The Current State of the Linux Desktop

Tuesday Jul 30th 2013 by Bruce Byfield

It's a contradictory era on the desktop today.

Nobody has noticed until now, but sometime in the first months of 2013, the Linux desktop slipped into a new era. So far, though, the characteristics of that era have been haphazardly defined—when they have been defined at all.

Broadly speaking, the history of the Linux desktop can be divided into four main eras. The first might be called the Pre-Desktop era, in which many the command line was the interface of choice, and such graphical interfaces as were in use were window managers, which were limited in both usability and utilities. Symbolically, at least, it ended with the release of KDE 1.0 in July 1998.

Next came the GNOME-KDE era, in which these two desktops were so widely used on Linux that many users had barely heard of alternatives. During this era, both KDE and GNOME improved rapidly, overtaking Windows and OS X in features, although not always in polish or consistency.

The third era was ushered in by the release of KDE 4.0 in January 2008. Its first years were characterized by unrestrained innovation, as first KDE and then GNOME and Ubuntu produced their versions of the next-generation desktop environment. Since all three efforts were quickly met with negative reactions from users, I call this period the User Revolt era.

This third era weakened KDE's dominance and shattered GNOME's, as users looked for alternatives to the unpopular GNOME Shell. It also saw Ubuntu becoming increasingly isolated, as the rest of the free software community rejected its various attempts to assume leadership within the community.

Now, in the aftermath of the third area, a fourth era is starting to emerge. In many ways, any label seems premature because the era's priorities are still developing. So far, the most that can be said is that the era looks little like the three that came beforeā€aside, of course, from the obvious fact that it is determined by them.

So what are the characteristics of the new era? Four come to mind.

PC and Post-PC

In previous eras, the main distinctions among desktops were their size and speed. KDE and GNOME were inevitably described—exaggeratedly—as "bloated" by detractors, while lesser-known alternatives like Xfce tried to keep their memory footprint small and their operations fast.

However, during the user revolts, phones and tablets became the dominant computing devices, leading some to talk about the Post-PC era. GNOME and Ubuntu began to design as though the desktop were a mobile device's screen. However, this assumption may have been one of the reasons for the user revolts. Certainly, it was KDE, which had rearranged rather than altered the traditional desktop in its efforts to innovate, that recovered best from the revolts.

In the new era, the influence of mobile devices continues. However, the assumption that a single desktop environment fits all form factors seems to have been quietly discarded. By abstracting the interface from the rest of the desktop, KDE has made the development of different desktops for each device easier. Similarly, by accepting the idea of extensions, GNOME now allows users to remove as many of the elements of mobile design as they prefer.

Even Ubuntu, whose founder Mark Shuttleworth insisted on mobile-influenced designs in the Unity interface, has departed from it in practice when he came to design a phone. He now talks about "convergence"—the inter-operability of different form factors, rather than a common code base to display on every form factor.

In practice, the influence of mobile and desktop environments now seems more two-way than it did a few years ago. Besides Shuttleworth's talk about convergence with Ubuntu Edge, there is KDE's upcoming Vivaldi tablet, whose Plasma Active interface is informed by KDE's experiments with a variety of different interfaces. There is also Mozilla's FirefoxOS phone, an example of a desktop project rethinking itself for the mobile market.

Rather than the Post-PC era that was initially imagined, the new era seems likely to be characterized by a diversity of form factors more than the dominance of one type of hardware over the other. Already, the borrowing seems more two-way than everyone was imagining a year ago.

Desktop Diversity, Pro and Con

Where GNOME and KDE once accounted for over 85 percent of the desktop market, in the new era, Cinnamon, Mate, Unity, and Xfce also have generous shares of the market, as do as a sprinkling of smaller interfaces, such as LXDE and Razor-qt.

In readers' polls, KDE usually emerges as the single most widely used interface, but even it is outnumbered by those who use different interfaces built on the same underlying GNOME technology. This puts the GNOME project in the anomalous position of producing the utilities and applications that several interfaces use while its own GNOME Shell is reduced to one choice among many.

This situation means that user choice has never been so good as in the current era, especially for GNOME users. However, over the next few years, disadvantages may start to show in the difficulties of coordinating development.

Even in the GNOME and KDE era, such cooperation was often limited, with efforts like eventually falling semi-moribund. If two have difficulties continuing cross-compatibility, six might find coordination next to impossible—especially when at least one (Unity) shows little interest in cooperating with others unless it can be in charge.

