A place for GNOME?

There has been a lot of doom and gloom spoken about the GNOME desktop environment and the project behind it. These days it seems to be the fashionable thing to go constantly criticising it, especially after what Linus Torvalds said. KDE went through the same sort of experience a few years ago and seems to have got far enough beyond it that some are choosing it in preference to GNOME. For a good while, it was the other way around.

Since its inception, the GNOME Shell has attracted a lot of adverse comment. However, since my first encounter, it has grown on me to the point that I add it to Ubuntu and Linux Mint and use it as my default desktop environment instead of Unity, Mate or Cinnamon. The first of these may not be so surprising because of the unique approach has been taken. The use of lenses and an application launch bar are items to which I could adapt but its the merging of application menus and title bars with the top panel of the desktop that really puts me off it. Application window buttons can be moved to the right everywhere but on this global menu so I tend to view things from afar instead of using it everyday. There just is something about the experience that won’t grow on me. Strangely, that also applies to my impressions of KDE albeit in a different; there just is something less slick about the appearance of the bottom panel, the plasmoids and other items like them.

Given that Mate and Cinnamon continue the GNOME 2 approach to things that dominated my home computing for much of the last five years since I turned to Ubuntu, my decision to use GNOME Shell in preference to either come as a surprise. It isn’t that the environments aren’t slick enough but that I have come to prefer the way that GNOME Shell handles workspaces, spawning them as you need them. If that could be an option in Cinnamon, then it might become my desktop of choice but that seems to go against the philosophy of the project even if someone adds and extension for it.

For a time, I played with going with LXDE rather than either Unity or GNOME Shell; as it happened, my first impressions of the latter weren’t so positive until I spent a day with the GNOME variant of Fedora 15. Being not dissimilar to GNOME 2 in the way that it worked was the main attraction of LXDE and my initial use of it was with Lubuntu running on a netbook; the LXDE version of Linux Mint 12 now runs on it so there hasn’t been so much change on that machine.

Sometimes, the only way to deal with change is to take a look at it to see what’s coming and to decide what you need to do about it. In the case to GNOME Shell, my day with Fedora 15 on a backup PC changed my impressions and Linux Mint 11’s GNOME 2 desktop looked a bit old-fashioned afterwards. In fact, I popped GNOME 3 on there and have been using it as my main desktop environment ever since.

In computing, there always are some who expect things to just work and be the way that they want them. The need for extra configuration is a criticism that still can be levelled at GNOME Shell. Before going with Mate and Cinnamon, Linux Mint went the same way and I wonder what be done with such an approach. Will someone else pick up that baton and do the handiwork so that users don’t have to do it? Not yet, it seems. Since no one is following the lead of Linux Mint 12, there is a need for user tweaking and I have found which ones work for me and it no longer takes so to do them either.

The first place to begin is GNOME’s Extensions website and I raid a few extensions from there every time I do an operating system installation. The Alternative Status Menu extension is among the first to get added so that I have the shutdown option again on the user menu, a common criticism of the default set up. Since I always install the GNOME Tweak Tool from the distro repositories, I add the Advanced Setting in User Menu extension to get an entry in the status menu that grants quick access. Frippery Bottom Panel comes next on the list because of its workspace switcher and application window list. Others like Frippery Move Clock, Monitor Status Indicator, Places Status Indicator, Removable Drive Menu, Remove Accessibility, Shell Restart User Menu Entry and User Themes follow in some order and make things feel more pleasing, at least to my mind.

You aren’t stuck with the default theme either and I have chosen Elementary Luna from deviantART. For adding your own themes, the above listed User Themes extension is needed. Because I want Frippery Bottom Panel to match the top panel, I tweak its stylesheet and that’s where the Restart User Menu Entry extension comes in handy, though some care is needed not to crash the desktop with constant shell restarts.

Doing the above makes GNOME Shell really amenable to me and I wouldn’t like to lose that freedom to customise. Saying that, the continued controversial changes aren’t stopping yet. Those made to the Nautilus file manager in GNOME 3.6 have caused the Linux Mint project to create Nemo, a fork of the software, and Ubuntu is sticking with the previous version for now. Taking some action yourself instead of just complaining loudly sounds a more positive approach and it too makes its own statement. Many want the GNOME project team to listen to users and the new Nautilus appears not to be what they needed to see. Could the project go on like this? Only time can answer that one.

While it appears that many have changed from GNOME to other desktop environments, I haven’t come across any numbers. A reducing user base could be one way of sending a message and it makes use of a great feature of free software: there is plenty of choice. If the next version of Nautilus isn’t to my taste, there are plenty of alternatives out there. After all, Cinnamon started on Linux Mint and has gone from there to being available for other distros too; Fedora is one example. Nemo could follow suit.

Now that GNOME’s constituent applications are seeing changes, it may be that GNOME Shell is left to mature. Computer interfaces are undergoing a lot of change at the moment and Microsoft Windows 8 is bringing its own big leap. Though controversial at the time, change can be a good thing too and us technical folk always like seeing new things come along (today saw the launch of iPhone 5 and many folk queueing up for it; Google’s Nexus 7 ran out of stock in its first weeks on the market; there are more). That could be what got me using GNOME 3 in the first place and my plan is to stick with it for a while yet.