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In the last two years, the Linux desktop has settled into a period of quiet diversity. The user revolts of 2008-2012 are safely in the past, and users are scattered among at least seven major desktops — Cinnamon, GNOME, KDE,LXDE, MATE, Unity, and Xfce — and likely to stay that way.
So what comes next? What will the next innovations on the desktop be? Where will they come from? Prediction is as safe as investing in penny mining stocks, but some major trends for the next couple of years seem obvious without the bother of a tarot reading.
The bottom line? Expect a few incremental changes and many behind the scenes, but little or nothing to challenge traditional ideas of the desktop.
Some of the major desktops seem unlikely sources of change. The point of MATE is to provide a classical desktop. LXDE and Xfce have the same goal, but add being lightweight. All three have succeeded in their goals, so successfully that they seem to have nowhere else to go. Nor, to be fair, are many of their users likely to want major changes.
Xfce can sometimes be surprising, but, of these three desktops, MATE seems the most probable source of change, since Linux Mint does make some effort to develop MATE in tandem with Cinnamon.
However, even in MATE, upcoming changes are likely to be more of the same — incremental changes, rather than revolutionary ones. MATE’s latest release, for example, features the addition of Compiz as a window manager, and a dialogue for managing kernels — both of which are welcome enough, but unlikely to change the concept of the desktop.
After all, while Compiz’s cubed desktop catches the eye, it has been available for almost a decade. The only difference today is that more Linux systems today have the hardware acceleration to run it.
The prospects for Cinnamon are only slightly higher. Being an entirely new desktop, rather than a re-creation of an old one, as MATE is, Cinnamon is more oriented towards innovation. The last couple of releases in particular have seen the addition of hot spots, applets, desklets (desktop applets), and a rationalization of the configuration tools. All of this increases Cinnamon’s customizability, but fails to change or give new choices for how anyone works on the desktop.
The headings on the latest release announcement say it all: Responsiveness and memory usage, more polish, more settings and hardware sources.
During earlier releases, GNOME developers were the masters of incremental releases. GNOME 3 was a major departure, introducing radical changes and a move away from the classical desktop that sparked widespread user revolts. Those revolts were quieted by the introduction of extensions that allowed users to undo many of the radical changes, but the experience seems to have left the project with even less of a taste for radical changes than before.
Even the relatively modest changes proposed for an upcoming GNOME 4 appear to have been abandoned or postponed, to say nothing of the proposed schedule. Instead, the changes for the upcoming 3.16 release are the very definition of “incremental.”
What GNOME has been concentrating on is design. Starting with the minimalist design that the project has always favored, in the last few years, GNOME has developed a desktop is that by far the most consistent and most aesthetic of the major choices. GNOME has discussed improving security, but design is likely to continue to be its most obvious trend. Design is, after all, what it is best at.
KDE, whose fourth release series triggered the first user revolt, is now preparing the fifth version of its Plasma desktop. This time, the project is managing expectations better. Plasma 5 has been held back from general distribution, and version 5.2, currently in second beta, is apparently intended as the first to go into general release.
You're reading Linux Desktop Evolution: Minor, Invisible, Or Aesthetic
Predictions about when the year of the Linux desktop might finally arrive are a long-standing joke. They are so widespread that even Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, laughed about them in his keynote at this year’s LinuxCon.
However, in the past year, such predictions have been increasingly replaced by more basic questions: Will the Linux desktop — whatever its actual market share — survive at all? And, if not, what are the operating system’s survival prospects in a post-desktop world?
By “desktop,” of course, I mean the traditional workstation or personal computer — nobody’s predicting a mass retreat from graphical interfaces back to the command line. Instead, the questions are a variant of those circulating throughout IT, as phones, tablets, and other mobile devices become the most common computing devices.
But whether in the general or the Linux-specific form, the question has become a common meme among computer journalists. Searches on “is the desktop dead” and “is the desktop dying” return 440,000 and 160,000 results respectively, with everyone from Jason Perlow and Stephen J. Vaughan-Nichols to Mark Shuttleworth answering from the Linux side.
