Why GNOME's Got it Right

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 2:17 AM

Last week, some developers disagreeing with the direction of the GNOME Project decided to create what appears to be the beginning of a fork of the project — GoneME. Like many from KDE Project and elsewhere in the community, GoneME's major complaints boil down to what has proven to be GNOME's most controversial move: simplifying the user interface. While naysayers, including the GoneME developers, seem to feel that the simplification of the interface, undertaken with the encouragement of such GNOME leaders as Havoc Pennington of Red Hat, is actually just “dumbing down” the interface, I think these critics are actually missing the point completely.

A Newbie in the Land of Penguins

Six years ago this month, I bought my first GNU/Linux distribution. I had become intrigued with Linux several months earlier when I had seen a feature in Byte magazine about a new desktop emerging called the GNU Network Object Model Environment (GNOME), and decided to figure out how to give this mysterious operating system a whirl. At the time, GNOME was not installed by default yet — it was too early in development, I would find out — and when I finally did get it installed, it turned out to be a very big disappointment. Yes, of course, it wasn't even at the alpha stage of development yet, but I did not realize that when I had gone out and purchased a copy of GNU/Linux. All I did realize was what I had read in the press: GNOME was a rising star that looked extremely promising. It was next to impossible to even get it started, a fact that, at least for a total newbie to GNU/Linux, was enough to make me feel discouraged not only about GNOME but also about the operating system. Let's face it: FVWM 95 never was and never will be a dream desktop, and that, along with the similarly undesirable Afterstep and FVWM 2 were the choices included with Red Hat Linux 5.1.

I had not figured out how to get a modem configured on GNU/Linux yet (these being the bad old days of manual configuration), so I rebooted into Windows and spent some serious time researching the options. I kept coming across a desktop named KDE, which had just reached version 1.0 and decided it was something I needed to try. I couldn't find any packages for it at the time, so I downloaded the source. KDE was much smaller then, but I was also running a lot slower computer, so it took what seemed like an eternity to compile. Not surprisingly, even simple compilation errors are daunting if you've only been using GNU/Linux for a few days, but after several weeks of head scratching and tinkering, I finally booted into KDE for the first time. It was pretty nice, perhaps it seemed doubly so after all of the hard work.

But it was not nice enough to get me to switch from Windows. And so it stayed for several years. Finally, a few months after KDE 2.0 came out, I started to become convinced that the GNU/Linux desktop could meet my desktop computing needs, and so I made the switch. Throughout all this time, I kept looking at GNOME, but it always seemed less than satisfying. It had so many options and programs; need I remind you that this was a desktop that did not even have a single window manager at first. Everything about it seemed rudimentary and unpolished from the standpoint of a Windows user or a KDE user. KDE remained my primary desktop.

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Doubts Creep In
Despite my overall happiness with the project, nagging questions about KDE's planning started to occur to me as I observed it. Projects like Twister, which would have made Kontact — the Outlook-like PIM that premiered in the last release — a reality several years before it finally came out, were looked over while time was spent adding multiple address book backends, CVS clients, a growing collection of games and edutainment applets, an ever growing list of features in Konqueror and other interesting, although questionably necessary, components. Everything from its sound server to its dialog boxes got bigger and more complex over time. While providing the user with configuration options is great, it seemed the project never knew when it was time to draw the line on features. With the 3.x release series this problem became even more noticeable as release dates started slipping back because the ever growing list of features simply couldn't be debugged within KDE's previously speedy release cycle.

On the other hand, the GNOME camp started doing some really great things: Evolution started to come together, and with GNOME 2.0, the desktop started to look less like an anarchic combination of tools and more like a streamlined, sophisticated desktop environment. Even GNOME's release cycle moved to a much brisker time frame — it was as if GNOME and KDE had swapped their plans. Suddenly its desktop started to look mature and, quite frankly, less UNIX-like. Much like Mac OS X, GNOME was starting to hide the complexity of UNIX-like computing behind a friendly, streamlined interface. What was once a mishmash of disparate projects has come to form a serious contender for the desktop. Nautilus no longer dukes it out against Midnight Commander. Metacity has become essentially the only major GNOME window manager. Tools such as xscreensaver and Mozilla now are building on top of GNOME rather than simply being poorly integrated solutions. GNOME is even blazing a trail with highly refined file searching and meta-information on track to appear in GNOME long before Microsoft's Longhorn or Apple's Tiger make it out to the market. GNOME's innovative dashboard (which used that name well before Steve Jobs announced the Apple product of the same name [This remark was intended merely to explain that GNOME didn't take the name, not as a cut of any kind to Apple. -Tim]) and related efforts even promise to tie tasks such as instant messaging, looking up information on contacts, e-mailing, blogging and web browsing together so that you can think about what needs to be done rather than how to do it.

