From the recent minor Ubuntu “crisis”, I have managed to distill some good bits too. Here’s one from Mark: “If you’ve done what you want for Ubuntu, then move on.” I think this is great advice. Why loiter around making useless noise when a community and its project change in ways you’re not comfortable with?
To add balance, I myself have received from Ubuntu what I came for in 2004, and much, much more. I’m not very interested in any of the Special Ubuntu Stuff that we’ve been receiving in the last couple of years. I came for an easy Debian-like system with a reliable release cycle (and latest GNOME!), but Debian itself is much better with this stuff now, so there’s no reason really to keep using Ubuntu (and to keep stripping all the Ubuntu niceties and adding GNOME goodies).
Not sure what I should do, this is just a point that stood out. It’s even in our Code of Conduct. “Step down considerately.”
In any case, there are a couple of things I’ve actually committed myself to doing this year, so that’s what I’m going to do first – with minimal whineage, I promise! Who knows what I’ll be thinking this December, we’re just getting warm for this year!
#ubuntu-offtopic is often quite funny, but we’re really all just accidental and often oblivious comedians. This is why
levo decided to bite the bullet and simply ask if anyone might be aware of something more professional. Turns out this valuable piece of information is the sole property of
IdleOne, and it ain’t cheap. For shame!
I can’t believe it’s been five years since I wrote my “10 years of GNOME” post, but it seems to be true! Actually, the anniversary was yesterday already, but I didn’t get the chance to write about it then. So, I’m doing that now.
I’m not going to spend too much of your time reminiscing the past. I’ll leave it to Havoc’s excellent comment on LWN’s 15th anniversary article, firstly because he actually knows what he’s talking about, and secondly because he does it so eloquently. From GNOME 1 through GNOME 2 to GNOME 3, we’ve come a long way in usability, elegance, and community building.
May there be many more years of success for my favorite free desktop!
Today, the Ubuntu community is observing the first Community Appreciation Day, for good reason. I have never worked with a stronger community. Ever since Ubuntu was born in 2004, I have argued so much with people who disagree with me, in such a civilised manner, having a great time and eventually coming up with consensus. There are other free software communities who create wonderful stuff, but Ubuntu is unique because of its ethos or respect and mutual help. I wish to be able to serve this community for a long time still.
Thank you for these years, and may there be many more.
The Finnish Linux User Group FLUG has awarded Jukka Ehto, the IT chief of the city of Kankaanpää with the Linux Contributor of the Year Prize. Lehto managed a large virtualization and desktop project(1) in the city, using Red Hat’s virtualization technology. In the process, he shaved off about 50% of his budget and 10% of the average time to deploy a new workstation. The prize includes a 2000 euro award.
Jukka’s example is a great reminder for all of us that using your brain is allowed even in the public sector. :)
The committee also decided to give two honorary mentions. These go to Jarkko Moilanen for his great work in the Meego Network Finland community, and Hannu Martikka who has done wonderful work in advancing Linux awareness in Nokia.
Congratulations to all!
(1) I know I know, the story smells like Red Hat marketing, but I couldn’t find a better one in English quickly.
For some time already, it has been evident that #ubuntu-server needs more operators. If you are interested in joining our great team of operators, please see this wiki page for instructions and apply no later than August 5th.
Also have a look at this old post which I wrote a while ago but still has some relevant advice.
Thanks for your sacrifice :)
In a very short while, I have had the opportunity to try three new desktops. KDE 4 (not new but completely unknown to me previously), Unity on Ubuntu Natty (not a new desktop, but a novel shell nevertheless), and GNOME 3. I have previously documented my experiences on KDE 4 and Unity, and in this third and final installation it is GNOME 3′s turn.