With all this discussion, the questions sound urgent and revolutionary, especially when Shuttleworth quotes Paul Maritz of VMware as predicting that, three years from now, desktop computers will account for only 20% of Internet traffic.
However, a little perspective is in order. If you’ve been around IT for a while, then you can’t help noticing that journalistic headlines and the statements of would-be visionaries always sound more dramatic than they turn out to be in practice. Often, they fail to materialize, or come true in only severely limited forms.
You might notice, too, that one technology almost never replaces another completely. Contrary to countless predictions, radio and movies were not replaced by TV, nor TV by DVD videos. Go back five years, and you find similar predictions being made about the laptop replacing work stations.
That didn’t happen, and the workstation isn’t likely to disappear completely in an avalanche of phones and tablets, either. The most that will probably happen is that its marketshare diminishes, perhaps maintaining its numbers while becoming a smaller percentage of total computer sales.
They are also cheaper — although often not that much cheaper — than workstations. Where in the past, one person might use a single workstation for all their computing, that same person today may also have a laptop, a phone, a tablet, and several other devices as well, and switch between them as needed or desired. This reality has already shifted the primary case study for interface design from the desktop to the mobile device, and will probably drive other unforeseen changes as well in years to come.Adapting to a World of Mobile Computing
Moreover, the package management systems of distributions are far closer to the app stores of mobile devices than anything that Windows or OS X can boast. In a world dominated by mobile devices, Linux can already deliver the service that users expect on the desktop.
For such reasons, the year of the Linux desktop could arrive precisely when the computer desktop no longer matters much.
However, whether Linux can also gain a share of the new mobile market is another issue altogether.
As recently as a year ago, the Linux desktop was easy to describe. GNOME and KDE dominated, both offered an ecosystem of applications, and neither much different from Windows and OS X in their goals or design. Xfce was a distant third, with other desktop environments trailing even further behind.
Now, at the start of 2012, the state of the Linux desktop is radically altered. GNOME and KDE remain popular, but GNOME has been fragmented by the rise of Ubuntu’s Unity shell.
Moreover, because of user dissatisfaction with GNOME and Unity, Xfce and other alternatives are receiving more consideration — although how many users are switching to them remains almost entirely undocumented.
What the long term affects of these changes will be is impossible to predict. Whether user dissatisfaction will continue, and which desktop environments will gain popularity as a result is anybody’s guess.
For now, the most you can say is that users of free and open source software have dropped the idea that a single desktop environment can suit everybody’s needs.
Instead, most user’s criterion for choosing a desktop fall into one of four main categories. In terms of appeal, desktop environments are either traditional, minimalist, experimental, or — in a class by itself — Unity.
Although some desktop environments could be squeezed into more than one category, the appeal of each of these types is usually quite distinct. For example, someone who prefers a minimalist environment is unlikely to consider an experimental one, any more than those who favor a traditional desktop will consider Unity. Generally, the appeal of these categories rarely overlaps
Traditional desktops are the conceptual descendants of Mac and Windows — or, on the free desktop, the KDE 3 and GNOME 2 series. They feature a configurable panel, a main menu, and a general workspace, sometimes augmented by virtual work spaces. Some traditional desktop users may be conservative, but just as many seem to think of an interface as the launcher for their applications, and to want nothing more except some basic customization of themes and wallpaper.
By far the most popular traditional environment is Xfce. You often see it described on distribution mailing lists as a stripped down GNOME desktop. Since the development team is careful to control code bloat, most distribution’s versions of Xfce are faster than their versions of GNOME or KDE.
However, because usability has become an equal priority in recent releases, to call Xfce minimalist no longer seems appropriate. Increasingly, it seems the alternative of choice for those who long for GNOME 2, including Linus Torvalds. Xfce’s major weakness is that it has only a small ecosystem of applications, although its ability to run KDE and GNOME applications is carefully maintained.
