I have been a huge fan and user of Linux for well over 10 years. In that time, I have seen just about every piece of drama that can come from a community. Much of that drama has been focused on the desktop. Sometimes users were simply throwing stones as to which desktop was better. But the drama unfolding of late is much worse. The state of the Linux desktop has become a circus that centers around the creation of Ubuntu's Unity desktop. The minute that desktop was announced, things started getting worse.
That, of course, doesn't mean all is lost. Quite the opposite. As has been proved over the years, the Linux community is incredibly agile, so this issue can easily be resolved. Here are some possible solutions.
1: Ubuntu needs to drop Unity
Okay, this one is a bit harsh, but Ubuntu made a huge mistake with Unity. Ubuntu simply needs to admit defeat and use GNOME 3 as its default desktop. I realize that Unity is young, but it's an idea that simply isn't flying with the Linux community and does not improve on what GNOME 3 offers. Because of that, there is little-to-no reason to keep it around. I gave Unity as much of a chance as I could (as did many of the Linux users I know), but it's just too flawed. Although GNOME 3 has not exactly been welcomed with open arms, it will eventually become the standard GNOME.
2: Classic GNOME should be forked
I initially thought that Classic GNOME, like KDE 3, should be retired. This is a good idea with regard to GNOME 3, but it causes problems when machines are low-powered or do not have the graphics hardware to run GNOME 3. So instead of retiring it, fork it so it can exist as a different choice altogether. I have to admit, of all the desktops I have used, the latest classic GNOME is probably the most solid. Not only is it stable, it's not nearly the resource hog that certain other desktop tend to be. Let GNOME live — but as a fork to ease the burden on the GNOME developers.
3: A uniform compositor should be used
I can't help it; I'm a fan of the compositor. I really enjoy desktop effects, transparency, the cube, you name it! The only problem is that every desktop that can use a compositor uses a different one. At one point, most of them simply employed Compiz. Not the case now. KDE has its own compositor, E17 has Ecomorph, GNOME has Mutter, and so on. Why is this? Compiz, for the longest time, worked with both GNOME and KDE. Why couldn't the desktops simply decide to stick with Compiz and adapt that as needed? There is no reason to reinvent the wheel!
4: Distributions need to make alternate desktops easy to install
Back when I first started using Linux, the installation process allowed the user to choose from a long list of desktops. That was when a Linux installation spanned four to six disks and could take an hour or two to install. Now everything is focused on the Live CD, which does not allow for the inclusion of multiple desktop installation. That can be fixed by simply allowing users to select their desktop of choice and then having the package manager download and install during the operating system installation.
5: Distributions need to stop modifying desktops
This can get really annoying and is a challenge to support. Many distributions decide it best to modify the desktop for whatever reason. This isn't necessary. Distributions should stick with the default configuration of the desktop and leave the configurations to the user. This standardization will go a long way toward simplifying support and will help to ease users into the Linux desktop. If GNOME 3 and KDE are the same across the board, users won't have such trouble when choosing distributions.
6: GNOME Shell should be more configurable
As it stands, GNOME 3 isn't all that configurable. That was one of the great things about Classic GNOME — users could configure that desktop to their heart's content. Now? Not so much. In fact, GNOME 3 seems to have gone the Apple/MS route and locked the user into the configuration the developers think works the best. That is counter to the heart of the Linux user.
7: Alternate desktops need more exposure
I don't know if you are aware of this, but there are some incredible Linux desktops available. You can find everything from the bare-bones, lightweight desktop to the eye-candy heavy do-it-all desktop. The problem is that most users don't know about them. These alternative desktops really need to make an effort to get the word out that they exist. Instead of settling for living in the fringes, desktops like E17 should be widespread. Xfce is an amazing combination of lightening fast and feature rich — why don't more people know of this? If these desktops were better known, the GNOME 3/Unity/KDE 4 drama would ease up.
8: All desktops need a more standardized configuration
I've always thought the desktop could use a bit of standardization (while holding on to individuality). This would go a long way toward making the major desktops a bit user friendly. Both KDE and GNOME 3 are trying to go this route and they are almost there... but it needs to be taken further. The "control panel" tool should be easily recognized and accessed by users. KDE calls its tool System Settings, but that could easily lead one to think that user preferences won't be found there. If Microsoft has a patent on the term Control Panel, KDE and GNOME (and E17 and Xfce and...) need to come up with a unified term for this tool so that even new users immediately know what the tool is used for.
9: Distributions should decide who their audiences are
Is Ubuntu for new users only? What about Fedora? Linux Mint? Who do these distributions ultimately target? With this question answered, the choice of desktop would be much easier. If a distribution is truly for new users, would you put GNOME 3, Unity, or KDE 4 on a distribution for them? I would suggest KDE 4. Although the new user might face some challenges, it at least offers a level of familiarity that neither GNOME 3 or Unity offers. Or maybe Xfce would be the ideal desktop for a new user. But ultimately, the distributions need to decide who, precisely, they target.
10: Lightweight versions of EXISTING desktops should be created for low-powered and netbook machines
If Unity were killed, a lightweight version of GNOME 3 would need to be created to satisfy those using low-powered and netbook computers. GNOME 3 is not for old hardware. Although there are plenty of distributions available that can power lesser machines, both GNOME and KDE offer features that would appeal to the modern user (such as integrated Gwibber and other social tools). This could easily be accomplished by removing the compositor and unnecessary packages.
Time for a Linux revolt?
There is no single, ideal solution for the issues at hand. But the Linux desktop situation needs some attention before it gets out of control. I would hate to see a complete revolt against the current crop of desktops, but if it comes down to that, I'm all for a revolution. When that revolution comes, you will most likely see me happily computing away on Bodhi Linux, which offers the best of Ubuntu and E17.
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 getjackd.net.