The Gnome 3.0 shell is a major advance over Gnome 2.30
The next major release of Gnome promises to re-define the Linux desktop the way KDE has. Ashton Mills previews the new shell for Ubuntu's default desktop.
KDE 4.0 is winning over users with the advances it has made for the Linux desktop. Unless Gnome undergoes a similar metamorphosis, it's living on borrowed time - it's clearly now been overtaken by both Windows 7 and KDE 4.0 in meeting the demands of a modern interface, both in flair and functionality.
What happens with Gnome has special importance for Ubuntu, too - as the 'premier' desktop Linux that most new users to Linux experience, it's important that it can meet their expectations in terms of a visually appealing and easy to use interface. And while KDE 4.0 is arguably prettier than Windows 7, it's not the default for Ubuntu.
Fortunately, Gnome is undergoing a change. The first major move in eight years of development, in fact. As I covered KDE extensively last issue, it's only fair we take a look at what the next major milestone of Gnome will bring and whether it can compete to provide a next-generation experience. Afterall, assuming Canonical sticks with Gnome, this is what the future of Ubuntu will look like.
At the time of writing the Gnome version in use by Ubuntu is 2.30.2. Like KDE 3.0 before its version 4.0 renovation, it's a solid and stable platform that's been developed over a long period. But eight years is an aeon in the computing sphere, and not even Microsoft leaves it so long between major UI overhauls. So we are well overdue for a breath of fresh air with Gnome.
One of the guiding goals for Gnome 3.0 is what Vincent Untz, Executive Director of the Gnome Foundation, calls the "user experience". Which is, of course, central to any interface -- but it's important to note that Gnome has been focused to date on usability
without necessarily addressing the experience
. There's a subtle but important difference.
According to Untz, for example, many users have been confused by workspaces - accidentally clicking on them and then wondering where their applications went. If it's their first experience, it's not a good one, and they don't come back to them. So although a good feature, the experience
of them isn't. And that's one of many elements that will be changing.
So what type of experience can we expect? Untz has made it clear that the jump to 3.0 won't be as extensive as the jump from KDE 3.0 to KDE 4.0. For one, there's no large re-writing of the underlying structure and so anything that works on Gnome as it currently stands should happily keep on humming away on Gnome 3.0. In fact, with only some small adjustments, most Gnome themes will also continue to work fine in 3.0.
What is different, and perhaps the most important difference, is an entirely new feature called the Gnome Shell. It's such a significant change that it obsoletes the old window manager, Metacity, and even gets rid of the Gnome panels as you know them now.
A new shellThe default Gnome Shell desktop.
The Gnome Shell desktop looks much the same as your current Gnome desktop, sans the bottom panel. The clock, currently, sits center in the top panel, while the far right of the panel displays indicators and user-preferences as it does now. There is a new Sidebar option that grants quick access to recent documents and common applications, and which can slide in and out as needed, but this is just an extension of the Activities menu, which occupies the top left and is where the magic happens.
Clicking on Activities presents a new full-screen layout that includes an all-in-one drop down menu and desktop view covering launching applications, adding and removing workspaces, moving programs between workspaces, navigating through recent files and searching for applications and file types on the file system.Workspaces at work, along with the new
Here, the biggest change is the workspace management. When viewing all workspaces, minimised applications become un-minimised allowing you to see everything running in a given workspace. You can then also drag any of the applications to any other workspace. Adding a new workspace is accomplished by clicking the large '+' symbol in the bottom right (and '-' to remove them).Navigating the Applications menu. Drag and
drop to launch.
Programs can be launched by simply dragging them, which might sound slower than just clicking on them, but it means you can launch and position them on a workspace with one movement, which is actually quicker. Alternatively, the menu features a search bar which works much like any other modern search function, and narrows down the results as you type. Hence you can also launch programs by typing in a few letters and just hitting Enter. Again, it may seem counter-intuitive to the classic tiered menu navigation you're used to, but for the majority of programs you can launch them faster with a few key takes than the time it takes to follow a nested menu.Workspaces also allow you to easily see the
applications on them.
When viewing workspaces, full screen applications shrink a little so each workspace desktop is visible, making it easy to drag programs around. New programs started or moved to a workspace, where there's more than one, then tile and shrink accordingly so each is always visible, again making it simple to move or switch programs. Zooming in on a workspace restores the original dimensions of programs.
In short, you are able to quickly and easily manage multiple programs spread out over multiple workspaces, and it's so intuitive you pick it up in a few seconds. In fact, after playing around with it for a few minutes, you start to wonder why no other desktop (Windows or Linux) has done this before. It's a pleasure to use, and makes switching between full-screen applications on multiple desktops a snap.
Ready for prime time?
Even though the change to Gnome 3.0 is less of a jump than KDE saw, it doesn't mean there won't be teething issues. For one Compiz, currently, is not compatible (so no 3D rotating cube for you!). This is partly due to the fact that, like KDE 4.0, Gnome 3.0 comes with its own compositing layer called Mutter (a hardware accelerated version of Metacity built using the Clutter OpenGL toolkit -- hence 'Mutter') to do some of its own special effects. Undoubtedly Compiz will be updated, but that will have to be further down the track.
Panel applets currently also don't appear to be compatible, which makes sense the change in how panels are handled. Presumably these will be worked on closer to release.
Finally, Gnome 3.0 introduces its own notification system designed specifically to take advantage of Gnome 3.0 features. While this is good news on the whole, it's bad news for Ubuntu who has its own notification system and the two will not be compatible. Canonical will need to re-work its system, and this may take a while.
As it stands, Gnome 3.0 is scheduled for a September 2010 release (around the time you read this) but it's been delayed already in the past so we'll have to see. We may get to play with it for the next Ubuntu release, but don't hold your breath. Canonical is likely to wait after '.0' release and work on changes like the notifier before making it the new default for Ubuntu.
Installing Gnome Shell
Installing Gnome Shell is easy, it's already in the Ubuntu repositories. Open a terminal and run:
sudo apt-get install gnome-shell
Before you launch it, however, it's probably a good idea to switch to another user account (add a new user via System --> Administration --> Users and Groups if you don't have one already, then logout and login as that user). From the other account:
Then go wild!
It will be very interesting to see how the Gnome based distributions implement Gnome 3.0, but it's a welcome update to the desktop we've known for so long. Can it compete with Windows 7 and KDE 4.0? It's a little early to tell. We don't yet know the full capabilities of Mutter, and if Gnome can be as visually appealing, but functionality wise it's definitely on the right track, and in ways Windows and KDE isn't. Here's to hoping we find a new home in Gnome.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ashton Mills has been using Linux since Slackware came on
floppies - and before that, was one of the three people in the world who
used OS/2 (and loved it). Always ready to make the most of his PC, he
is constantly playing with Linux distributions and compiling the latest