In GNOME 3, you can also choose fallback mode, which looks like GNOME 2, but lacks panel applets and the ability to add application icons to the desktop. In Linux Mint (and, I suspect, in other distributions very shortly), you have the option of enabling Mint GNOME Shell Extensions (MGSE), whose combined effect is to replicate GNOME 2 within GNOME 3.
Modern KDE itself can be configured to be a traditional desktop if you make a Folder View your desktop and set it to display the Desktop folder in your home directory. However, to use KDE in this way is to ignore many of its features, and many GNOME users disgruntled about GNOME 3 and Unity are unlikely to consider KDE as an alternative.
Moreover, for those who preferred the KDE 3, a better choice is probably the Trinity Desktop Environment (TDE). TDE is an updated port of KDE 3. In fact, its version numbers are a continuation of KDE 3.x’s. Because maintaining and updating the code is a huge effort, and the development team is small, TDE does suffer from more bugs than you may be used to. But, in general, TDE is an example of how, in free software, nothing is ever lost so long as someone is interested in preserving it.
Minimalist interfaces have a long history in free software. To this day, you can still find long-time users who restrict themselves to a window manager like IceWM, or — slightly more elaborately — a tiled window manager like Ratpoison.
However, for many users, these choices are too extreme. Usually, the preference for a minimalist environment is a reaction to the size or lack of speed of GNOME or KDE (usually involving the word “bloated”), but that doesn’t mean that their proponents want to give up all the convenience of a graphical interface. Some may be looking for an environment for older equipment, but most of those who favor minimalist environments simply seem to admire efficiency and simplicity over any other considerations.
One long-established minimalist choice that has undergone a minor revival in recent months is Enlightenment. Although originally described as a window manager, Enlightenment more closely resembles a lightweight desktop these days. It is highly configurable and generally stable, but users shopping around for an alternative might be put off by its slowness to reach a major release.
Instead, minimalist users seem to prefer more modern choices, such as LXDE, which promotes itself as a “fast-performing and energy-saving desktop environment.” One sign of LXDE’s popularity is that last year Lubuntu became an official variant of Ubuntu.
Another minimalist choice is Sugar, the interface for One Laptop Per Child. However, Sugar has had only limited acceptance as a general desktop environment. Its focus on children and education is not for everybody, and the interface, while simple to learn, may be too different for many users to seriously consider it.
The last year also saw the release of Razor-qt, whose home page summarizes it as “tailored for users who value simplicity, speed, and an intuitive interface.”
If none of these choice suit your minimalist instincts, do a search on Distrowatch for distributions based on various desktop environments. The majority of options in the desktop environment field are for minimalist options — proof, if any were needed, of how popular this criterion is.
Experimental desktops try to go beyond the traditional expectations and anticipate how users might work more efficiently. Although you can find many interesting experimental minor environments, to date, so far the major experimental desktops are GNOME and KDE.
It didn’t use to be that way. For the first decade of their existence, both GNOME and KDE had the same goal: to catch up to existing proprietary desktop environments like Windows. Having reached that goal several years ago, both projects decided to try to get ahead of their proprietary rivals, and innovate.
Until then, for all the famous flame wars, GNOME and KDE were functionally similar. If one added a new feature, the other was quick to follow, and efforts such as chúng tôi existed mainly to ensure mutual compatibility and cooperation.
But in KDE 4 and GNOME 3, the two most popular desktops presented dramatically different visions of the future of graphical interfaces.
Both abstracted the interface from the functional core, which allowed Unity to run on top of GNOME, and KDE to develop desktops for different hardware platforms. However, the results could hardly have been more different if deliberately chosen.
GNOME chose to eliminate clutter — by which it meant features like panel applets and icons on the desktops. In their place, GNOME added an overview and made virtual desktops an automatic feature. Instead of accommodating different work flows, it enforced a particular one in the hopes of making everything simpler and more efficient.
