Open Source

The Linux desktop 'mess'

Is the Linux desktop really a "mess" as some pundits call it? Jack Wallen takes issue with this claim and explains why he thinks the desktop is getting a bad rap.

It seems nearly every pundit, every mouthpiece on the planet has decided that the Linux desktop is a "mess." This "downfall" of the Linux desktop started with GNOME 3 and seemed to gain more momentum with Ubuntu Unity. I have a theory — and an idea for a fix.

Linux is all about choice. It's always been that way; from the earliest inception of the desktop, the Linux community has enjoyed CFE, AfterStep, FluxBox, XFCE, Enlightenment, KDE, LXDE, Cinnamon ...

Oh, and GNOME and Ubuntu Unity.

Actually, the list goes on and on.

I've used almost every Linux desktop — some good, some not so good. To say that GNOME 3 and Unity are a "mess," well, I'm not sure I get that. When KDE 4 first arrived — that was a mess (it has, since then, come a long, long way). Windows 8 — that is a mess. But both GNOME 3 and Ubuntu Unity? Both are solid, stable desktops that not only work well, but help to make the user focus on the work and the keyboard. Both desktops are efficient. But different and unique.

But wait, doesn't the Linux community thrive on that?

My theory is simple (and it's one I'll probably get blasted for):

The whole "mess" centers on GNOME 3 and Unity. They are the two key players in the battle. If you think about it, it's not that GNOME 3 and Unity are all that different — it's that they took on one of the favorite desktops (what is now called Classic GNOME) and radically altered it. So users of GNOME 2.x are forced to use something new and change the way they work.


The majority of Linux users are, at the core, much like other users — they don't like change. I was always one of those who jumped from desktop to desktop, just for the fun of it. I enjoyed trying new things and seeing what each interface had to offer. Even though Enlightenment still stands as one of my all time favorite interfaces, I use Unity — because it's so different (and it has some features that I've grown reliant upon). I have fond memories of experiencing the Minimalism of FluxBox and the trickery that can be used with AfterStep. But that's not the way of the average user. The average user (and I don't mean this as if it's a bad thing) gloms onto one idea (or, in this case, interface) and holds on for dear life.

When KDE 4 first came out, the KDE community was in an uproar — and the differences between KDE 3 and 4 are minimal — relatively speaking. Eventually KDE 4 won over the hearts of the community and the desktop just keeps getting better and better. When GNOME 3 arrived, it looked as if it could have been a huge success, but then politics came into play, and the users felt like the developers weren't listening to them... and in the end, you have a desktop that is actually quite good, but no one wants to use.

Unity has the same issue — with the added bonus of being strapped down by the backlash of a community that feels like Canonical is doing whatever it wants to Ubuntu Linux without a care or concern about their users.

Everyone just wants to go back to Classic GNOME and be done with it. Well, not everyone. In comparison to what we have now, Classic GNOME would look and feel like a dinosaur (to me, at least). So, yes, I am saying it seems as if it would take a giant step backwards to appease the majority of the Linux community.

We cannot afford to take even the tiniest step backward.

So, what is the solution? Simple: Merge GNOME 3 and Ubuntu Unity. Take the best of both and code them into a single, wonder-filled desktop. Bring the minds and talents of the developers of both teams together and have at it. Maybe the layout of GNOME 3, Unity's Dash, the GNOME 3 notification system and pager, the Unity HUD, the GNOME 3 compositor, and so on. Set aside the whole Wayland/Mir debacle, come up with a plan, and create a desktop every member of the Linux community would be proud to use.

I know, the politics of the idea would hit critical mass and it would be nightmare to maneuver. But if done properly, it could win back the masses and continue the forward motion started by both desktops.

There are a lot of Linux users out there holding onto grudges because one desktop or another slighted their project or their favorite tool. It's time we let go of that grudge and start thinking of the future. Linux is on a major precipice that could see it winning over a huge amount of users. With Windows 8 continuing to fail (and Microsoft doing nothing about it), the Linux community needs to look upon the current stagnation at Microsoft and take advantage of it. Merge, work together, accept, move on — whatever you have to do to look into the future and help the Linux desktop to get back on track.

Personally, I would love to see GNOME 3 and Unity somehow merge together. What could come of that might well blow the minds of desktop users. Will it happen? Probably not. Should it happen? Who knows. But if you wrap your brain around the possibilities, it becomes clear that both GNOME 3 and Ubuntu Unity both have some amazing features that deserve a chance.

The Linux desktop isn't nearly as much of a "mess" as so many seem to see it. If you've given Ubuntu Unity or GNOME 3 a real chance, you then know both desktops are highly usable, efficient, and very stable. How is that a mess? Yes, the politics of the issue are a mess. But politics, by definition, is a messy business. There always has been and always will be political wars going on in the Linux community. But those political wars cannot trickle out to the users... especially now when it could well be possible the Linux user base expands into the masses.


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

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