MATE vs Unity, GNOME 3: Open Source Desktop's Future?

Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

August 5, 2012

3 Min Read
MATE vs Unity, GNOME 3: Open Source Desktop's Future?

MATE, the open-source desktop environment whose name no one is sure how to pronounce, is now nearly a year old. Many of us never thought it would make it this far, but the interface has held its own against competitors like Unity and GNOME Shell. But does MATE have a long-term future in the fast-evolving world of desktop Linux? Here are some thoughts.

When MATE debuted last August, it was a one-man effort by a developer who called himself Perberos to keep alive the GNOME 2 desktop environment, which the GNOME project had deprecated in favor of GNOME 3.

While many welcomed the endeavor as an alternative to GNOME 3 and Canonical’s Unity interface, neither of which enjoyed universal popularity among Linux users, there was also plenty of reason early-on to doubt MATE’s viability. It lacked the backing of any major organization in the open-source channel and endorsement by Linux distributions.

Yet MATE has managed in the last year not only to stick around, but also to grow. Its development team remains small, but now at least includes a half-dozen different individuals from throughout the world. The project has pushed out regular releases, with the most recent, MATE 1.4, appearing at the end of last month. And Linux Mint, one of the most popular desktop Linux distributions at the moment, has officially adopted MATE as one of its desktop environment choices; in addition, MATE packages have become available for a variety of other distributions.

The Future of MATE

If you’re a fuddy, unimaginative Linux user like me, you probably just want a desktop environment that works, even if it lacks all the bells and whistles of ostensibly “next-generation” options like GNOME Shell and Unity.

MATE fits that bill well.

As a self-described “traditional desktop environment” (the tagline that has replaced the project’s original, tongue-in-cheek, motto, “a non-intuitive and unattractive desktop”) MATE gets the job done without getting in the way, just like GNOME 2 used to do.

But the commitment to simplicity that ensures MATE’s popularity also makes future development plans difficult. How do you improve a product whose major selling point is that, unlike alternative choices, it is static and unchanging?

In part, the answer lies in keeping MATE compatible with the latest and greatest software produced elsewhere in the open-source channel. That means, in particular, upgrading MATE’s backend to work with gtk+ 3, in order to ensure that the most popular Linux applications will continue to work on MATE. Such plans are already on the table.

Yet beyond updates “under the hood,” it seems difficult to make many improvements to MATE that will draw in new users. That will likely be a challenge for the project going forward, especially as GNOME Shell and Unity gain greater followings. Nor is it certain that Linux Mint, which is also creating its own original desktop environment, Cinnamon, will continue supporting MATE once Cinnamon becomes more mature.

But maybe the lack of clear demand for new features to integrate into MATE is a good thing. Some people — and not all of them are neophytes to the computer world — just crave the simplicity and predictability of the same-old software they’ve been using for years.

Consider, for example, all those Windows XP users who would prefer the decade-old operating system to much fancier modern versions. If Windows XP were GNOME 2, and Vista and Windows 7 were GNOME Shell and Unity, these people would be flocking to MATE.

And that’s why MATE is particularly important within the open-source channel, where developers typically prioritize pushing out experimental code and bleeding-edge features, which employers and critics reward highly, much more than they do keeping things simple. In this respect, the MATE developers are a rare breed, but they fill an important niche within the open-source ecosystem. Here’s hoping they continue their work for a while to come.

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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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