By contrast, KDE focused on increasing the choices on the desktop. Instead of a single desktop, it encouraged multiple ones, each with its own configuration. Instead of a single set of widgets and icons, KDE offered multiple ones. Where GNOME eliminated applets, KDE allowed its widgets to spill over from the panel to the desktop.
These were radical changes, and direct causes of the present desktop environment fragmentation. Both were too much for traditionalists, and neither were major moves toward minimalism, especially KDE, whose fourth release series is generally considered slower than its third release series.
All the same, both these experiments have their supporters. Whether you appreciate one of them depends on whether you agree with their assumptions of how desktop environments should involve. Of the two, KDE is more tolerant of different ways of working, but even it is often condemned by traditionalists and minimalists as being more complicated than anyone wants.
Amid the other desktop environments available today, Unity is an anomaly. It is not a traditional desktop, nor a minimalist one, and, far from being experimental, it is a simplification — some might say an over-simplification.
Just as importantly, Unity is not a reaction to user demands, nor an attempt to evolve the desktop. So far as anyone outside of Canonical and Ubuntu’s inner circles can judge, Unity appears to be largely the vision of one man: Mark Shuttleworth, who stepped down as Canonical CEO so he could focus on interface design.
The motivations driving Unity appear to be pragmatic ones, such as developing an interface suitable for a variety of hardware platforms, and borrowing features from OS X to fit a particular concept of usability. As much as Ubuntu’s elaborate color choices, Unity brands Ubuntu as a distribution unlike any other.
Much of the dislike of Unity seems more political than functional. The new environment was a top priority for Canonical and Ubuntu, and many resented the reluctance to explain the reasons for design designs, and the perceived lack of community input.
Outside of Canonical employees and long-time Ubuntu enthusiasts, praise for Unity seems muted. Some seem to be waiting to see how Unity develops before making up their minds about it. Others seem indifferent to it, so long as they can launch their applications with a minimum of effort.
When users do praise Unity, they usually mention its simplicity. Some also like the fact that configuration tools are not immediately obvious, since most users only use them immediately after installing. In many ways, Unity seems to have managed the reduction of clutter to which GNOME 3 aspired but fell short of.
With the Linux desktop pulling in all these directions at once, a return to the days when one desktop fit every need seems unlikely. The days are probably gone forever when one environment was only a minor variant of the others.
In some ways, this state of affairs seems wasteful. With different priorities, desktops cannot cooperate as easily as they once did, and duplication of effort seems inevitable. Some might argue, too, that the increased number of choices will only confuse new users.
Still, the fragmentation has its points. A project with clearly defined goals may be able to satisfy users more than an environment that tries to be all things to all people. Also, for long-time users, the increased recognition of minor projects seems long overdue.
Even more importantly, the user revolts that created the fragmentation may, in the long term, teach free software developers to start paying attention to users. Except in the case of Unity, developers looking at the last year may come to appreciate that they have no authority to impose changes on their user base. If they try, someone else is likely to come along with an innovation like the Mint GNOME Shell Extensions and give users what they want.
In the end, the fragmentation on the desktop may not be completely ideal. Yet, when you consider the individualism that is such a core value in the community, it is hard to imagine events happening in any other way.
Jim Zemlin, Linux Foundation
The recent merging of two leading open source groups, OSDL and FSG, seems like good news for Linux. With the combined resources of both outfits, the brand new Linux Foundation will have more muscle to fight the good fight and triumph in the never-ending battle against proprietary software.
Some murmured, darkly, that the Linux Foundation is merely a corporate front, with sponsors likes IBM, HP, Intel, and Novell (wait, didn’t Novell just sign an accord with…Microsoft?). So the Foundation is just a shadow group designed to put the corporate boot on the neck of Linux, some said.
Still others wondered if the Foundation would do anything useful at all. For instance, Gartner analyst George Weiss, quoted in chúng tôi opined that the group has a short window to prove itself: “If you don’t hear from them for another 12-15 months, and they disappear into the woodwork, you can write them off.”
