Based on the figures in LinuxQuestions' Members Choice Awards, 84% of Linux desktop users prefer a classic desktop. By contrast, innovations like GNOME 3 or Ubuntu's Unity lag far behind. Which raises the question: what accounts for the popularity of the classic desktop, and what are the implications for the design of graphical interfaces?
Mostly, a classical desktop is defined as whatever you point at when you use the term. In the case of the LinuxQuestions Awards, I mean Cinnamon, KDE, LXDE, MATE, Trinity, and Xfce. I include KDE because, despite numerous innovations, its interface begins with a classical desktop.
Conversely, I exclude GNOME 3 and Unity because by default they deliberately omit major elements that all the desktops include that I would classify as classical: a single screen, a menu, and applets and/or icons to customize the panel and desktop.
To be sure, GNOME 3 uses part of the panel like a taskbar to show running applications, while a classical pager for virtual work spaces can be added to Unity. Yet by a quorum definition, neither qualifies as a classical desktop -- too many expected features are missing or transformed out of recognition.
Both GNOME 3 and Unity are interesting exercises in design, with innovations that classical desktops might benefit from borrowing. But, at the risk of inviting flames from the enthusiasts for both, I think it obvious that neither attracts the same kind of loyalty as the classical desktop does in all its manifestations. Users turn poetic praising the classical desktop, describing it as the epitome of design perfection with an enthusiasm that GNOME and Unity supporters rarely match.
Why is it about the classic desktop that inspires such loyalty -- such hyperbole, I am tempted to say? Now that the age of user revolts has passed and the Linux desktop has settled down into an era of diversity, the time to ask that question seems overdue.
Perhaps the most common description of a classical desktop is "intuitive." Unfortunately, that description expresses nothing except preference.
I can't help remembering the outrage when Windows 95 placed the menu at the bottom left of the screen instead of the more obvious upper right. Many claimed that the position was only chosen to avoid accusations of copying the Mac's much older classical desktop. Yet, since then, I have often heard the lower left of the screen described by some as the intuitive position for the menu.
From examples like that, I infer that intuitive is often a synonym for "familiar." Perhaps if any feature is around long enough, someone will eventually call it intuitive, regardless of how they initially reacted to it.
Still, the comfort of the familiar seems only part of the answer. Users of classic desktops are not completely opposed to change. Today, many classic desktops have abandoned the cascading menu for one constrained within a single window, and, while the change is not to everybody's taste, the objections have been relatively minor.
Nor, as both KDE and Linux Mint demonstrate, do users have any problem with interfaces that provide a classical desktop then go on to include extensions of it such as corner hot spots. As might be expected, users simply use the features they want and ignore the rest.
Dismissing fans of the classical desktop as conservative might be convenient for those who are watching their new ideas receive a chilly reception, and to an extent they may be right. Yet clearly, conservatism or habit are only the beginning of the explanation.
Screen Space, Swiss Army Knives, and Customization
At first, the idea that the desktops I have labeled classic have anything in common may seem absurd. What could LXDE with its small footprint in memory have to do with KDE and its databases? Or the GNOME 2 MATE, the GNOME 2 fork, with KDE, its long-time rival?
However, for all their differences, the classic desktops have at least three general design principles in common:
To begin with, a classical desktop makes better use than its rivals do of the available screen space on a workstation or a laptop. Pick almost any task and count the number of keystrokes or mouse-clicks it takes to accomplish, and you will find that on a classical desktop can be done with fewer than on any alternative.
Heavily influenced by the interfaces of mobile devices and, in Unity's case, of a vision of a common interface across different form factors, GNOME and Unity frequently fail to make full use of the space available on a full-sized terminal. They bury administrative apps deeper in the interface than is necessary, and they require shifts to another screen for tasks such as searching through a menu. By comparison, a classical interface places almost every utility and app no more than two or three clicks from the top, and upon a single screen.