Some toughts on the status of the Linux desktop

Every year I tell myself that it will be the year of the Linux desktop, but in the end, it never seems to be the case. Recently I’ve been having some thoughts about the nature of the various desktop environments available on Linux, and today I want to give you my two cents.

Let’s start by listing all the various desktop environments you can install today in your favorite Linux distribution (I won’t consider WMs as they aren’t really full fledged DEs):

  • LXDE: for a lightweight desktop
  • XFCE and MATE: for who loves the GNOME 2 vibe
  • Enlightenment: is anyone still using it?
  • Budgie: really promising shell built around GNOME
  • Pantheon: simplistic Mac-ish shell based on GNOME
  • GNOME: simple yet easily customizable shell, default choice for many distros
  • KDE Plasma: more classic and advanced shell built around Qt, offers many customization options

Now, I want to put out of the equation every other DE here but GNOME and Plasma. LXDE, XFCE and MATE are somewhat more specific DEs that don’t really try to compete in the broader desktop market, Enlightenment is really interesting, but it’s a niche product, and both Budgie and Pantheon are not mature enough right now in my opinion, and besides their development strictly relies on GNOME.

I just want to point out that I am a GNOME user, and I’ve been for a long time, and while I can use Plasma, and have tried it many times, I just feel that it doesn’t completely fit my needs.

Recently I’ve been very impressed by the work done by KDE on their Plasma desktop: they’re really pushing it forward, fixing bugs and adding features that the community requests. It seems like they’re really close to their community, and they are putting a lot of effort into making Plasma the best DE they can. They seem to be very well organized and they look quite happy to get as many people as possible involved in the project, and I’m talking about both users and developers.

On the other end, there’s GNOME. I’ve always considered GNOME to be my safe bay, I’ve always felt quite familiar with it and although it has some problems, I never really felt like abandoning it. But the problems with GNOME are many, for one, the default experience is crap. The first thing I do when I get a new GNOME system in front of me is installing extensions and themes, and going to Tweak Tool to basically change GNOME completely.

Another big problem, that’s getting worse with time, is the lack of innovation. I remember when GNOME-Shell first came out, it was so different from anything else that many hated it immediately. With time it got a lot better and as of now, it’s one of the best DEs you can have on any operating system.

But lately they seem to be stagnating a lot. The last release I was excited about was 3.20, and that was quite a while ago. They have a new settings app in development, that is practically ready, but they’ve been hesitant to mainline it in the last couple of releases.

They are also doing some development on some of the core apps, but it doesn’t really feel that exciting to me: most of what we’re seeing is bug fixes and small new features that can come somewhat in handy, like the much anticipated and frankly quite disappointing Night Light feature that landed in 3.24.

But the shell is still the same, and has been the same for a long time. The same goes for Nautilus or gedit or GNOME-Photos or again GNOME-Calendar.

The point here is that I feel like GNOME has much more potential than this, yet they seem to be stuck.

The problem here in my opinion is that while GNOME is definitely free software, and anyone can potentially contribute to it, it’s not really that easy. You see, differently from KDE, the GNOME team has a much more closed development strategy. If you want to change a core feature in GNOME, or want to add some nice and requested feature like an actual classic dock, you better off making an extension or forking the thing all along.

The problem with the Plasma desktop on the other hand is that the whole user experience is inconsistent. Personally I see this as a much less important problem, as I know that the KDE community (see, I’m using the word community here) is working on it. But it still remains a big problem: the settings app is a confusing mess, finding the right section in it is a nightmare; most of the core apps (Dolphin, Okular, Gwenview) are too crowded with (mostly unnecessary) options and functions (that could be easily hidden in menus), and customizing the panels and fiddling with installing and positioning the widgets is too time consuming and counter-intuitive. In my opinion, it’s not worth the effort.

Let’s try to see the bigger picture here: right now in 2017 the Linux desktop has a huge potential, and this is the best time for us to promote it to the broader market of computer users. But there are a number of issues that need to be fixed on both the GNOME and KDE side: the GNOME team should start interacting more with their community, and try to support their requests, while the KDE team should really clean the user experience, and make their apps easier to approach and less overwhelming, while leaving the possibility to the user to customize them as they want.

These were just my two cents on the current status of the Linux desktop as of today. They may or may not reflect the reality, but this is what I as a user see in my day to day experience. I hope this article will reach some of the developers out there working on these projects, and that they will eventually do something to make the current problematic situation of the Linux desktop even a little bit better.

I believe in the broad adoption of the Linux desktop, and I think that working on it and bringing it forward will facilitate its adoption.

What do you think about this? Make sure to leave a comment and share your thoughts.