While the GoneME project cites GNOME's work to integrate OpenOffice.org and Mozilla into the desktop as a waste of time, I can hardly think of anything more important than getting OpenOffice — essentially the only real choice for a Free Software office suite — to tie in tightly with the desktop. It does not matter what KDE is doing. What matters is what those companies who cater to average user are doing. If you use a Windows machine or a Mac OS X machine, the office suite works and acts like all the other parts of the system. This is why I believe the work to merge OpenOffice.org into GNOME, which even has the developer's (Sun) blessing, is a very important job indeed. For that matter, OpenOffice.org 2.0's native look functionality is being developed not only for GNOME but also KDE, so this is hardly just a GNOME effort. Interoperability is good, but it is not a replacement for true integration.

The Era of Simplicity

GNOME understands the average user. Whereas KDE continues to become more bloated with, by one count, over 200 configuration panels inside KControl, GNOME has aimed for simplicity with reduced configuration complexity made possible through the highlighting of the options business users want and need. While it does cause a loss of flexibility to some extent, this is easily made up for by lowering support costs and making GNOME's tools less intimidating. This does not indicate that GNOME is not useful for power users. In fact, it has lots of tools and features that will make most power users feel right at home. Furthermore, many developers are creating tools to work with GConf settings to accomplish even more configurability (the advantage of leaving these tools out of the main distribution means this flexibility can exist without unnecessarily creating a larger area where bugs must be fixed between releases). What GNOME has essentially done is declare it is leaving the era of complex computing and joining the world of simpler, easier systems that Mac users have been enjoying for decades.

Average users don't want complexity, and without the average user — your boss, your Aunt Nellie and people like them — GNU/Linux will remain a niche desktop forever. Distributions such as Xandros and Mandrake are spending a lot of time simplifying things such as menu naming and layout in KDE because simplicity is the key to drawing the masses from Windows to GNU/Linux. Sure, as GoneME argues, if the icon says “web browser” you won't know if that is Mozilla or Firefox or Epiphany, but the average user doesn't care. The average user doesn't care if “Music Player” is really XMMS or RhythmBox, they just want to know what to click to play music. If you had never used a GNU/Linux system before and you saw the listing for “XMMS” would you really think “Oh, that must be what I use on Linux instead of iTunes”? The average user doesn't care if they can tweak the way Nautilus works or change how the file save dialog boxes work. All they want to do is get their work done as quickly and simply as possible.

And I have put my money where my mouth is. In January of this year, after nearly six years of being a KDE user, I switched to GNOME. According to the critics' arguments, I should not have been a likely candidate for that — I had spent years tweaking and configuring KDE. Why would I ever want to switch to a “dumbed down” interface? The reason itself is simple: I want my machine to get work done for me, not be work in itself. GNOME isn't flashy but flashy isn't always best. Instead, everything just works the way I want it to: mounted discs appear on the desktop for easy access, network shares work without fighting with LiSA's background daemon, sound works well, and all of my major applications seem to work together, because Evolution, GIMP, Gaim, Mozilla Firefox (or Epiphany) and dozens of others are GTK applications just like GNOME. Thanks to Novell/Ximian's hard work, OpenOffice.org even displays recent documents in the GNOME recent documents menu.

This is the way computers should work. There will always be people that want more power than that of systems used by the masses, and the beauty of GNU/Linux is that you can pick a different desktop environment if you want that. But, to me, it is silly to demand that both KDE and GNOME be oriented to those who want options for everything. It is good that GNOME is going for the user who finds computing a means rather than an end. GNOME saw that the widest segment of computer users was not being properly cared for on GNU/Linux and took decisive action. Decisive action often causes some people to get angry and feel displaced, but it will be worth it when suddenly GNU/Linux is truly accessible out of the box for the small business user, the home user and others who don't have their own IT staff.

That's why GNOME's got it right.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. You can reach him at tbutler@uninetsolutions. com.

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