Ubuntu needs the GNOME 3 project, all of it

Watching the news of Apple’s release of OS X Lion and the cheering reviews that followed, the huge quality of what we are up against becomes very clear once more. If you look at the operating system that Apple is delivering, you see not only the polish that it is so famous for. It also delivers functionality underneath that polish. You can make your operating system as user friendly as you want, but you will still lose if you cannot do much with it.

The large success of Ubuntu we’ve seen in the recent years has come mostly due to the fact that Canonical is very good at adding polish to the functionality that was already there. It made the great tools of the free desktop software usable by everyone. They still do this wonderfully and I have full confidence that the Canonical Design Team will continue to make Ubuntu suit its users even better.

However, while reading OMG! Ubuntu!’s post about the music and document file browsers mock-ups something struck me. Something that started to bug me while trying out GNOME Shell now became clear. Canonical may be very good on polishing, it may be very good at innovating user interfaces, it cannot do without GNOME. It lacks content.

Now, I don’t mean this in a demeaning way. I have great respect for the vision that speaks from Unity. However, I would like to emphasise that working within GNOME would be much better for Ubuntu on the long-term, no matter how hard it will be in the short-term.

When comparing Unity and GNOME Shell, I noticed right away how clearly a philosophy speaks from GNOME Shell. When using GNOME 3, you can really notice how its developers have purposely worked together to create a coherent experience. It feels nicer than Unity. Plus: it uses GNOME technologies and that improves its integration in the rest of the desktop tremendously.

But after a while you start noticing a few things. GNOME Shell is less stable than Unity and it feels less solid and responsive. Moreover, whereas Unity’s rough edges are at its rough edges, GNOME Shell has rough edges spread equally all over. GNOME 3 looks less slick and sharp than Unity, GNOME 3’s default theme is less crisp than Ubuntu’s Ambiance.

It is a terrible shame that the huge effort Canonical made to get Unity to the high level it currently is, was not spent on making GNOME Shell even better. Canonical may be stubborn, but the company has great ideas and it could have done so much to make GNOME Shell really slick.

Canonical is not a very huge company. It does not have enough employees to create and maintain a whole desktop. This is already showing in the stalled innovation of Notify OSD and friends; I am absolutely jealous of GNOME Shell’s notification area. While GNOME is working on expanding and improving its GNOME 3 desktop, Canonical is still very busy with its own shell. The consequence of this is that the shell does not integrate as much in the rest of the applications as you’d hope. There is a lot to improve in the GNOME project, but when you improve it, you are sure that it fits with the rest of the desktop and that it will look and behave the same.

The Documents and Media file browsers I mentioned earlier can be great ways to give users access to their files. However, every time you implement a way to access stuff like this, you make a paradigm choice. If you want to satisfy the user, it should be consistent. Unity also gives the user access to files, but it does so in a different way. This causes a collision of paradigms. If Canonical wants to do it right, it should ensure consistency across all applications. This is a lot of work and will probably require the development of its own file manager, etc, in the long term.

Canonical does not have the workforce to fully maintain its own desktop. By creating its own shell, it may improve things in the short term, but it will only make things worse in the long run. While GNOME progresses along a different path, the two desktops will diverge even further. In the end, if we ever want to beat Mac OS X, Ubuntu will have to to get rid ofGNOME and Canonical will have to have grown substantially.

GNOME needs Canonical as well. There is no other company in the Linux distribution world that focusses on regular consumers and regular consumers are the target group that shape the OSes of today. I’m not sure how much longer Novell’s remains will stay around, Nokia seems to be on a suicide mission and Red Hat is a business oriented company. GNOME 3’s magnificent user interface philosophy is in need for a good set of clothes and proper manners and of all companies that are in existence today, Canonical is the best candidate to look after that.

My ego is not so large that I believe this blog post can change Canonical’s company policy—which naturally wasn’t thought out in one hour—but I do wish to add my voice to the chorus that say: Ubuntu should return to GNOME 3!

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  1. I fully disagree with what you say in the 2nd last section. Canonical targets business very clearly. They are indeed by far not as far as Red Hat for sure, but they work on that. No company can live on "consumer customers" only, even not Microsoft.

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