Linux Desktop: Change vs. Conservatism

Tuesday Jun 18th 2013 by Bruce Byfield
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Despite the conservatism of users, innovation hasn't died on the Linux desktop. It's just become very cautious in the last few year.

The last five years of user revolts have left Linux desktop users wary of innovation. Too often recently, "innovation" has meant unwanted changes imposed without any consultation by developers upon users. As a result, Linux desktop development has become cautious, avoiding major changes that are visible to users.

One sign of these times is that many users are voicing the opinion that this attitude is a good thing. They talk dismissively of change for change's sake, and regard GNOME 2 with an awe that it never received during its heyday.

However, if unrestrained change is undesirable, such conservatism seems simply its extreme opposite. Even granted that most experiments to improve the desktop will fail, some efforts at innovation seem desirable.

If nothing else, such efforts help to attract and retain developers for a project -- and, at best, they may occasionally come up with features that transform computing for their users, such as KDE's Activities and Folder Views.

Besides, some change is inevitable. Even post-revolt, some innovation persists on all the Linux desktops. Mostly, its long-term goals are poorly defined and sometimes tentative, but as computing changes, a few small innovations continue to find their way on to the screen despite the general lack of encouragement.

Here's what we might expect in the way of changes in the next couple of years on the main desktop environments:

GNOME

With the 3.8 release, GNOME reached a certain stability. The GNOME-Shell, the center of controversy for two years, is now supplemented by GNOME Shell Extensions, a collection of plugins that, carefully chosen, can almost recreate the GNOME 2 desktop on top of GNOME 3.

Having reached this stage, GNOME seems to be concentrating on new applications for the upcoming 3.10 release. According to Mattias Klasen, these applications include the self-explanatory GNOME Music and GNOME Maps, as well as a viewer for Git repositories, a note-taker, and a re-designed movie player.

Other features for 3.10 include integration of the Flickr photo-sharer and the Zimbra groupware and email server into GNOME.

However, probably the biggest change in the next version of GNOME will be support for Wayland, which many people are expecting will be the replacement for the aging and much-patched X Window system. Preliminary reports suggest that the effort is well under-way, although how much difference casual users will notice seems doubtful.

What happens next with GNOME still seems undecided. At last year's GUADEC, GNOME developers talked about various ways to revitalize the project. A key presentation was Xan Lopez and Juan Jose Sanchez's "A Bright Future for GNOME," which became the inspiration for several breakout sessions.

However, eleven months later, many of the suggestions made in the presentation, such as attention to mobile devices, touch screens, and cloud services, have had little visible effect on GNOME's direction -- at least so far.

A better glimpse of GNOME's future directions may be the copy for Friends of GNOME fund-raising campaign. Although apparently intended only as examples rather than a road map, the copy mentions a number of privacy and security features that might be added to GNOME in the future.

These suggestions include Tor integration for anonymous browsing, increased support for disk encryption, anti-phishing features, and the integration of applications with system-wide privacy settings.

Any work being done on such features is not immediately visible online. However, logically, such features would come after the basic desktop applications due for the 3.10 release.

This year's GUADEC may offer a clearer roadmap, especially if the project decides to go ahead with the suggestion made last year to launch GNOME 4.0 in 2014.

KDE

Five years into the 4.x release series, KDE is in the best shape of all the major Linux desktops. It long ago outlived the user revolt touched off by KDE 4.0, and now provides a mature feature set. It is currently in the middle of switching to QT5 and QML, rewriting many aspects of the desktop environment, with 4.11, the next release, intended to be a long-term release that will see no major changes except bug-fixes in the Plasma work-space.

Plasma lead developer Seigo explains that, "This is a great opportunity to get changes in that polish things up as they will be available for a long while. Often between releases whole components are revamped and sometimes this results in some polish being lost temporarily. With a long lifespan, these improvements will be allowed to naturally accumulate to the benefit of those using it."

This statement does not preclude changes visible only to developers -- and KDE is, in fact, gearing up for Wayland support, just as GNOME is. Still, if this intention is kept, then visible innovation will not be a defining feature of KDE for the next couple of years. Any major changes will probably be on the periphery, such as an app store, rather than on the desktop itself.

The largest innovation in KDE will probably be the release of Vivaldi, a tablet computer loaded solely with completely free software. If successful, this tablet may highlight the Plasma Active interface, as well as giving KDE's concept of task-oriented Activities the publicity it needs to become widely used. However, after over a year of constant delays, the question is stating to arise of whether Vivaldi will ever be released, or become successful if it is.

Linux Mint's Cinnamon and Mate

For the past 18 months, Linux Mint has been developing Cinnamon and Mate. These desktops are complementary solutions for users who want something like a GNOME 2 interface on a modern desktop, with Cinnamon building upon GNOME 3, and Mate forking GNOME 2.