Other observers scoffed at the notion of a central guiding light for Linux. All those free-spirited distros – Slackware, Knoppix, Gentoo, the list goes on – who’s going to rule them all? Organizing the Linux community is like herding cats. Nobody’s going to tell me what to do. (Translated: “If I wanted to be a subservient dweeb I’d buy a button-down shirt and go work for Microsoft.”)
So alas, add up all the doubts and you realize the new Linux Foundation has some work to do.
Someone, clearly, had to get to the bottom of this. So a humble reporter from Datamation, his notepad full of questions, placed a call to Jim Zemlin, the Linux Foundation’s executive director.
The first thing you realize upon talking with Jim Zemlin is that he’s a natural communicator. While many trade group spokespeople are scripted automatons, Zemlin seems open and real, even possessing a spark of charisma. A born front man.
Still, maybe that’s part of the plot by the Foundation’s corporate sponsors – hire someone who seems authentic. So Jim, what’s the deal? What about all this talk of big business controlling Linux?
Zemlin laughs. “I appreciate all the [talk of] conspiracy out there,” he says.
“There’s lot of theories out there, and you know what? That’s what I love about open source.” He chuckles again. “I love that stuff. But at the end of the day, this is about providing choice, about providing freedom. There are certain principles in the open source world that nobody is going to compromise.
“I’d say, for once in history, the interests of large corporations and community members, people who use technology, are aligned.
“And it is fine to have corporate participation. But I would also point out this organization will have direct representation from key community developers, on our board of directors. Our work group and technical activities are completely open. Our standards specifications are wholly published, online, free for all. The development tools that we build are completely available under an open source license, free to anyone who cares to download and use them.”
He welcomes close examination of the Foundation and its activities. “I think that scrutiny is a good thing. And this organization wants to be very open to that.”
Next page: Who Gave You the Authority?
In the Linux desktop world, the graphical user interface is here to stay. Old Unix hands may grumble, but the fact remains that, without all the efforts poured into GNOME, KDE, Xfce and others, Linux would not be as successful as it is today.
The reason for the desktop’s success is obvious. A desktop requires much less knowledge than a command line, and is suited to maybe 80% of the most common tasks that an average user needs. If the desktop needs much larger applications, that hardly seems a problem on a modern computer.
In fact, for many administrative tasks, the command line is actually easier than the desktop. Looking through my BASH history, I can see at least five circumstances in which I generally choose the command line over the desktop:
Whether you are copying, moving, or deleting files, the BASH shell gives you far more options than KDE’s Dolphin or GNOME’s Nautilus. Such desktop file managers do their best, but they can only plan for the average use cases, and add confirmation dialogs to prevent users from doing something rash.
Moreover, because menu and toolbars rarely have entries for symbolic links, a whole generation of desktop users are unaware that the possibility even exists, or when to use them.
By contrast, consider all the possibilities of a simple command such as cp (copy). To start with, you can decide whether you want an indication of progress, or the ability to confirm before overwriting files. If you want you can archive or backup files. You can choose to create symbolic links instead of copying, and whether to preserve file attributes, and you can ensure that you remain on the same filesystem or not. Other file management commands are similarly versatile, although some of the details differ.
Another practical consideration is that, when moving large numbers of files — for instance, when you are doing a backup — desktops tend to freeze, no matter how much RAM your machine has. Consequently, you can be left waiting for your file management to complete, unable to do anything else. Or, even worse, you can be left uncertain whether you have actually succeeded what you are doing. These problems simply don’t exist at the prompt.
Just as with the file management commands, the ls command gives you far more versatility than any desktop display. True, by definition you can’t have an icon view, but you can you use colors or symbols to indicate different types of files.
You also have all the filters available in desktop file managers, including whether to show hidden and backup files, as well as the ability to sort listings by extension, file size, time modified, and file version.
However, what I appreciate most about ls is that when you use the -l or -g option, all the information about file attributes is printed on a single line.
