Open Source

The ups and downs of 20 years with the GNOME desktop

GNOME made its debut on August 15, 1997. Jack Wallen offers up his experience with the Linux desktop over the past two decades.

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Image: Jack Wallen

Way back in 1999 I did the unthinkable, I migrated away from my favorite window manager, AfterStep, to begin a journey with GNOME, a desktop that was born two years prior and was finally ready for the public. That was GNOME 1 and it was something special. I remember the excitement at having a desktop that could, finally, stand toe to toe with Windows. Yes, I had grown accustomed to the highly flexible AfterStep interface. I loved being able to have window transparencies across the board and special effects that blew away the minds of every Windows user I knew. However, all of those window managers I'd worked with to that point were missing something—a level of professionalism that would allow others to take the desktop seriously.

  • AfterStep was like a fascinating toy.
  • Enlightenment was overly complicated.
  • Blackbox was too minimal

Every old-school Linux user knows that list goes on and on. That is also not to say the desktop interfaces weren't good — they were. But many of them were either still tied to the old-school ways (of say CDE or fvwm95) or didn't offer enough in the ways of features or integration to be viable for businesses or everyday usage.

And then came GNOME, and everything changed. Founded by Miguel de Icaza and Federico Mena Quintero on August 15, 1997 (read the original announcement here), GNOME has become a pillar of the Free Software community as well as one of the slickest and most reliable Linux desktops on the market.

SEE: 20 vacation reads that take a fictional look at real technology (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
SEE: Linux For Absolute Beginners (TechRepublic Academy)

The ups and downs

Since 1999, there have been 33 releases of this particular Linux desktop, not all of which were met with the same excitement as was the original release. Although, for many, the first major iteration of GNOME was one of the more special releases, it was GNOME 2.x that captivated the attention and heart of the Linux masses. Eventually, GNOME 2 was considered to be the be-all, end-all desktop for Linux. It was fast, familiar, highly configurable, and had everything people needed. Over the years, however, a number of issues with GNOME 2 would come to light. Some of these issues (along with my penchant for distro-hopping) sent me packing away from GNOME. I shifted to Bodhi Linux and the Enlightenment desktop, to KDE Plasma, to Unity (for a very long time), and then to Elementary OS and it's very MacOS-like interface.

Of those issues that haunted GNOME 2, the official site says:

"Many flaws were identified in the GNOME 2 desktop related to windows, workspaces and application launching, some of which were labor intensive and prone to errors. A much more holistic approach was needed to take it to the next level."

Out of this ideology, in 2011, came GNOME 3 (or GNOME Shell). This was a drastic change in design and philosophy. For some, that tectonic shift in design metaphor was exactly what was needed; for others, not so much. GNOME 3 initially polarized a lot of users. Now, that same design wows everyone that beholds it in action.

I remember experiencing GNOME 3 for the first time while on vacation. I was bored and decided, since I had the time, to see what all GNOME 3 was all about. My initial reaction wasn't exactly positive. I felt I was using an interface that was designed specifically for touch screens and couldn't see how it would improve the desktop experience. And so, I set it aside and hopped on board the Unity train.

Once GNOME 3 was released, it became immediately clear it would suffer a crisis of user base. Ubuntu had opted to create their own desktop (Unity) and things weren't looking so optimistic. The Linux community was hesitant to make such major changes and many opted to find an alternative—the likes of KDE, Cinnamon, Mate, come to mind. Even so, the GNOME team persisted with 3 and doubled-down on their efforts to create a desktop experience that was not only incredibly reliable, but focused on getting the desktop out of the way of the user.

They succeeded.

Soon after, Fedora adopted GNOME 3 as their default desktop, which would later be followed by Ubuntu dropping Unity and migrating back to GNOME. Those two adoptions alone have managed to woo some of the Linux faithful back to GNOME. When Ubuntu 17.10 is finally released, GNOME usage should begin the slow, steady climb back to its heyday. Case in point, my current distribution of choice is Elementary OS—one which I have been a huge fan of for quite some time. However, in testing Ubuntu 17.10, I have found the latest iteration of GNOME to be exactly what I want/need out of a Linux desktop and will be migrating back to Ubuntu once it is officially released. That is how good GNOME has become.

Personally, I have used or tested every major iteration of GNOME and am incredibly proud to not only say I can remember when it was still in beta, but how excited I am to see where the GNOME team takes us in the future.

And so, I want to wish every GNOME developer, designer, promoter, writer, fan, and supporter a most happy 20 year anniversary. Your tireless work has paid off and your desktop is brilliant; may your future be equally so.

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About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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