasis is even more obvious, with applications such as Brasero, Cheese, Eye of GNOME, and parts of Evolution that provide online help organized by what are trying to do.

The re-organization is not complete. For one thing, it hasn't reached all applications, nor even all the basic ones. For another, making documentation task-oriented doesn't automatically improve it.

For instance, when you open the documentation for Cheese, the online camera app, and go to Taking a Photo, the first paragraph reads, "To take a photo with Cheese, be sure to be in 'Photo Mode,'" with no explanation of what Photo Mode is or how to select it.

Still, the intent is good, and may improve with practice. After years in which documentation of free software consists of relentless marches through the menu and recursive explanations, GNOME does seem to have hold of one of the basic concepts required for effective documentation.

However, by far the largest body of changes in 3.2 are the efforts to integrate online apps like Google Calendar into the desktop. GNOME 3.2 includes new applications that group online accounts and contacts for easier management.

For instance, in the Online Accounts dialog, you can create and manage accounts, and also set whether each account is used for mail, chat, or other purposes. Similarly, in the Contacts application, you get a list of all contacts, whether they are stored online, in GNOME's Evolution mail reader, or in GNOME's Empathy chat tool.

Even more importantly, in GNOME 3.2, you can treat web applications and files stored online in the same way as local applications and files. In general, this integration seems long overdue, although it does threaten to leave novices hopelessly confused about where a file is located, and make interruptions to your Internet connection a much greater problem than they are now. Still, in normal useage, the integration probably makes sense.

Tactics Vs. Strategy

After major break with the past in the 3.0 release, in the 3.2 release, the popular desktop seems to have returned to what it does best: incremental releases.

While GNOME 3.2 seems to have more of an overall plan than the last releases in the GNOME 2 series, it is still a series of minor improvements and small steps towards greater consistency and aesthetic improvement. The sheer number of changes makes the 3.2 release more than the sum of its parts, and an overwhelming improvement to GNOME 3.0.

The trouble is, tactical brilliance is not enough for victory. The most it can do is keep GNOME in the game. Although GNOME developers may hope that familiarity and duration will eventually make the complaints about GNOME 3 take care of themselves and fade away, that is unlikely to happen any time soon.

After all, three years have not been enough for everyone's feelings to subside over the shock of KDE 4.0. So why should the complaints about GNOME 3 be any less durable -- especially when the KDE 4 series is far more tolerant of different work-flows?

Sooner or later, GNOME is going to have to address those complaints, or risk losing its pre-eminence among desktops once and for all. But if you ignore this particular elephant (whose bulk is not only filling up the living room, but taking over the hallway and threatening the bedroom as well), GNOME 3.2 is a fine example of the project at its best.

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