Ubuntu’s future: Why I think GNOME isn’t a good choice

7 April 2017

NOTE: I am not an expert on the functionality, workings, or happenings in the Linux world. I am merely putting out my opinion on the matter of Ubuntu’s return to using the GNOME desktop.

As Mark Shuttleworth announced on 5 April, Canonical will terminate development of Unity and will instead switch over to GNOME as Ubuntu’s default desktop environment. I didn’t think this was a good decision, at all.

Having used Ubuntu pre-Unity and during the Unity years (though I went on to Arch, then Debian, then Linux Mint) I found that it was a good move for Canonical to move on to the Unity desktop – at the time. GNOME 3’s initial release was an unholy mess as the Linux world was in the midst of a transition from GTK 2 to GTK 3, and the GNOME desktop had completely revamped its appearance and functionality.

Arguably, moving Ubuntu to Unity still led users to the same problem – relearning how to use their desktop environment. Thankfully, Unity’s straightforwardness and simplicity made learning how to use it quite easy.

Meanwhile, GNOME’s unholy mess only got worse. GNOME 2 was quite easily extendable with extensions for GNOME Panel which worked almost flawlessly. But one thing that must be pointed out is that GNOME 2 barely needed extensions for basic functionality – it’s was near-perfect on its own.

GNOME 3, on the other hand, relies on extensions for ease of use (such as Dash-to-Dock, window list, application menu, etc). In order to tweak settings like themes, fonts, keyboard & mouse configurations, window management, etc. one must install GNOME Tweak Tool (which also has several over-lapping responsibilities with GNOME’s native settings panel). Of course, many of these options and extensions just restore GNOME’s old functionality, but the bottom line here is that users still want many of these old features hence the existence of many of these extensions.

In my opinion, MATE would have made a much better replacement for Unity. Yes, MATE might be a step back for Canonical as it would be a massive snub against the hard work of those who worked on Unity due to it really being a continuation of GNOME 2 (anyone remember Ubuntu 10.10?), but here are the reasons why it’s the best option out of existing desktop environments:

  • It’s relatively mature (sure, it may be in a transition of its own from GTK 2 to GTK 3, but it’s not as big as a transition from GTK-in-general to Qt).
  • It’s not as much of a resource hog as GNOME or KDE.
  • It’s a flashback to Ubuntu’s formative days with GNOME 2.
  • Older Ubuntu users are probably already familiar with the GNOME 2, and therefore MATE, layout.
  • The human resources to implement MATE as the default desktop environment are already there – in the form of the Ubuntu MATE team (though, this argument could also be applied for the Ubuntu GNOME team).

All in all, this is just an opinion. If I were to switch back to pure Ubuntu (i.e. an official Ubuntu derivative, which Linux Mint isn’t) I would probably head back to Ubuntu MATE. Canonical may have their reasons for switching to GNOME 3 (there may be GNOME-specific extensions that the enterprise market may rely on? I’m not entirely sure), but I have confidence in them for being able to pull it off reasonably well at the very least!