Can GNOME 3 Become the Next Big Open Source UI Contender?

Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

August 2, 2011

Few Ubuntu users may have noticed, but GNOME 3 has been officially released now for several months. How does this open source desktop environment, so long in the making, compare to its competitors? Read on for an analysis.

Admittedly, I was no fan of GNOME 3 (or GNOME Shell, its core component) during its development process. As I’ve written in the past, I thought it was slow, unattractive and too committed to a particular software framework that made customization difficult.

Ubuntu’s decision last fall to dump GNOME in favor of Canonical’s in-house Unity desktop interface took my focus — and the focus of plenty of other Linux users, since Ubuntu retains by far the greatest market share on the desktop — off of the GNOME team.

Since I have my gripes about Unity as well, however, I thought it would be worth my while to give GNOME Shell another go, now that it’s officially stable (whatever that means). And so I added the GNOME 3 Team Launchpad PPA to my system, did some quick apt-getting, and before I knew it was staring at an up-to-date GNOME 3 desktop.

GNOME 3, In Motion

To my surprise, GNOME Shell in its latest iteration actually worked relatively well. Not only was it stable — more stable, in fact, than the normal Ubuntu 11.04 interface, which has been crashing my Intel Sandy Bridge graphics driver periodically for reasons I’m still trying to track down — but it was also actually usable, a far cry from the last (beta) version of the interface I’d tested.

Because a video is something like 10 images per second (depending on the frame rate), and an image is a lot better than text, here’s a screencast showcasing the features of GNOME 3 in action (I used xvidcap for the screencast rather than GNOME Shell’s built-in screencasting feature, which I couldn’t get to work and wasn’t motivated enough to troubleshoot):

The Good, the Bad

There’s a lot to like about GNOME Shell in its current form. It’s functional, graceful and arguably more intuitive than Canonical’s Unity, which suffers, for instance, from the lack of any means for adding virtual desktops other than editing gconf values by hand.

Naturally, though, GNOME Shell has room for improvement. For one, like Unity, it relies heavily on hotkeys, which is never good if you want to attract a non-geek user base. In addition, although the interface is pretty smooth overall, it suffers from occasional lag, even on my relatively powerful desktop computer. GNOME Shell had known issues with certain Intel-based video cards when I tested it in detail more than a year ago, and unfortunately these still seem to be the case.

Overall, however, GNOME 3 is certainly a contender to be the next great user interface of the open source world, where virtually all desktop environments have been in a flux lately as a variety of independent parties (beginning with the KDE team and KDE 4, which introduced radical new desktop concepts when it debuted in 2008) have tried to redefine the open source desktop.

Whether any of them will prevail remains to be seen. Unity has a leg up on its competitors thanks to Canonical’s backing, but Unity is also far from perfect in the eyes of even loyal Ubuntu users. GNOME Shell is a nice achievement, but with Canonical distancing itself from the GNOME team, GNOME in general may never again enjoy the market share it held when it shipped with every Ubuntu release. And KDE still remains somewhat out in left field, only marginally more mainstream than Enlightenment, Fluxbox and other niche interfaces.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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