Analysis If a major Linux desktop falls in the forest and no one is around to use it, does it make a sound?
That's a question the GNOME project would do well to contemplate. The once mighty Linux desktop has stumbled and looks like it might be poised to come crashing down after the release of GNOME 3.
Here's the problem: the radical rewrite that is the GNOME 3 desktop seems to have pleased almost no one.
It isn't just unhappy users that are leaving; developers are leaving too. GNOME developer Benjamin Otte wrote a blog post entitled Staring into the Abyss, noting that "core developers are leaving GNOME development" and that the project "is understaffed," "has no goals" and is "losing market and mindshare."
Worse for GNOME, two major Linux distros have jumped ship entirely, preferring to create their own desktops. Canonical's Ubuntu has the Unity desktop and popular newcomer Mint Linux has created not one, but two new desktop projects.
If that wasn't demoralising enough for GNOME developers, Linux Torvalds himself called GNOME 3 "an unholy mess", going on to add that he's never met anyone who likes it.
Torvalds may be prone to both outbursts and hyperbole, but together all these sketches of GNOME in trouble blend to paint a picture of a desktop in crisis.
And to think GNOME 3 was originally rejected by the project developers. The complete re-imagining of the desktop that was to be GNOME 3 (originally nicknamed ToPaZ) was initially set aside because it went against the underlying philosophy of the GNOME development community -- incremental improvements. Indeed it was incremental improvements and little rocking of the boat that brought many users to GNOME in the first place.
Of course eventually GNOME 3 did happen and the project made a fundamental mistake that has now cost it not just mindshare, but marketshare as well - GNOME decided to abandon the users it did have to chase users it didn't.
"Gnome is like the protagonist of a romantic comedy, chasing someone it will never catch even as it misses what was always there - its old user base."
What makes that decision all the more confusing is that, as Otte points out, GNOME is chasing users that are moving to devices GNOME doesn't work on - tablets and smart phones.
What happened that made GNOME developers seemingly abandon all sense of sanity and design a desktop interface that almost no one wants?
It's tempting to compare GNOME to KDE and its transition from KDE 3 to 4, which was similarly disruptive to work flows and generated a similar amount of negative press and hand wringing. However, while KDE 4 may have been a bumpy ride, it was always pretty clear where KDE 4 was headed, it just took a while to get there.
The more likely candidates for inspiring GNOME's 3.0 stumble is Apple's iOS and Google's Android OS.
The touch screen came like a blinding white light that obliterated developers' interest in anything as mundane as the desktop and laptops people use to do actual work. Suddenly developers everywhere were seized by a kind of touch-screen mania that has warped computing visions not just in the GNOME world, but in the Windows world as well. Windows 8 exhibits the same kind of iOS/Android envy that GNOME displays, it just manifests it in a different design.
A shared Microsoft experience
Unfortunately what both Microsoft and the GNOME project seemed to have missed is that in creating iOS for mobile devices Apple, well, created iOS for mobile devices. It did not rewrite the OS X desktop that runs on Macs, nor did it try to re-imagine the desktop computing paradigm. Apple created something entirely new that was always designed with touch screens in mind. Say what you will about the result, at least the goal was clear from the get-go.
GNOME had a sizable user base. It had the support of companies well beyond its Red Hat stable, including Red Hat competitors like SUSE and even phone-giant Nokia (both have since all but dropped their commitments to GNOME); yet, it abandoned that to chase what its developers call "innovation" in a space where Linux users don't want innovation.
Now Gnome is like the protagonist of a romantic comedy, chasing someone it will never catch even as it misses what was always there - its old user base. In romantic comedies the character typically has an epiphany, recognizes what they had all along and all is made right in the world.
Thus far GNOME appears to have had no such epiphany, just a slow steady stream of distros dropping or forking the once popular desktop. Ubuntu has moved on to Unity, Mint continues to pull in GNOME 3 refugees with Cinnamon. Torvalds and others have jumped ship for XFCE, KDE, LXDE or countless other small desktops.
When Fedora 18 ships this month it may well be the last of the big distros to stick with GNOME 3. Indeed if GNOME's current trajectory holds it may well become just "the Red Hat desktop" and there will be few users around to hear it come crashing down in the Linux forest. ®