GNOME: 18 and moving

Well, what do you know: The GNOME Unix desktop project is about to celebrate its 18th ‘birthday’, anniversary, … by tomorrow, August 15, 2015. I guess there’s more interesting news these days, and I also just noticed while incidentially stumbling across the GNOME web site earlier this morning…

… which is slightly different to how things used to be a bunch of years ago. Actually, I pretty well remember regularly browsing earlier versions of the GNOME page, waiting for things to move on. Why? Well, simply put: I pretty early decided to work with Linux desktop systems, which mostly worked for all of my use cases but suffered from some major drawbacks. One of these has been the fact that look and feel of GUI driven applications on Linux / Unix desktops these days left loads to be desired, to say the very least. Consistent color schemes, fonts and the like across different applications? Oh no. Not even talking about consistent menu concepts, dialog styles or the ability to do “advanced” interactions such as drag-and-drop between application windows. It very well was possible to do productive work using these applications (after all, quite a bunch of users of commercial proprietary Unix derivatives did, these days – some still do today), but it was neither fun nor something to make you smile if you have a thing for design or usability.

In many ways, GNOME seemed the first “real” way out of this. Pretty early, I also discovered the GNU Image Manipulation Program, still one of the tools I excessively use in my environment, which even in its early versions came with a user interface that, compared to all the applications built on top of Motif, lesstif, Tcl/Tk, …, was years ahead and somehow felt even close to things one, at this time, could see and experience on other major desktop platforms. From that point of view, the idea of having a whole desktop based upon this very technology seemed a way out of the inconsistent visual and interaction mess the Linux desktop used to be at this time.

In the end, I stopped counting how often I used to download source pre-releases of GNOME (starting with 0.20 or something like that) at old campus Solaris workstations, took them home using packs of 3.5″ disks, and spent hours building the sources on my old PC running SuSE Linux 5.x. Used to learn quite a bit about Linux/Unix software, these days, dealt a lot with configure, broken Makefiles and, in general, a wide range of bugs one’s not surprised to find in very early versions of larger software projects.

I’ve been using GNOME for quite a few years then, through different ages, starting with GNOME running as a mere “desktop addon” on top of GNU WindowMaker window manager, later to be replaced by enlightenment to in turns be replaced by sawmill to be renamed to sawfish, each and every time including smaller and bigger changes in visual appearance and overall behaviour. I very well remember the strange years of HelixCode (to be renamed to Ximian later on) and Eazel, two companies that focussed on commercializing GNOME and building two larger applications (nautilus file manager and evolution which would become an integrated e-mail / calendar / address book application). They ended up messing with each other, and both in some way failed, but their applications remained at the heart of current GNOME installations.

I also very well remember continuing disputes surrounding some of the GNOME ideas about usability. There has been pretty buzz about Linux inventor Linus Torvalds at least once bashing GNOME for being a total failure from a usability point of view. And I remember re-occurring long-running issues with GNOME switching core infrastructure to new major versions lacking any backward compatibility, obviously the switch from GTK 1.x to GTK 2.x (which happened in the early 2000s) and the switch from GTK 2.x to GTK 3.x (which still is in some way work-in-progress), including a vast bunch of applications being rewritten, some not, to again introduce quite a bunch of visual and technical inconsistencies and making things messy – as all of a sudden one didn’t just have to look for a GNOME application for a certain task but actually for a GNOME application built using the “right” version of GTK to make sense in the desktop used locally. Sometimes this sucked… I’ve been using XFCE for quite a while in between, both for visual reasons and due to the fact that, at some point, some of the 2.x versions of GNOME weren’t fun to work with at all. I used KDE even in production for a while, too – technically a good choice, but suffering from a load of things making working with it not too much fun.

Now, I’ve been running GNOME 3.18 for quite a while now. And it works. Sure, there always are things that keep nagging you, there are minor and major issues and annoyances with each piece of software. But in some way, these days, GNOME feels stable and in some ways “mature” and is fun to work with in day-to-day use. It hasn’t always been like this, and, from this point of view, I guess all the developers behind GNOME, all the GNOME foundation people, obviously can be sure of having done quite a good job. Not that there aren’t any challenges in the future – starting with the fact that, though GNOME 3.x obviously is pretty much optimized for touch operations too, there basically isn’t any major touch(-only) operated hardware on which GNOME/Linux is an option these days. But that’s another thing – and possibly plenty of interesting work for the GNOME people to be done the next bunch of years. For now: #HappyBirthdayGNOME !

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