Open Source: Pondering the Linux GUI

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First we had the KDE 3.5 to KDE 4.0 debacle. A release numbering scheme by the KDE folk that differed from what is considered the norm ended up with alpha level code being pushed out in most major desktop distributions of Linux. Many people were so upset about radical and broken changes to KDE during this period they left KDE, swearing never to return. It does not matter if KDE is “okay” now. Some of these people will probably not return to KDE.

Some of the disenchanted former KDE using folk moved to Gnome and liked what Gnome was at the time. These people got comfortable with Gnome 2.x and enjoyed the features it has. Now we have the strangeness that is Gnome 3. Once again, many people are not happy with the changes in Gnome 3. Especially upsetting to some is the loss of functionality they took for granted and an extreme change in the look and feel of Gnome.

What are these KDE and Gnome desktop FOSS developers thinking? “We want to be more like Microsoft!”? In other words, change the Graphical User Interface (GUI) just for the sake of change? (That is a rhetorical question, I already know the reasons given by these major desktop developers. I just disagree with much of their reasoning for such radical changes in major release versions.)

The change of the Microsoft GUI from Microsoft Windows XP to Microsoft Vista and Microsoft Windows 7 was radical. The Microsoft GUI change was basically just glitz, bells and whistles on top of the same broken OS with the added insult of removing and obfuscating much of what users had come to expect from their Microsoft GUI. There was no real need for such a radical change of the GUI. Sure, the new Microsoft GUI “looks pretty” if one has the hardware to support it. But the changes to add the “glitz, bells and whistles” also made older hardware obsolete faster since the older hardware did not have the “muscle” to run such a resource intensive GUI as was released with Vista and later Windows 7. At least the underlying Linux system is still robust, secure and works like it should. At least on Linux we still have sane window managers and GUI systems we can fall back to when the major desktop GUI developers go off the cliff with radical changes we do not like.

Are these GUI changes in KDE and Gnome “better” than what we had previously? The idea of “better” is completely subjective. What a Geek Code Jockey (developer) thinks is “better” is possibly, even probably, not going to be what an end-user thinks is “better”. Actually, most average PC end-users I know personally would prefer that their GUI not change so radically from one major release to the next. Incremental changes are good, especially if the changes do not break, obfuscate, move or remove something the end-user likes about said GUI. On the other hand radical changes are Bad, especially if said changes do break, obfuscate, move or remove something the end-user likes about said GUI.

For example, one of the reasons I like and stick with fluxbox is the fact that it does not change. The add-ons and keyboard shortcuts I put in place for my fluxbox “desktop” will still work as I expect when I get the next release of Mandriva Linux installed. That is what *I* want. Not some radical change such as we see with Gnome 3. Another optional GUI I use on some systems is Window Maker. Again, when the Linux distribution on which I am running Window Maker is upgraded to the next release, Window Maker will still work as I expect it to. No radical changes just for the sake of change or to scratch some itches of FOSS GUI developers. In some cases change can be good. Such as, I would really enjoy a change to a higher income bracket. But when it comes to getting my work done on my PC, I would prefer my GUI stay pretty much how it is now. After all, that is why I picked the GUI I use in the first place.

Do you have a GUI you like on your Linux system because the GUI does not change radically? Feel free to post a comment about it.

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Gene A.

Gene is a "Unix Guy", network technologist, system trouble-shooter and IT generalist with over 20 years experience in the SOHO and SMB markets. He is familiar with and conversant in eComStation (a.k.a. OS/2), DOS (PC, MS and Free), Unix, Linux and those GUI based systems from Microsoft. Gene is also a follower of Jesus (forgiven, not perfect), and this does inform his world view.

