Monday, 28 February 2011

Why I Think Gnome 3 Is a Dead End

In short because it's cat-dog. What I mean is – what is the new gnome target audience? To me it seems like it tries to satisfy everyone which obviously cannot work. Let's look at the potential users who might want to use it.

Newcomers. Imagine a computer virgin. He buys a computer (like he would buy say a television) already preconfigured and pushes the power button. Now what should he do when it is fully booted? How to present the workspace to him? I think "start" button from windows wasn't a totally wrong idea – the user sees it and thinks: "oh, I'm probably supposed to start here". The menu itself however was always badly executed. Too many applications with strange names, sometimes even in categories.

Gnome shell uses activities button instead of start button which is probably a little bit less suggestive but should give away pretty easily what it does. And instead of menu you're presented with table. Again filled with zillions of icons and non-familiar names like firefox. What the hell is that? And the user is lost. Now one thing that I don't completely understand is the need for activities button at all if there was made a decision to keep desktop clean of icons. The desktop could be well used for presenting the user with what he can do. However the main point is how to present him the apps. Surely a big globe labeled "browse the web", two heads seemingly chatting labelled "chat with friends" or notebook with pen writing something on it labeled "write a document" would give the user much better idea what to do than firefox wrapped around globe labeled "firefox", blue connected heads labeled "empathy" and stylized oo-writer icon labeled "OpenOffice.org Writer".

Furthermore, the less options the user is presented with, the better. He does not need to be presented on his workspace with 10 different apps doing the same thing. The maximum that could be presented to him is some sort of artsy icon labeled "personalise your workspace" with all the settings. The settings would, as its label suggest, let him stylize his desktop look and for slightly more knowledgeable users let them choose whether they want to browse the internet with firefox or chrome (for example) or how early they want screensaver to kick in in case of inactivity.

Also, since people use their notebooks increasingly also for presenting, setting up dual head should be almost one of the easiest things on the world. User plugs in an external projector/monitor, dialog pops up that he did so and how he wants to set it up – clone or extend his current workspace. Nothing more, nothing less.

He is also the type of user that will probably not work on multiple things at once, however e.g. when writing a document he'll switch to and fro between the composer window and one or other window with a reference he uses. This needs to be done also suggestively and ideally without zooming out/in. Probably some sort of semi-intelligent sliding.

As you can guess, gnome-shell tries a bit to appeal to these users but it's stuck up half way because of the following groups.

Windows/Mac Escapee. This kind of users already know how to use a computer, have some favourite apps and are expecting to be more or less able to keep their current work-flow. Gnome shell breaks that and will probably scare them away.

Power users. Working with many apps at the same time, relying a lot on terminal, customizing their desktop to best fit their needs. These will be annoyed with how gnome shell works. It slows their workflow, shuts them off of some settings they've been using for ages (like turn off display on laptop lid close) presents them with unnecessary animations. I don't know how for others, but for me gnome-shell makes e.g. writing a code (which in my case requires switching to and fro between terminal, file manager, gedit and web browser) pain it the butt.

Still from the design it seems like these people were thought of as well when making gnome shell. But that's the problem. It stopped halfway. It tries to be both for power users and newbies and ends up neither. Sorry, but I really can't see a way to satisfy both camps and that's why I think gnome 3 is bound to fail. And it's going to drag Fedora 15 down with it (being the default DE). But only time will show whether I'm right or wrong.

Disclaimer. This post contains only my personal opinions and it does not represent any usability studies or interest groups' positions and as such it might be utterly wrong, so the best you can do is to disagree with me and wait a few months/years to see who was actually wrong :D

18 comments:

soc said...

I agree. Also gnome-shell says they make things easy to understand so that's why they remove options from settings but also they change standard set of keyboard shortcuts so you have to use different buttons. What the hell? I like change and different approach but please start responding to bugreports. I noticed ignorance to people who realy want change in usability because opening 12 terminals and switching between them is pain in the butt. Also pain in the butt is closing and opening windows when the wordkspaces automaticaly close and it disrupts your workspace setup ending in chaos. Finaly dualhead has shitload of problems. I get angry while using gnome-shell :(

davidc3 said...

"Surely a big globe labeled "browse the web", two heads seemingly chatting labelled "chat with friends" or notebook with pen writing something on it labeled "write a document"(...)"

This is one thing Canonical design team got right with Unity. When you click on the distro logo (top left of the screen), you are presented with two rows of 96x96 icons labeled "Find Media Apps", "Find Internet Apps", "Find More Apps" (sic), "Find Files".
And on the second line : "Browse the Web", "View Photos", "Check Email", "Listen to Music".
IMHO, it's kind of annoying for "power users", but pretty straightforward for everyone else.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you! "Old" Gnome seems more productive for me.

Eric said...

Hey, I'm no Gnome Shell apologist - I switched back to KDE late last year and Gnome 3 has me thinking I'm very likely to to stay with KDE after that. However, I have to take issue with some of your points.