Cinnamon's and Mate's development influence each other, and, contrary to what you might assume, it is not always Cinnamon that gets a feature first. For instance, the new Linux Mint 15 release saw Cinnamon getting a screen saver, a feature that Mate already had. Inevitably, however, the development of the two desktop environments is not always perfectly parallel.

Judging from the suggestions for Google Summer of Code students and from the blog of Mate developer Stefano Karapetsas, Mate will be focusing on extending support to keep its now aging code current.

The future developments listed in these sources include support for GStreamer-1.0 in Mate's multimedia tools, which is necessary because GStreamer-0.10, which is currently used, is no longer maintained.

Similarly, support for GTK3, as many observers have pointed out, is becoming increasingly necessary because Mate's GTK is rapidly nearing the end of its lifecycle. Presumably, too, the change will make porting new GNOME apps to Mate easier, and simplify coding for Mate and Cinnamon at the same time. The fact that this project was suggested for the Summer of Code might indicate that this change is not officially scheduled, but it is hard to imagine it being more than 12-18 months away.

Other major changes could be the creation of a plugin system for Mate's file manager, and support for the ePUB format for e-books for its file viewer.

By contrast, hints of Cinnamon's future are rarer online. Probably, though, the introduction of desklets – or desktop applets – in the recent 1.8 release opens up a way to enhance Cinnamon with small but useful additions.

Recently, too, Linux Mint project lead Clement Lefebvre has blogged about changes he would like to see in Cinnamon. Lefebvre proposes more flexible tiling of windows, using KDE as a model, previews of ways to manipulate windows while dragging them, and possible techniques for moving and resizing multiple windows.

Lefebvre began his speculations by suggesting that Cinnamon should "let people compose 'views' out of multiple workspaces they can place and resize on the screen, to a very simple static side tray that you could pull from the side like you pull your top bar in an Android phone, and in which you could place a window of your choice."

For now, Lefebvre seems to have put aside this idea. However, what is interesting is that he proposed it at all. Linux Mint has spent so much time re-creating GNOME 2 that observers might wonder whether the distribution would do more than minor innovations.

Lefebvre's trial balloon suggests that Mint might be able to innovate more than its recent pre-occupations suggest. If nothing else, the goodwill that Mint is accumulating by giving users what they want might mean that experiments by Mint would be tolerated more than any by the other major desktop environments.

Ubuntu's Unity

For several years, the changes to Ubuntu have centered on Unity. The next year or two seems unlikely to change that.

So far, the upcoming 13.10 ("Saucy Salamander") release is known to have several new features. These features include some largely unspecified customizations of Compiz, and an additional 50-100 scopes or filters for online searches for the dash, which will be supplemented by an in-dash payment system.

So far, details about the payment system are lacking, but considering the controversy that online searches have sparked in the past, it is likely to revive privacy-concerns in some circles.

More importantly, the next few releases will see more efforts to make Unity a single code base that works across multiple form-factors. The 13.10 release will include the first touch-screen applications, such as a web-browser and a media player, although relatively few users are likely to be able to take advantage of them on a workstation or laptop in version 13.04.

Touch-screen support, which lacks the distinction of two mouse buttons and a scroller, is also believed to be behind the changes to some basic changes to Unity. In the upcoming release, applications will take two mouse-clicks to open links in the dash, and one will present a preview or thumbnail.

Previews make searching on the dash more practical, since they allow users to explore search results without closing on the dash. However, the change is fundamental enough to be controversial, and seems to have more to do with encouraging people to purchase items from the dash than with improving design.

Over the next couple of years, these attempts to unify Unity implementations are scheduled to continue. However, how these changes will be received on the traditional desktop is uncertain.

On the one hand, features planned for the Ubuntu Touch phone such as the Welcome Screen, with its user summary, or the edge-swiping to change screens, could be welcome additions.

On the other hand, some features might be more questionable. It looks, for example, that the Head-up Display (HUD) might replace menus, despite its lukewarm reception when first introduced several releases ago. Probably, the reception of such features will depend on whether they can be turned off or not.

The Coming Linux Doldrums

If these descriptions are accurate, then users are in for a quiet period on the Linux desktop. The only environment in which major changes are being made is Unity, and its changes are so little wanted and so focused on consumerism rather than usability that they are more proof of persistence than of a desire to improve the user experience.

Otherwise, so far as innovation exists at all, it does so because of industry trends that are too big to ignore -- for instance, the rise of mobile devices and touch screen. Even then, the desktop environments other than Unity are approaching the inevitable with a caution that suggests lingering trauma.

The only bright spots are the tentative possibilities that GNOME may focus on making security easy, and that Cinnamon and Mate, having given users what they want, may be able to offer practical innovations.

I can only hope so. Otherwise, the Linux desktop looks as though it will be a dull place for the next couple of years, until developers and users alike lose their distrust of change.

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