As I revealed before, I’m no stranger to GNOME by any means, having used it since the first stable version was released. I remember the desperation, bewilderment, and uproar from a portion of the user community when the transition from 1.4 to 2.0 happened in 2002. Many configuration options were removed from the user interface, which was interpreted by many as functionality being removed. Visual clutter was removed both in the GTK+ widgets and the GNOME applications and dialogs, due to developers beginning to follow the newly created GNOME Human Interface Guidelines, themselves largely a result of professional usability testing done by Sun. Some users and developers rebelled against such preposterous dumbing down of the interface and removal of 290 of their 300 panel configuration options, and there briefly existed even a fork of GNOME, trying to fight back change.
Eventually, the ruckus died down. Some of the loudest critics of “dumbing down” GNOME probably went to other desktops that retained their configuration options in the UI, others realized that the functionality did not in fact diminish but was actually greatly improved. The defaults were accepted by those who liked them, and those who did not learned to change the hidden gconf keys that controlled them.
GNOME 3 has officially been in development for five long years, having been announced in the 2008 GUADEC. I remember jdub giving talks on ToPaZ (Three Point Zero) at even earlier GUADECs, possibly as early as 2004 but certainly in Stuttgart in 2005. The first mockups were blue-sky visions of a future desktop where people and tasks come first, with applications and interface elements disappearing from your work-flow. I loved it.
Now that GNOME 3.0 is finally out, I’m surprised by the relatively mild protest from old GNOME users. To be sure, the perceived pain in the Ubuntu community over Unity has been much louder. This may be because I live in the Ubuntu community so I can hear the yelling better. Or perhaps because a large portion of Ubuntu users simply have never lived through any significant user interface change before. After all, Ubuntu 11.04 even offers the exact same GNOME 2.32 as the previous release, with a slightly different shell! Surely GNOME 3.0 should be a greater shock.
I must find out!
In at the deep end: going ToPaZ
Ubuntu did not offer me GNOME 3.0, so I went off to obtain a system that does. I first downloaded Fedora 15, which had just graduated to stable status. However, I was unable to get my wireless chip tamed under Fedora, because RPMFusion did not yet have either the free driver nor NDISwrapper. I had last used Red Hat in 2000 (Zoot) and never touched Fedora, so I thought I would skip the learning session. I knew that Debian has GNOME 3.0 in experimental, so I used this as an excuse to run Debian again, quickly proceeded to install Sid and grab GNOME from experimental.
GNOME 3 works hard to put the application window you’re working in to the forefront and keep the interface out of your way. The applications themselves have of course received their own share of new functionality, as with every six-month increment that is the GNOME release cycle. The fast release cycle guarantees that there almost never are great, big, upgrades to your apps, but that the changes drop in little by little, which makes it easy for users to move on to the next version. I love that.
The biggest change this time is GTK+ 3.0 and the accompanying breakage of old themes. Many of your favorite GTK 2.x themes simply won’t work anymore, because the theme authors have not yet ported their theme to the new toolkit, and I assume many themes will never be ported. This was also a problem with the move from 1.x to 2.x – you just need to find a tolerable theme that does work on both versions. By default, my Debian desktop used the new default Adwaita theme for GTK 3.0 and the old default Clearlooks for 2.x applications. Naturally, being on Sid and pulling GNOME 3.0 from experimental also means that I’m running a collection of 2.x applications from Sid and the 3.0 apps that ship with the official GNOME release. I found a solution from gnome-look.org in the form of “Aldabra“, which copies the Adwaita look for 3.0 and ports it very well to 2.x. This looks very consistent, and Qt apps assume the look as well, thanks to Qt’s ability to assume the GTK+ 2.x look in use.
Adwaita itself looks wonderful, but it also serves a couple of annoyances. While the menu bar on focused windows blends beautifully into the title bar, the latter’s color change on unfocused windows breaks the illusion. The toolbars are huge, with lots of padding around icons. I assume this is for the benefit of touchscreen users and learned from Meego developers. Big, fat toolbars probably are the way to go on touch devices, but it’s a terrible waste of space on other small screens such as netbooks. The scroll bar is also likely the fattest I have ever witnessed. Adwaita is only a theme though, and not a very good whining object.
