The user revolts against KDE 4, Gnome 3, and Unity have left desktop Linux developers with a fear of innovation, exactly when that’s what’s needed.
Between 2008 and 2011, KDE, Ubuntu, and Gnome all released radically new interfaces. The mediocre reception received by all three has left developers so cautious that innovation on Linux desktop environments has been curtailed, except for minor changes. Yet innovation on the desktop is long overdue.
Before this brief era, Linux DEs were focused on equaling the functionality of their proprietary equivalents. However, by 2005 this goal had been realized and developers had begun discussing what should come next. Particularly among KDE developers, the feeling was that Linux DEs had the chance to become pacesetters in interface design.
This feeling was expressed by Mark Shuttleworth of Canonical in a speech a few months after KDE’s radically different 4.0 version was released. Speaking at OSCON in July 2008, Shuttleworth asked, “Can we go right past Apple in the user experience we deliver?” The question was a challenge, and developers who were not already considering how to innovate soon were.
Unfortunately, one by one the major attempts at innovation faltered, not always because of the programming. KDE 4.0, for example, was a major departure from the KDE 3 release series but might have been better received had KDE explained more clearly that it was a developer’s release, and distributions had not rushed to include it in their repositories. The result was a users’ revolt that was only cut short by a rush of new features in the next two releases that answered most of the complaints.
Other programmers, though, were slow to learn the lessons of KDE 4.0. At the time, Linux’s popularity was still new, and many programmers were not used to criticisms from end users. Not long before, programmers and users had been close to synonymous. Consequently, many responded to criticism with sarcasm and suggested that the complainers should code the changes they demanded for themselves.
This attitude perhaps explains why two more user revolts followed.
In the case of Ubuntu’s Unity, the design was so uninspired that the DE never managed to top 5% on any user polls. Users resented the fact that interface designers newly hired by Canonical suddenly had control over Ubuntu’s DE. More importantly, many of the changes were not so much innovative as arbitrary, such as the placement of application menus in the top panel rather than in separate windows. Other changes, such as the so called Heads-Up Display that was supposed to replace menus, were never finished.
Even after the initial outrage receded, Unity was regarded with indifference. From my observation, the majority of users replaced it immediately after completing installation of the distro. Later, built-in Amazon searches lead to privacy concerns. By the time Unity was abandoned in favor of a return to Gnome in 2016, few could have been surprised.
The Gnome 3.0 release in April 2011, less than a year after Ubuntu introduced Unity, was in many ways a replay of the KDE 4.0 release. With little or no consultation with users, Gnome developers decided the best way to improve the popular Gnome 3 was to remove clutter from the desktop (“minimizing distractions such as notifications, extra workspaces, and background windows,” was how Gnome’s press release put it).
No one, apparently, had counted on the fact that many users wanted those distractions for their work. Gnome resisted complaints for months before abruptly capitulating with the release of Gnome Extensions that allowed more customization. By then, though, Gnome’s user base had fragmented, much of it gone for good.
The short term result of these user revolts was increased choice. Xfce, for years the third most popular DE, surged in popularity, and today often polls better than Gnome. To a lesser extent, LXDE revived. New DEs, like Budgie and Linux Mint’s Cinnamon and MATE, were also created. All these DEs had two features in common: their developers listened to users, and changes were mostly small improvements rather than radical new directions.
If that second feature seems too much of a generalization, consider the upcoming Xfce 4.14 release. Developers have labored over it for several years, and I am sure it will be gratefully received by users. But although I have no wish to denigrate Xfce’s developers — who are only giving users what they want– consider the key features of the upcoming release: a migration to GTK3, bug fixes for the panel and other parts of the DE, and the optimization of the file manager. All are no doubt welcome, and the migration is no small matter, but have more to do with housekeeping than innovation.
Nor is Xfce an exception in this regard. The same can be said of any of the leading DEs today, although Cinnamon has shown flashes of innovation in recent years such as the addition of hot spots on the desktop. Even KDE Plasma, the most innovative DE today, emphasizes what is safe and de-emphasizes innovations like Activities. In fact, code-cleaning actually removed some features of Activities.
Moreover, when it came time to produce a mobile UI, Plasma developers chose to build a conventional interface from scratch rather than dust off the more advanced Plasma Active with its spinner racks and Activities. The collective instinct seems to be to shy away from anything too different.
The Need for Innovation
Modern developers cannot be blamed for their reluctance to change DEs too greatly. No one needs to excuse themselves for preferring not to have the work of months dismissed by often ignorant outsiders.
Yet, at the same time, we are still using interfaces based on the same principles of those used in the days of 20 MB hard drives. The menu in particular has become a click-driven dive through a maze of menu levels. We endure the inconvenience because it has settled in slowly, but a better alternative is overdue. The same goes for the crowded panels and notification areas. Yet we continue to trundle along with obsolete makeshifts.
Perhaps, like monolithic corporations, DE projects have become too large for us to expect innovation from them. Perhaps a small new DE is necessary to provide the innovation that is needed. In the meantime, the lesson of the user revolts encourages DEs to keep safe.