By contrast, in the average desktop file manager, you choose the default attributes to display, or at least their order (which, in anything less than a full-sized window, often comes down the same thing). Often, too, permissions are listed on a separate tab, and four or five keystrokes away.
Some applications simply defy a graphical interface. Oh, you can make one, if you insist, but the result is always proof (if you need any) that slapping everything into a window does not necessarily make for user friendliness.
That is especially true of applications with hundreds of options, such as Apache. However, it can also be true of much smaller utilities such as crontab. I have yet to see a crontag graphical interface that was not more intimidating than the command itself. By the time I have finished deciphering a desktop of crontab, I could have scheduled half a dozen jobs to run at a latter time.
Both apt-get and yum, the leading package management tools, have had graphical front ends for years. However, just as with file managers, you can practically hear graphical package tools like Synaptic or the Ubuntu Software Centre grinding away when processing large numbers of files. In fact, when you update, many of these desktop tools simply freeze — often while giving very little indication of what is happening.
Moreover, if you want to install something too soon after you log in, often the graphical tools have a conflict with the update applet. When that happens, you either have to wait or decide which one to close.
Next Page: Command line and desktop resources….
When you come from the proprietary operating system way of thinking, it’s difficult to get your mind around the idea of not automatically needing to upgrade your PC hardware every two years. While upgrading is not an absolute necessity, more often than not we feel compelled to, as if to make sure we enjoy maximum compatibility.
On the Linux desktop, however, it’s completely different. You aren’t bound to the usual set of rules that come with a proprietary desktop. Generally speaking, peripherals from any time period are going to do well on the Linux desktop.
Unlike Windows 7 or OS X, today’s modern Linux distributions have very solid ‘out of the box’ support for just about any peripheral you happen to throw at it. Even better, most new peripherals work without ever needing to concern yourself with installing drivers.
This means the end user is free to upgrade to a new PC because they’re seeking a performance increase, not because of compatibility concerns. And it’s worth noting that sometimes upgrading for increased performance is beneficial.
In this article, I’ll highlight examples of instances where a PC upgrade makes sense and which distribution is best suited for older hardware.
A new PC
For the most part, I’ve found that any PC capable of running LibreOffice is more than enough to meet my needs. The one exception to this is when I need to do a lot of video editing. While older PCs are still capable of running most video editing suites for Linux, rendering edited video is another story. Fact is, the faster the machine, the quicker you’ll have a finished video project.
So for anyone needing to run high-intensity applications like video editing/rendering and some image processing, owning a newer PC is a bonus. And on this new PC, you’re free to run any distribution and desktop environment you happen to think will be the best fit for you.
Common choices include Linux distributions that come with KDE or Gnome immediately available. Obviously, you can install any desktop environment you like. For the sake of this example, we’re looking at the desktop environments installed by default for different distributions.
Distributions such as Ubuntu, Fedora, and OpenSuSEdo well on new PCs. Each of these distributions offer either Gnome, KDE or the option to choose one of these desktop environments during the initial setup.
If you’re looking at running one of these three distributions, you might be wise to consider a newer computer. It’s not a must, but it will allow you to get more out of the three above distributions.
When dealing with older PCs, the options do become a bit more limited. Because even if you opt for light-weight friendly distributions using light-weight desktop environments, the fact of the matter is some software needs more resources than the old PC can provide.
However, if the PC is destined for merely light tasks – video viewing on YouTube, working within the constraints of an office suite such as LibreOffice – then you will find that most older PCs will do just fine.
Distributions that are well matched for older PCs include Xbuntu, PCLinuxOS, Arch Linux, CrunchBang, and Puppy Linux.
Yes, there are others, but these are the distributions I feel good about recommending. And I’d also point out that Puppy Linux is so light-weight, it will run on ancient PCs that even the other distributions in the above list won’t work well with.
Think tasks, not hardware
Now that I’ve separated the two classes of PC options into new and old, the next step is to consider the components of each computer. Is the PC an older model that has really poor cooling?
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