Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

November 3, 2009

If all goes according to plan, Ubuntu 10.10 will sport Gnome 3, which represents a radical overhaul of Ubuntu’s default graphical user interface in the form of Gnome Shell, when it debuts a year from now.  In order to get a taste of what this desktop of the future will look like, I’ve spent the last few days using the development version.  Here’s what I’ve found.

Gnome has been around now for a decade, and its approach to the desktop hasn’t changed remarkably in that time.  Gnome 1.x doesn’t differ in any fundamental way from the 2.2x versions available in the latest Ubuntu releases.  Traditional Gnome also behaves similarly to the interfaces of most proprietary operating systems.

That will all change with Gnome 3, however, which will bring a totally new interface to the table in the form of Gnome Shell.  As the Gnome developers described it:

…the shell idea is not just about changing the panel and the window manager. It’s about changing the way you start an activity and how you switch between two different activities.  Or more generally, how you manage your different activities on the desktop.

Changing the way we access documents (via a journal, like GNOME Zeitgeist [3]): having to deal with a filesystem in their daily work is not what makes users happy — on the contrary, they generally just want to access their documents and not to browse their hard disk. Providing new solutions to this problem (using timelines, tags,  bookmarks, etc.) is something that has been of interest in our community for a long time, but we never completely jumped in. We simply should.

Gnome Shell in action

Gnome Shell is a lot harder to describe in words than to demonstrate, so here’s a screenscast of the new interface in action, based on a build I completed a few days ago using the latest code:

The development version of Gnome Shell still has some significant bugs that need to be worked out and can be choppy at times, but the video nonetheless demonstrates the major changes to the interface.  Taskbars and docks have been replaced by an overlay that allows all windows to be managed from one location.  Virtual desktops can be added and removed as needed.  Recently accessed files are accessible with one click.  And Gnome Shell is its own window manager, rather than relying on metacity or compiz.

Too intuitive?

These new features are great and offer a lot of potential for improving productivity.  After using Gnome Shell for a few days before switching back to traditional Gnome, I’m already missing the former, and wish it were stable enough now to be used every day.

While it offers great new approaches to managing workflow, however, the new interface of Gnome Shell takes a lot of getting used to.  It may arguably be more “intuitive” (whatever that means) in the long run, but users accustomed to drop-down menus and taskbars will likely find themselves quite uncomfortable the first time they use Gnome Shell.

The beauty of Gnome 2.x is its simplicity.  Anyone who’s used any kind of GUI-equipped computer before–or who hasn’t used a computer at all–can sit down in front of traditional Gnome and figure things out pretty quickly.  There’s not much ambiguity in the well labeled Gnome menu, and Gnome manages windows and tasks like every other mainstream desktop environment created in the last fifteen years.

But since “intuition” for most people has more to do with what they’re used to than anything else, I worry that Gnome Shell will turn normal users off to Ubuntu and Linux by forcing them to learn a new interface.  Maybe that won’t be the case–maybe non-geeks are less set in their ways than I tend to believe–but this obstacle should nonetheless be a point of consideration for Gnome and Ubuntu developers.

For the time being, Gnome Shell remains in heavy development, and may see significant changes before it reaches maturity.  As it exists now, however, it looks very promising, provided it can reconcile a radically progressive interface with normal users’ desire for familiarity.

Read more about:


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.

Free Newsletters for the Channel
Register for Your Free Newsletter Now

You May Also Like