Friday night at the c-base pre-registration party Karen Sandler asked me what I thought of GNOME 3, and in particular, the GNOME 3 Shell. Although I’m generally impressed with it and enjoy using it daily, I couldn’t enumerate for her solid, tangible reasons. (It probably had something to do with the bottle of Berliner I was holding.) She asked me if I would blog my thoughts.
Here they are, for whatever they’re worth.
Stability – Considering this is an initial release, I’ve found the Shell to be remarkably stable. I’ve had no freezes or crashes. While that seems like a low bar to overcome, this is essentially an 0.1 release. Not much 0.1 code can make the claim that it’s stable. Most 0.1 code is just happy it compiles.
Productivity – I should list this first, but I decided to save the best for last. My productivity has jumped since I switched to GNOME 3 Shell. This might be a highly subjective evaluation. I suspect I’m not alone.
I suffer from a common malady, Easily Distracted Syndrome (EDS). Flashy lights, running gauges, televisions tuned to static — anything blinking or back-lit steals my attention away from what’s in front of me. GNOME 3 Shell’s minimal and colorless chrome keeps me focused on the work at hand. This is a good thing. Windows is by far the worst offender, but all desktops are culpable. Jeffrey McIntyre at Slate wrote about this problem in 2008, noting that “Our desktops are now a thick impasto of tabbed windows, pull-down menus, dashboard widgets, and application alerts. No possible distraction gets left behind, no link, feed, IM, twitter, or poke unheeded.” Since computers are supposed to help productivity, changing this state of affairs should be a high priority for any desktop designer.
I like that GNOME 3 Shell doesn’t have a lot of widgets to play with. The Tweak Tool is about is far as it goes, and I’m happy with that decision. With GNOME 2 Shell, whenever I created an account on a new machine, I was in for at least an hour’s worth of work rearranging the desktop to my liking. When I sit down to a GNOME 3 desktop, there really isn’t much to do — but I do twiddle with it. The following are changes I wish would be made to the out-of-box experience:
(Note: I’m sure all of these have been debated ad infinitum in chat rooms and on mailing lists. I’m still going to list them. Think of these as a kind of late vote — open-source hanging chad):
Power Off… – I understand the impulse to stay as minimal as possible, but requiring me to log out in order to power off the machine is frustrating. I use a GNOME Shell extension to add Power Off… and Suspend to the system menu (it also adds Hibernate, which I could live without). I can’t believe I’m the only one grumbling about having to find and install this extension. One of the big guffaws over UNIX’s predecessor Multics was that you had to log in in order to log out. (The myth came about because of a feature that could lock the console, much like screensavers today.) Unlike this bit of Multics lore, make no mistake: with out-of-the-box GNOME 3, you have to log out in order to turn off the machine.
Weather indicator – This is the one distraction from the GNOME 2 Shell I wish was moved to GNOME 3. Yes, there’s a couple of weather indicator extensions out there (here’s the one I’m using), but they’re rough around the edges, hard to configure, and have to be installed separately. If the new Shell can support calendaring in the clock drop-down, certainly it’s not a stretch to have a weather indicator in the top bar as well.
Desktop – Some people never use ~/Desktop for anything. Others store their entire lives in it. I more or less fall in the former camp, but I do keep a few documents on my desktop now and then. Beyond my personal habits, it’s an odd state of affairs that to the user the entire desktop background is an inactive, inaccessible void. Fortunately the GNOME Tweak Tool allows for Nautilus to manage the desktop much as it did in the past. That was the first switch I threw to ON when I ran the tool.
None of this is particularly damning, and in all I think the GNOME 3 Shell designers have done a great job. Certainly I wouldn’t call it an “unholy mess” and then demand that the designers add features back, as though the way to clean a room is to toss more stuff on the rug. With a few careful additions here and there, the experience would be just right.
I keep going back to the productivity gains I mentioned earlier. Perhaps that’s the best compliment I can pay to the group: Your creation stays out of my way, which is exactly what I want.