26 thoughts on “Open Source: Pondering the Linux GUI”

  1. I just remembered another GUI I like and use, Xfce.

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  2. You know, I had just come back to Linux after about 10 years on Windows.  I tried Ubuntu 11.04 but using the classic desktop and figured I could actually make the switch from Windows.  Now with all the Unity and Gnome 3 baloney, I really don’t know.  If anything, I’m starting to like Xfce.  KDE is O.K., but what’s that “Activities” garbage?  I don’t know what the developers think, no one will be using a desktop in 5 years?  Everyone is going to take there Android(already Linux) phones and tablets and put something else on them?  Even “the” Linus, according to an article I read, called Gnome 3 a “unholy mess”, switched to Xfce.  He said Xfce was a step down from Gnome 2 but 2 steps up from Gnome 3!  He also called for RHEL to fork off Gnome 2.  To me, Gnome is a dead issue as far as Linux goes.  Like one reviewer said, “I applaud the Gnome devs. for making a bold move, they need to keep on, but, I personally won’t be using Gnome 3”!  What’s that supposed to mean?

  3. Enlightenment (E17, I mean) has had a very consistent interface for several years now, and I’m using roughly the same layout as I did back in 2006 when I first experimented with it, but now it has a stability to go with it so I have no need for Gnome, anymore.

  4. I don’t get it why everyone is so upset.
    I simply love Gnome 3 (although Unity is annoying I admit).
    Things just make progress, evolve and sometimes a revolution happens.
    This is natural and technology changes fast.
    Time will tell what kind of technology will succeed but it must adapt to us and we in turn must also adapt to it.

  5. my vote for e17, it is way better then gnome 3, best of all it uses very low resources and highly customiseable compared to lxdeand xfce

  6. I love Unity, since I can use Unity 2d when necessary, and the extra space it creates is appreciated on monitors under 18 inches.  Gnome3 I can tolerate for many functions. Unity at least preserves essential functions so that it doesn’t force complete change like Gnome-shell.

  7. In defense of KDE, the debacle was primarily caused by the distros that didn’t read the 4.0 release notes.  About the only distro to get it right was Kubuntu 8.04 (which packaged both 3.5 and 4.0, with 3.5 being default), which promptly screwed it up for 4.1 in 8.10 (granted, 4.1 was mostly usable for day in day out stuff, but it wasn’t till 4.2 that the KDE folks declared the 4.x series stable).
    As to my WM, it’s usually  E17 (though I’m waiting till Ubuntu 12.04 to give a full opinion of Unity).  I get to decide what it looks like, and it doesn’t change till I want it too. (However, there are the times I decide to change it up simply to keep my brain from rotting.)

    Jeroen: most people in the linux world apply the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality wrongly.  They don’t get that software has to evolve to new challenges that it didn’t need to meet in previous generations (of the software).  And to be fair, they (the complainers in the linux world) do understand this when it comes to their own little pieces of the world.  Unfortunately, it seems that most people in our community refuse to allow others that same freedom. (now, there are times when something is simply done badly, as I stated about the 4.0 debacle, but I tend to think it’s the exception, rather than the rule.)

    1. Jordan, here is the kde release announcement for kde 4.0:
      See any warning there about the unfinished nature of kde 4.0; I don’t. Please stop repeating this revisionist history. At best, the kde team gave a series of mixed and confusing messages about the true nature of kde 4.0. At worst, they deliberately misled the the end users  in order to encourage wide spread use which they thought necessary in order to get the bug reports needed for further improvement.

      1. At that point, you’re right, they screwed up on the announcement.  But either I read this blog post first (below), or I saw the sentiment commonly enough that I thought it was.  Either way, I was wrong to think it was in the announcement.

        To quote:
        KDE 4.0.0 is our “will eat your children” release of KDE4, not the next release of KDE 3.5. The fact that many already use it daily for their desktop (including myself) shows that it really won’t eat your children, but it is part of that early stage in the release system of KDE4. It’s the “0.0” release. The amount of new software in KDE4 is remarkable and we’re going the open route with that. Which brings us to the next meme:

  8. I really like KDE and am looking forward to more radical changes in the future. Cutting edge is where it’s at with Linux, otherwise stick with Windows. I am very impressed with Gnome 3 and can see that it is a pared down, simplified version of KDE. I hope that the Linux desktop can evolve into something that is  very futuristic, totally usable, intuitive and unlike Windows or anything we have know previously. Ultimately, I would like to see the desktop move away from the menu on the task bar to, perhaps, something like the Kwin Alt-F2 or right-click on the desktop to get a program selector, or something totally novel. I really like that evelopers are looking at the desktop and the way the user interacts with it and developing from there, rather than just recreating the legacy desktop style time and again. Perhaps someone will think up something so perfect that it will revolutionize the way we interact with computers.