GNOME apps are GNOME apps, and there isn’t very much to talk about after each six month development cycle. The great disruption in GNOME 3 is the GNOME Shell, which does away with the panel, the main menu system, and the Metacity window manager, and replaces the whole lot with a completely new desktop metaphor. Is it any good? It is absolutely fantastic. The GNOME team (and the shell developers in particular) deserve a big hat tip for having the patience to develop such a comprehensive, re-imagined vision for computer desktops, and the courage to execute on that vision.
Before you start the clean desktop is just that: clean. The first impression of GNOME 3 is provided by the beautiful look. It looks very smart, neat, and professional. “GNOME 3 looks expensive,” in the words of one reviewer. (Who happens to otherwise absolutely hate GNOME 3. We shall see whether or not I agree.) The shell team also threw away the panel menu concept altogether, but placed a single “Activities” button at the left end of the top panel, which is very discoverable and begs a new user to click on it. In fact you don’t have to even click if you’re too lazy, just throw your mouse in the corner, which will bring out the Activities view.
The Activities view needs no manual to operate, it is very discoverable, giving access to everything. Open windows on the current workspace are represented by big thumbnails with clear captions. Running applications on all workspaces have glowing icons on the dock on the left. You can pin favorite applications to the dock via drag and drop or the dock’s context menu. Hovering over the partially obscured workspace pager on the right hand side lets you switch workspaces. You can launch new applications by clicking on the “Applications” headline at the top row and selecting one from a smartphone-like matrix, which you can also filter by traditional menu categories. You can also launch applications by simply typing, which will activate the search field. The same search can even search Google or Wikipedia. If you don’t feel like clicking, you can bring up the Activities view also by hitting the Super key (A.K.A Windows key). It’s the only user interface you’ll need, and to be clear, it’s also all you get.
The Activities view is the heart of the Shell, and naturally, it is also the home of most of GNOME 3.0′s annoyances and regressions.
You can bring up the view with a keyboard shortcut, and you can launch an application by searching and hitting enter. You can even change workspaces with keyboard shortcuts. But you can only select a window from the Activities view by clicking it. This makes me absolutely mad. The shell has potentially the best window management system ever, but this regression ruins it. I only hope it will be fixed in 3.2. Fortunately, you don’t have to use Activities to switch windows on a workspace. Alt-Tab has been greatly improved. Plain old Alt-Tab cycles between applications, and brings up the latest active window belonging to the application. Switching through individual windows is implemented with an Alt-<above-Tab> shortcut instead (above the Tab key on my Finnish keyboard lives the ‘§’ key, Americans tell me they have ‘`’ in there). But once hitting the Super key and entering Activities for everything got into my muscle memory, I keep missing this opportunity and have to come back from Activities for Alt-Tab action.
While Shell in general works very smoothly on my little netbook, bringing up the Applications selector takes forever. Populating the GNOME menu for the first time in a session always took a while, but since you now get all the apps by default instead of single categories, this is a real pain. Debian doesn’t make this easier by duplicating everything with both the Debian menu and the GNOME menu items. Fortunately, the search is my default way of launching anything anyway.
Workspace management is the best ever. The virtual desktop concept has been pretty much entirely reformed, and is another success in addition to window management. For the first time, I am actually using each workspace as a task-specific “activity”, something that the KDE “activities” system so ingeniously tries to do, but in there I somehow failed to use it. You leave windows for each task open and switch to the next desktop when starting a new task, or indeed, activity. New workspaces are dynamically created and deleted as needed. I love that. Who knows in the morning how many desktops they want or need by the end of the day? Well, you don’t need to, as they just magically come and go, following your work-flow.
Annoyingly, the use of virtual desktops is somewhat brutally enforced on users by the removal of the minimize button from windows by default. I ended up re-adding both minimize and maximise buttons, although maximising also works easily by dragging a window to the top of the screen à la Windows 7. As one reviewer put it, “Basically, the designers of GNOME 3 have decided that users will use activities, regardless of whether they want to or not.” Well, I do want to use them, but I don’t like being forced.
