Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

June 6, 2012

3 Min Read
Linus Torvalds Weighs In on GNOME 3

GNOME 3 is here to stay, and if you wish things were otherwise, you may be something of a Luddite. But you’d also be in good company, since Linux kernel founder Linus Torvalds himself also recently expressed his profound disdain for the desktop environment that has left many open source users less than enthralled. Here’s what he had to say.

Beyond his involvement in kernel development, of course, Torvalds has no more official sway over the open source ecosystem as a whole than anyone else. That’s the whole point of open source, after all — there is no centralized, controlling authority.

But since Linux wouldn’t exist if Torvalds hadn’t written its first kernel version back in the early 1990s and then released the source code publicly, his opinion has a certain gravity — even when it comes to issues, like the pros and cons of desktop environments, that have nothing to do with kernel code.

Torvalds on GNOME 3.4

And that’s why Torvalds’s comments on his experience with GNOME 3.4 in recently released Fedora 17 have garnered more than a little attention since he posted them on Google+. Unfortunately for the GNOME team, which to its credit has seemed to work very hard to make the GNOME 3 platform a success, Torvalds has been less than pleased with his GNOME 3.4 experience.

Notably, most of Torvalds’s criticisms center around the GNOME 3 extensions available as free downloads from extensions.gnome.org, rather than fundamental problems with GNOME itself. If the extensions worked properly, he implies, the current GNOME offering would be adequate; instead, however, he complains about extensions that are buggy and don’t always provide all of the desired functionality. As he writes:

I have to say, I used to think that the “extensions.gnome.org” approach to fixing the deficiencies in gnome3 was really cool. It made me go “Ahh, now I can fix the problems I had.”

But it turns out to be a major pain, when it basically ends up as a really magical way to customize your desktop, which breaks randomly and has no sane way to do across machines. And the extensions seem to randomly break when you update the system, so they don’t work as well as they would if they just came with the base system.

Extensions: The Wrong Approach?

For Torvalds, then, the whole Web-based extension approach that the GNOME team has adopted seems to be a flawed one. And while my own experience with the GNOME extensions has been more positive, I can’t say I also don’t wonder whether there are issues with the concept of releasing a desktop environment so stripped down that users are expected to have to download a slew of add-ons to achieve basic productivity.

No matter how easy the extensions are to install (and they are extraordinarily easy, in my experience), and despite the ubiquity these days of “app store” systems on which extensions.gnome.org seems to be modeled, ordinary people would probably prefer a desktop that “just works” out of the box. That’s how Apple has made billions of dollars, after all.

And if even geeky power users like Torvalds can’t get the extensions to work properly, the problem runs deeper still.

GNOME 3 has fantastic potential, but it needs some serious polishing. The current solutions to its rough edges are not sufficient, and it would be a shame if all the talent of the GNOME team ended up going to waste on a platform that neither the geekiest of the geeks nor the humblest plebeians can figure out how to use properly.

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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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