GNOME 2 Absent from Latest Version of Ubuntu Open Source OS
I recently came to a stark realization after upgrading my desktop to Ubuntu 11.10: GNOME 2 is gone. It’s retired, deprecated, done. Like it or not, Unity and GNOME Shell are the way of the future. And that would be fine, if only I could keep from wondering: Are these new desktop environments really ready for the masses?
I’ve used both Unity and GNOME Shell plenty in the past, and I like them both. In fact, I prefer Unity on my netbook, since it makes more efficient use of the tiny screen. But on my desktop, where I’m not so worried about the economy of pixels, I always felt more at home with the sleek plainness of GNOME 2.
But on Ubuntu 11.10, GNOME 2 is nowhere to be found. Unlike in earlier Ubuntu releases, Unity is the only desktop environment installed by default. The Internet is peppered with instructions for “reverting” to GNOME 2 on Ubuntu 11.10; however, they merely explain how to install a package called gnome-session-fallback, which is not actually GNOME 2 but a half-baked build of GNOME Shell dressed up in its predecessor’s clothing. It doesn’t work well at all.
The exclusion of GNOME 2 from Ubuntu 11.10 was not Canonical’s decision, of course. It was inevitable, since GNOME 2 and the toolset on which it was based, GTK+ 2, have been deprecated in favor of the next generation of GNOME technologies. Unless you want to run unmaintained code, which is never a good idea, it’s time to bid GNOME 2 farewell as it enters the big blue tunnel into the Afterlife.
But that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with the idea.
The Post-GNOME 2 World
Plenty of pixels have already been fired on the merits of Unity and GNOME Shell relative to each other and to their competitors. I won’t reignite that debate here. Instead, I’ll just say that Unity and GNOME Shell, having now matured quite thoroughly, both work well. They’re fast, aesthetically pleasing and allow users to be very productive once they learn how to use the environments.
But therein lies the catch: There’s a lot of learning to be done to become familiar with Unity and GNOME Shell, and I’m not so sure non-geeks are up to the task.
Using the dash to launch applications is not as intuitive as clicking the no-nonsense Applications menu of GNOME 2. Switching between windows via an overlay can prove confusing for users accustomed to the dead-simple buttons of the GNOME panel — or any Microsoft operating system since Windows 95, for that matter.
And most of all, the heavy reliance of both Unity and GNOME Shell on keyboard shortcuts, which are central to the rapid workflow the interfaces support, can be a problem. Hotkeys are great if you’re a geek willing to memorize them, but a lot of normal people really just want to point and click.
After all, if the masses liked keyboard input so much, graphical user interfaces would never have been developed in the first place. Every geek knows the CLI is magnitudes faster, once you’re familiar with it.
Fortunately, the trend away from appreciating the needs of non-geeks in modern open source desktop environments is not irreversible. Unity and GNOME Shell could be enhanced so that they’re easier to use without learning so many keyboard shortcuts, and optional extensions could add interface components similar to those of legacy environments for users who want them.
It’s not too late now. But it will be once upgrade cycles sweep away the systems still running GNOME 2. If open source developers want to preserve Linux as the viable platform for normal people and not just geeks that it has become over the last several years, they’ll do well to spend some time addressing the issues in Unity and GNOME Shell so we can all learn to love them as much as elite hackers.