The notification system is simply brilliant. GNOME 3 has a standards-compliant notification area, but it’s hidden “under” the bottom right corner of the screen until you throw your mouse to the corner. Old apps, even KDE apps such as Quassel use the notification area seamlessly, as well as the pop-up notifications that briefly inform you that the system or an application has something to say. You can ignore the notifications if you so choose, and they stay hidden in the notification area until you’re ready to take a look. Integrating chat into the notifications is a very nice touch as well: you can reply to a chat message directly from the notification bubble and get back to work, or postpone it and come back to it later. Two annoyances plague this otherwise great system: the Empathy notification icon will keep blinking even after I react to the initial notification until I actually click on the icon to bring up Empathy. The other thing is that notification area icons are moving targets, because when you hover over one, a descriptive text appears beside it, moving the icon and every other icon to the left of it. I don’t think it is acceptable to make me hit and miss like this.
If you do not like the default settings, GNOME 3 is not going to be much to your liking before you learn how to change things. Just as you learned to find the hidden gconf keys that let you change the more esoteric settings in GNOME 2, things change with the introduction of gsettings and dconf. This will be cured in time, as you do find out how things work. The “System Settings” dialog doesn’t let you change very much, and even gnome-tweak-tool is rather limited right now. This is an x.0 release though, and I’m sure things will improve. The defaults are very bold and very “Gnomish”, and I can’t complain too much even though a few things make me scratch my head.
- I like creating new virtual desktops for each activity, but suppose someone would rather work on just one desktop? By default, they cannot minimize windows.
- There is no Nautilus desktop by default: right clicking does nothing. No way to put files on the desktop while working on them. No right-click menu by which to create new files from templates. I’m used to doing both of these things all day. To make things weirder, the ~/Desktop directory still exists. I promptly re-enabled Nautilus desktop and restored my productivity.
- While the defaults are undoubtedly fine for most users, especially casual users, why do the GNOME designers suddenly think “most users” are all disabled in one way or another? The accessibility menu on the panel is nice and works well, but why can’t I remove it?
- The only “shutdown-like” option visible on the session menu is Suspend. Suspend? Even Windows defaults to Hibernate. And the “shutdown” and “hibernate” options are not discoverable at all, but are hidden behind a hover-suspend-option-and-press-alt dance. Infinite energy is not here quite yet, guys. Batteries do run out.
Whining about annoyances aside, I am insanely happy with GNOME 3.0. Being the first release in the 3.x series of GNOME, 3.0 makes me full of hope and trust in the future of my favorite desktop environment. It is definitely still GNOME and retains its nature and tradition, mostly just vastly improving the window and workspace management and even further simplification and workflow streamlining than the 2.x series. The interface is extremely unobtrusive, contributing to the user’s greater focus on the task at hand and increased productivity. I can wholeheartedly recommend trying out this new desktop vision that I might even call a paradigm change of some degree.
GNOME 3 is the most radical of the three desktops I reviewed in this three-part marathon, but still manages to stay GNOME. I salute the team who had the courage and skill to make it happen, and I look forward to 3.2, which is likely to fix many of the annoyances I complained about above.
In a very short while, I have had the opportunity to try three new desktops. KDE 4 (not new but completely unknown to me previously), Unity on Ubuntu Natty (not a new desktop, but a novel shell nevertheless), and GNOME 3. I shall describe my experiences in a big review of each, in three parts.
Part 1 concerned my experience as a KDE newbie and also provided some historical background on my desktop habits. This one is about Unity, Ubuntu’s new desktop shell.
I originally moved to Ubuntu because I have always been a GNOME lover. I was using Debian at the time. The current stable version of Debian was 3.0 (woody), and it was not a happy time, because woody was such a famously long-lived distribution that sported a version of GNOME that seemed frozen in amber, GNOME 1.4.