Nor can users depend on the popularity of GNOME technology to maintain a common standard. Developers at the Yorba Foundation told me last year that, already, writing for both GNOME and Unity can sometimes be difficult. Since both Cinnamon and Mate are maintained by Linux Mint, they should remain compatible, but, in general, we may be returning to the time when applications written for one desktop can't be counted upon to run smoothly on another.

The new diversity may also discourage new Linux users—many of whom find even the idea of more one desktop difficult to accept. Where experienced users may hop happily between desktops and distributions but, new users may suffer with anxiety because there are too many options.

User Loyalty

One outcome of the user revolts is that user loyalty seems weaker. A vocal but unknown percentage of users concluded that the developers of GNOME, KDE and Unity ignored their interests and can no longer be trusted. Having started down this path, they are more likely to explore alternatives than in the past, at least periodically.

To some extent, KDE retains much of its former user base, although its ranking in polls is usually about 5 percent below what it was in the GNOME-KDE era. That it has survived so well may be due to the fact that it addressed user complaints only a few months after KDE 4.0 provoked a revolt, and within a couple of releases it had added most of the features that users demanded.

By contrast, GNOME was slower to respond. The project took over a year to answer users' complaints by promoting GNOME-Shell extensions. By then, resentment had been allowed to fester.

The only environments that seem to have won loyalty in the previous era are Cinnamon and Mate. Part of the reason for this continued trust is that both retain GNOME 2—the desktop that, in the user revolt, sometimes assumed almost mythic qualities—as their model.

However, what is more important is that Linux Mint has done a better job than any of the other desktop choices in listening to users. Among the reasons to use Linux Mint listed on the project's About Us page are the fact that "it's community-driven. Users are encouraged to send feedback to the project so that their ideas can be used to improve Linux Mint."

In other words, Linux Mint promises exactly what many users felt was missing in GNOME, KDE and Unity: a sense that what users wanted matter. Moreover, so far as anyone can tell, Mint has kept that promise and has yet to need damage control. If any environments have user loyalty in this new era, they are Cinnamon and Mate—but even their support would likely disappear quickly in a crisis in this disillusioned age.

The Future of Innovation

The User Revolt era was caused by the general recognition that the Linux desktop had caught up to its proprietary rivals and could now experiment with what came next.

Unfortunately, the experiments were too much change too fast, and they were made with next to no consultation of users. Nostalgia for GNOME 2 became commonplace—and with it a distrust of anything new. GNOME 2, I heard frequently during the user revolts, was an ideal desktop, and any changes would only subtract from its perfection.

Despite this attitude, change has continued—but in more furtive ways. Few, for example, seem concerned that none of the major desktops defaults to a GNOME 2-like menu whose sub-menus open across the desktops. Change has also occurred in the libraries and sub-systems that most users never see.

What has slowed to the point of immobility is change that users can see on the screen. Aaron Seigo of KDE told me nine months ago that KDE developers have deliberately slowed the pace of change, often introducing visible changes in developmental interfaces before incorporating them in the main KDE release.

In all the modern desktop environments, incremental change has become the norm. Changes that would give users new ways of organizing their work, like KDE Activities, or might change the workflow, like GNOME's overview, are simply not being attempted. Probably, it will be several years before any project will contemplate any major changes except on mobile devices.

The Tricks of Modern Times

At the start of the user revolts, desktop developers dreamed of clean, innovative desktops which would show that free software would no longer be second rate. Instead of desperately copying Windows and OS X, the Linux desktop would set the pace, becoming the model that others would follow.

For complex reasons—some of which were nobody's fault—reality fell far short of that dream. What we are left with now is mostly an emphasis on users' rights, a deep conservatism and a lack of long-term vision. It's a contradictory set of characteristics that shows exactly how badly the user revolts scarred development.

By listening to users, Linux Mint may promote a series of minor innovations. If KDE has learned to manage the pace of change, it might also produce small improvements. Otherwise, the desktop seems likely to remain a quiet place for the next year or two. Perhaps a change may come with GNOME 4.0, especially if it focuses on making security and privacy tools accessible and easy for users.

But until then? We may have lived past the user revolts, but we are still dealing directly with their consequences. Calling modern times the Reaction era sums them up as well as any phrase.

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