    1. Heh, “… otherwise stick with Windows.”? Shirley … you jest. I’m a Unix guy.

      I’m freakin’ overjoyed that I have X with fluxbox on my PC. I’d quit using computers and go live in the wilderness before I would use Microsoft Windows for my personal and business desktop systems. There has not been a Microsoft OS installed on a bootable partition here for well over 10 years.

      By the way, my other OS is FreeBSD Unix. Text mode. No GUI installed. 🙂

  9. I don’t know why people are still shouting against KDE4. If they can’t disrupt, they can still use KDE4 with the former KDE3.x desktop interface, KDE4 lets you do that.

    The ‘activities’ feature is a major step ahead, imagine you have ‘games’, ‘dev’, ‘home stuff’ activities set up, each one of them having their own desktop layout, and you switch easily from one activity to another ! Very cool feature !!!

    KDE devs are good visionaries, keep on !

  10. Just a small remark regarding Window Maker. I’m using it also on my main computer because I’ve setup my shortcuts and everything since 0.10 and never had to reset something when new releases were out. I’ll stick to it as long as I can even when it will be kick out the distribution I’m using. But there aren’t a new release in 3 years, and many evolutions (yes evolution not revolution) of the X server side (Compose, optimization, and everything), can not been used with it. For the Eye candy stuff this is rather annoying :-/
    Window Maker set aside, what you are saying about the GUI can be extended to many applications, look at the way people reacted when Amarok 2 came out (I’ve switched to Pana (yet another Amarok v1 Fork)) and most importantly the way as the developers have reacts to their users. Amarok 2 love it or leave us alone. I’ve tried really hard with it, but too many regressions (ok those features will be available later) but most importantly it’s crashing all the time. All of these are good examples of a bad QoE, why in the FLOSS community can’t we make some survey and ask our users what they think is good and what it’s not? I really think this approach should help developers to put their efforts where it’s important and mostly not loosing users with bad publicity at each major changes.

    1. If you like Window Maker, things may not be as gloomy as they seem. There have been development builds of the window manager available from a git repository for a while. Also the website is supposed to be updated very soon, which would imply that an actual release is brewing, but I haven’t seen any definite announcement of one yet.
      Of course, if you like the way Window Maker works, you may also find AfterStep interesting. It’s most recent release is from January (yes, this January). Of course, though it’s basic layout is similar because both window managers are modeled after NeXTstep, I doubt configuration is done in any common way (I’m just guessing since I’ve only used Window Maker a little and AfterStep hardly at all).

  11. > Do you have a GUI you like on your Linux system because the GUI does not change radically?
    ?E17.  Since KDE blew up, Enlightenment is now about the only desktop left within linux that is fully-configurable from within the GUI itself, in real time (that is to say, configurable in the sense that one does not have to drop into the CLI to tweak some config file to one’s liking).  Also, as others here have already mentioned, it is STABLE – its means of configuration and ways of usage do _not_ change for the mere sake of change, and so E17 remains fully-usable to this day.
    Plus, it does things that no other desktop is even capable of, anyway.

  12. @ nmset:
    “they can still use KDE4 with the former KDE3.x desktop interface, KDE4 lets you do that.”
    No, it does not.  There were many things that KDE3 did that KDE4 still can’t do at all yet (and likely never will, either.).  But I am sick and tired of trying to explain that to people who won’t listen, so I’m not going to bother.  The bottom line is that KDE has essentially become useless to me, so like many, many others I’ve found a replacement for it and I simply won’t use it again – _ever_.