Now, 1.4 was a great GNOME, the culmination of years of development in the GNOME 1.x series. However, the world around Debian had moved on and GNOME 2.2 was already out, as well as vastly improved versions of most essential desktop applications. So inevitably I ended up running a lot backports and the system did not resemble Debian Woody a lot.
I upgraded to unstable, like so many desktop users at the time did, and life was good. But even Sid could not keep up with the GNOME project’s new, agressive six-month release cycle very well. (As an aside, the situation in Debian is quite a lot different these days of course, with their two-year release cycle and the steady, minor upgrades between the mature GNOME 2.x versions after 2.14 or so.)
At this point, I heard rumors on GimpNET’s #gnome-hackers, about a new Debian based distribution that was going to follow GNOME’s six-month release cycle. I also learned that the new distribution was recruiting a number of prominent GNOME hackers to ensure a great GNOME experience for the users of the forthcoming system. The new distribution had no title yet, but at some point a pre-release became available from the servers on a clandestine nonameyet.com domain. I downloaded, I installed, I had GNOME 2.8. On the very same day it was released, fully working on a functional Debian Sid snapshot that was now christened as “Ubuntu”.
I never looked back. On Ubuntu, I always had the latest GNOME. The Beta of the next release was usually available on or near the GNOME release day, and even if I waited for the stable release, my new GNOME would still be very new. Ubuntu also threw in a bunch of extra goodies and integrated everything into a very solid system.
But the day had to come when this breaks down. We learned that the release of GNOME 3.0 is imminent, and the smooth ride of nice, incremental upgrades of GNOME 2.x that Ubuntu was always able to build on was coming to an end. The giant major-number upgrade was impossible to integrate into Natty Narwhal, the next Ubuntu release. For the first time, we would upgrade Ubuntu without getting the latest GNOME with it. It is easy to understand, but my disappointment was irrational and insurmountable. I would upgrade, only to get GNOME 2.32 again? I was going to cry.
The GNOME non-upgrade? Not quite!
But there was something else. I then heard that we would have an entirely new desktop shell, and it will be called Unity, and that it will be awesome. So maybe I can settle even if it’s built on such ancient GNOME technology that we’re already using. I was also intrigued by all the criticism and weeping and whining of users who were horrified by the screenshots that were flooding on the Web. Most of those users had, of course, never tried Unity, but they decided to hate it already. This was a good sign to me: obviously something interesting is happening when such emotion is raised.
So I went and replaced my nice Kubuntu installation with Ubuntu Natty, which was freshly out of beta. I had a new machine, so my home directory was clean of old configuration cruft, a clean slate for the first time in ages, ready to receive the embrace of a default Ubuntu experience for a change. I logged in, and gasped in awe.
Ubuntu Natty with Unity looks fantastic. The desktop elements make sense. For the most part, I can immediately find my way around, and clicking on various widgets is pure joy, as they feel immediately meaningful and functional. Nothing extra is present on the screen, just the controls you need for work. I can only describe the desktop as “intuitive”.
For the first time in ages, maybe ever, I did not immediately begin removing cruft from the desktop, and adding functionality that I want. It’s already there! I always used to install gnome2-globalmenu but Unity has a global menu (which also works with Qt apps). I always removed the application menu from the top panel and replaced it with an intelligent popup launcher, but Unity has already replaced it with the Dash. I removed the bottom panel, but Unity has none to begin with. I replaced the window list with a drop-down window list, but the sidebar Launcher in Unity already acts as one. I removed the window decoration from maximised windows in Compiz, but Unity already does that (and retains the window control buttons by adding them to the top panel when needed, to boot).
Overall, the desktop is also very pleasing to the eye, but that’s not a big change from Maverick. The biggest theming change is the new “overlay” window scroll bars, which are very pretty but for me that’s a regression. Sure, it has some aesthetic value and it’s entertaining at first. It also saves valuable pixels, removing window chrome in favor of content, but it is difficult to use with the mouse. I kept missing the target when trying to guess where the scroll bar would appear.
