The Linux desktop circus

Jack Wallen has grown concerned with the state of the Linux desktop. Could there be trouble on the horizon, or is this just a period of growth? Read on and chime in.

At the end of last week, I decided to toss caution to the wind and upgrade my running-like-a-champ Ubuntu 10.10 desktop installation. I had hesitated for a number of reasons, but eventually some of the pros far outweighed the cons. I did the upgrade online (instead of using the installation CD) and I have to admit, this upgrade went better than any other operating system release upgrade I've ever witnessed. Everything worked. I have yet to experience a single problem.

I still, however, do not like Ubuntu Unity. That's okay because, at the moment, you can still enjoy Classic GNOME on Ubuntu 11.04. Or you can opt to install KDE (by installing Kubuntu Desktop). Right now I'm enjoying a close a representation of the desktop I had before the upgrade occurred (sadly, minus Compiz).

After this upgrade experience, I started thinking, "It's time I look for a new desktop distribution." Although I do enjoy Ubuntu, there are aspects about my GNOME/Compiz desktop I don't like working without. I could, of course, wait until 11.10 which will include GNOME 3 (instead of Classic GNOME), which is a pretty good desktop. But what about openSUSE (with either GNOME 3 or KDE -- no Classic GNOME). Or, I could migrate to Fedora 15, which already uses GNOME 3 and does a bang-up job with it. Or, there are a couple of projects attempting to bring GNOME 3 to Ubuntu...but the current state of the GNOME libraries on Ubuntu makes this a huge challenge. Or...what about Bodhi Linux (which I've covered here and really like); it's Ubuntu combined with E17 and Ecomorph...

Okay, okay...this is getting crazy. The introduction of Ubuntu Unity and the evolution of GNOME to GNOME 3 has turned the Linux desktop into a circus. It use to be that one could just pick a distribution, based on which package manager and admin tools they liked, and then install whatever desktop they wanted. But now, that's not always possible. I'm starting to worry that this fracturing of the Linux desktop is going to wind up having repercussions the Linux community is not going to like. Let's face it, some do not like Unity, some do not like GNOME 3 or Classic GNOME, some do not like KDE. I understand why distributions are centered around a specific desktop -- it would be a big challenge to support every desktop out there. But, in all honesty, not all desktops have to be supported. What I see is a need for every distribution to offer the following desktops for installation:

  • GNOME 3
  • KDE
  • Enlightenment
  • Xfce

Those four desktops cover such a wide range of styles that they should please just about any type of user. You will notice that Classic GNOME is not listed. Although I really feel Classic GNOME is one of the most solid desktops I've ever used, it cannot be an option if GNOME 3 is to continue and flourish. That would be like insisting KDE 3.5 still be an option.

Now I'm not saying every distribution should offer ISO images of their desktop for each desktop. I am saying they should have each desktop included in their repositories, so that installation is as simple as searching for the desktop in Synaptic (or the Ubuntu Software Center, or Package Kit) and installing it.

Figure A

What I see happening is a collision course with another desktop war heating up -- only this time it won't be GNOME vs. KDE, it will be GNOME 3 vs. Unity vs. KDE and distributions will start getting caught in the cross fire. Users will start jumping ship because of the confusion and challenges brought about by attempting to get what they want (a task that has always been relatively simple on the Linux desktop.)

As you can see (in Figure A) my current desktop is a conglomeration of a number of elements. This is Classic GNOME with a single, auto-hide panel, Cairo Dock, and a couple of Screenlets. Of all the iterations of the Linux desktop I have used, this setup has been the most efficient for me. As you can clearly see, it looks somewhat similar to the layout of Unity -- with a few changes. If Unity would offer up a few configuration options I might be able to settle down with that desktop. Unfortunately Ubuntu is going the way of Apple and saying, "This is how you will use your desktop." The good news is that I can get that same desktop layout, with quite a bit of extra work, using an Ecomorph-enabled E17 desktop. But that extra work shouldn't be necessary! With Classic GNOME that desktop is ready in under five minutes. With Unity - it's not possible. KDE? No way.

I'm not saying that the only desktop with any merit is the one that I use. What I am saying is the current state of the Linux desktop is starting to bring a bit of unrest to the Linux operating system. I would hate to see either of these scenarios:

  • Users abandon Linux out of frustration with the desktops.
  • Distributions start locking down their releases so that no other desktop can be installed.

A year ago I would have said no way would either of those scenarios happen. Now? I'm not so sure.

What do you think? Does the state of the Linux desktop excite you or concern you?