  13. I tried Ubununity for a month, it drove me so bonkers – I had to give up Ubuntu completely.  I tried Groan 3 for a month, I could work with it, but hated it.  Now I’m trying to live with Xfce, but it isn’t Groan 2, which is want I really want back.  (I know I can use it for a while, but as it isn’t being developed, I might as well make the jump now).
    Please, someone, fork Groan 2 and maintain it!

  14. Always such sensationalist claims.
    KDE4 was clearly market as a development release, what was a debacle was the distributors such Kubuntu with can’t cooperate. KDE4 is clearly a sucess and the ealy release of KDE4 was very good for the end-users and for developers.
    Many people like Gnome 3 and KDE4 but you don’t read the blogs about it, because it don’t get you clicks for a title like “I Like KDE4/Gnome3”. Furthermore, you are free to stay with KDE3 and Gnome2 for as long as you like.
    Why are you calling the GUI changes in Windows Vista/7 “radical”? It’s the same GUI, only with a few nice effects. I didn’t found anything in Windows Vista/7 what is new and “radical”, it’s the same GUI they had in Windows 3.11. It have effects now and is more polished, but in the end it’s the same.
    What is please changing “radically”? KDE is still the same old KDE. As far as I saw Gnome 3 is not “radically”, because you still have your windows, your mouse, your menus and buttons. So the “Start Menu” is gone, who cares. You can still search your applications. So the “Desktop” is gone, who cares. Gnome 3 is still developing, just relax, wait for the developers to finish Gnome 3 and in the mean time use Gnome 2.
    No need to scream havoc and swear to never to use Gnome or KDE. Relax, look at the new development and enjoy your Gnome2. In all the screams about how radical different and unusable KDE4 is, in the end KDE4 turned out to be as KDE3 only polished. You have your panel and desktop and start menu.
    You know what is really a “debacle”: your comment post form. Why it must be some JavaScript stuff, why not just a text field where my Firefox can check my spelling? Why is a right click for “Paste”, what the hell I am going to paste? I can’t even use the arrow keys to navigate in the form.

  15. KDE$ had to change because of the move to Qt4. So when you have to rewrite something why not make it better?  And as a developer if  do something for free i will do something that i like not some boring stuff. If you want developers to work on boring,old,mess of a code you will have to pay them. The devs are not slaves for you, the developers look at the code,they want to create better code3 and that is it.

  16. Whatever floats your boat…..
    I first looked at KDE3 with Suse, briefly flirted with Gnome in Ubuntu then back to KDE3 in Kubuntu. But none of these really worked for me until I loaded up KDE4 over 3 years ago and have been happily using it ever since.
    I don’t believe in a ‘one-size-fits-all” solution so it’s a good thing there is so much choice, if a GUI moves in a direction that some don’t like at least they have the option to vote with their feet.
    Stability is important and I’d definitely move to something else if things kept chopping and changing but on the other hand I wouldn’t be happy if the GUI wasn’t evolving.
    My luck was that I started using KDE4 at a time I had no real attatchment to the alternatives and was prepared to learn something new.
    However I also recognise that at some point in time I may decide to switch to another GUI, the important thing being that I do it on my own terms instead of at someone elses whim.

  17. I have started using standalone Compiz + GLX Cairo-Dock,  I am using Thunar with the volman extension as my fm.  It gives me all the functionality I need and it  is fast and glitzy. If you really want a managed desktop you can add Xfdesktop it works fine.
    It’s a lot lighter than GNOME and faster as well.

  18. another +1 here for KDE. Activities are awesome once you get the workflow right. Kwin is great, and even allows for a very decent tiling WM. (Handy once you get past that pesky full-hd resolution.) Options are always available. Out of all the setups I’ve tried, which include the spartanic flux/blackbox setups, nowhere is my productivity as high as under KDE (admittedly only since kde 4.5 or so.) 

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