Eventually, I grew tired of the combined Launcher/Dock on the left hand side. It is not needed often enough to warrant using that many pixels on my screen. Besides, I never cared for docks anyway, I find them useless eye candy. I soon switched it to autohide instead of intellihide, just to keep it out of my peripheral view. It still pops up when you click the top left corner, or push the keyboard shortcut, so I didn’t feel like any functionality was lost by my decision. It also kept getting into my way when not needed. The ‘back’ button in a maximised Firefox window is dangerously close to the left edge, and the Launcher often popped up, intercepting my action. The Dock part of the functionality is also strange. I expected an active window to minimize when I clicked on its icon in the Dock, but this just did not happen.
The search in the Dash is implemented via the Zeitgeist engine. It works impressively well. The Dash in general was well enough for me, and I didn’t feel the need to install a better pop-up launcher. In the past, I had been using the Deskbar applet, then Gnome-Do, and most recently Synapse, the last being implemented in Zeitgeist itself, so I was right at home.
Window management in Unity works well, and of course I would expect nothing less. After all, Unity simply uses Compiz, which is a nice, traditional window manager that behaves predictably. However, workspaces are a real mess. First of all, the workspace switcher is not discoverable. It’s hidden in the very bottom of the Launcher, and presents four workspaces in two rows, which must be an alien sight to users who are used to finding a row of desktops in the bottom panel. Also, while it looks like a pager, it actually isn’t. you can’t directly change desktops there. Instead, your entire world is changed into a huge exposé-like view of all your workspaces. Now I can click on one of them and be taken there? No. After some trial and error, I finally learned that I must double-click in order to switch. Bad. Also, why can I not have just two desktops? Who decided that I need four? And why must I have them in a grid instead of a row?
The only consolation is that most people never use workspaces anyway.
While the global menu works very well, its habit of showing up every time I hit the Alt key (in anticipation of a keyboard shortcut) soon became extremely annoying. I have no idea how this could be fixed other than by simply disabling the autohide feature (which I did not find any way to do), or by turning off window menu shortcuts altogether (which I do not want to do).
I still love Ubuntu’s Indicators in the top panel. These are not exactly new, but they keep getting better. I also like the new color codings, which are based on urgency. However, I’m not sure I always understood how urgently some action is needed from me, and I’m sure that cultural differences can confuse matters even more.
I was surprised to like the new, unified control center as much as I did. I was always a fan of having a separate menu entry for every purpose, but maybe unifying them wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Furthermore, for those users who actually rely on menus to discover things, the new application menu system in Unity would probably make it slower to find something like Printer configuration options unless a single Control Center was implemented.
The lenses in the Unity Launcher are an interesting concept, and I assume people are doing interesting things with them. I was eager to play with some exciting lenses, but when I started thinking about a good hack, I failed to find a use case. Eventually, I did download and install a Web search lens that someone had hacked together, assuming it must be useful for even myself. However, a few days later I realized I have yet to use it. Maybe I’m not in the target audience, maybe autohiding the Launcher caused me to simply never remember about the existence of my cool web search lens.
Reading through all the drivel above, I realize that I have surprisingly little to say about Unity, given that superficially it is such a big change for the Ubuntu desktop. I can only assume that this is because Unity is not, after all, such a revolution. Underneath, we have the reliable old friend that we all know and love, GNOME 2.32. The right side of the desktop has not changed at all since Maverick, and on the left, the changes made are such that I always made them myself anyway.
Unity is pre-built for topylies, mostly saving me the trouble of customization.
That said, I was still hungry to get a real GNOME upgrade, so I decided to leave Unity for now, and wait for a version based on GNOME 3, upcoming in November with Oneiric. In the meant time, I decided to get GNOME 3 one way or another. And I did, but that’s a matter for the next installation, where I review GNOME 3 on Debian.