1) Who is a virgin computer user nowadays? I'm almost 30 and I've grown up with computers. I can't imagine any adult nowadays (at least in the rich countries) that has not had a computer before or grown up with computers. And kids take to anything. Seriously, I read a study in CPU magazine about how kids take to using a mouse and keyboard before they can tie their own shoelaces. So they'll be told that Firefox is the web or w/e and it won't matter.

ALSO, in most countries, what computer virgin is going to see Linux before they see windows?

Finally, I find the Gnome Shell (and the similarly laid out Unity) to be an extension of what people are using on tablets and cell phones, so it shouldn't be that different.

Also, at least in Windows 7, the start menu is just a Windows icon - not start. Same with KDE, LXDE, etc

As for Windows and Mac users - I think Mac users would be right at home. Windows users - I totally agree with you! I'm going to have to switch my wife to Xfce or KDE when Gnome 3 hits.

I also completely agree with you on power users. It's one of the reasons I've been against it. Although I need to try it in practice to see if it's as bad as it sounds.

Again, I agree with like 2/3 of what you say and I'm not into Gnome 3, but everyone is always lambasting Linux for copying Windows and Mac and not being original. Well, now with Gnome Shell and Unity they're trying to be original and everyone's up in arms. Can't please anyone.

bochecha said...

I consider myself a power user (Linux user for 4 years, developer, Fedora contributor) and I don't recognize myself at all in your paragraph about them.

I work "with many apps at the same time, relying a lot on terminal".

However I **never** spend time "customizing [my] desktop to best fit [my] needs" : I stick to the defaults most of the time, the one thing I change sometimes is the wallpaper.

I am not at all "annoyed with how gnome shell works", it improves my workflow considerably, and doesn't "shut [me] off of some settings [I]'ve [never] been using".

Really, "for me gnome-shell makes e.g. writing a code (which in my case requires switching to and fro between terminal, file manager, gedit and web browser)" a real pleasure, and when at work (where I still run Gnome 2) I'm often lost trying to do some things that only exist in Gnome-Shell.

And yes, I've always been using Gnome 2 for the past 4 years so I am quite proficient with it. For example, when I was using it exclusively, I wouldn't use a mouse at all. Handling windows, launching applications,... I did all that with keyboard shortcuts.

Guess what: I use the exact same shortcuts with Gnome-Shell and they work exactly the same!

The only thing that changed is that now using the mouse has **also** become efficient and a pleasure, whereas it was simply a pain with Gnome 2 (which motivated me to learn how to use my environment with the keyboard only in the first place).

If you ever give Gnome-Shell one more try, try this: take a terminal window and drag it to the left edge of the screen: BAM it takes exactly half of your screen. Take a gedit window and drag it to the right edge of the screen: BAM it takes exactly the other half of your screen. No need to switch between them anymore, since that seems to be one of your pain points.

Gnome 3 is great. It's made of a lot of awesome technologies and very sound design choices. The fact that it doesn't work with **your** workflow doesn't make it a dead end: it's at the very least the most enjoyable and efficient environment that I have ever used.

Martin said...

@bochecha: In case of customizing you're probably the exact opposite of me -- I always never change my wallpaper, but first thing I do after installation is customizing the look and feel (change gtk, metacity and icon theme, set full subpixel hinting on fonts, make them smaller, rearrange things in panels, change number of virtual workspaces, ...).

That you haven't used these settings does not mean they aren't useful. If you're the type to follow the crowd, OK, if you're the type that does not want his laptop to [fail to] go to sleep after closing its lid then you have a problem.

I never really get myself comfortable with keyboard for things like switching between applications. Targeting one goal with mouse pointer seems to me faster than cycling through various lists only to miss the item I wanted to select. As far as launching goes, selecting a number of favourites is the way to go for me and in this case gnome-shell is only slightly less convenient then regular gnome -- the favourites are not always visible.

And about programming. You know, not everyone has 20" or bigger screen and besides, terminal + gedit is hardly enough. If I wanted windows to automagically snap and/or take up half/third/quarter of the screen I'd be already using xmonad or something like that. And I wouldn't need mouse at all for that ;-)

bochecha said...

> "If you're the type to follow the crowd, OK,

I'm the type who has more important things to do with his laptop, like reading random stuff on the Internet or watching a movie.

(and yeah, doing some hacking as well ;)

> "if you're the type that does not want his laptop to [fail to] go to sleep after closing its lid then you have a problem."

My laptop resumes from sleep. I'll admit that I specifically chose it, though, so that suspend/resume, wireless and GPU would work flawlessly on Linux.

> "And about programming. You know, not everyone has 20" or bigger screen"

15.4" laptop screen here, my next laptop will be a 13" one.

I'd be completely lost if I had such a big screen, what would I do with all this space? :)

>"besides, terminal + gedit is hardly enough."

Come on, you know I picked those two because they are the ones you were talking about in your blog post.

When hacking, I run **at least**:
- two instances of terminals (with several tabs open in each), each one occupying half of my screen (conveniently, that makes lines just a bit longer than 80 characters)
- one maximized epiphany window
- one maximized xchat window
- sometimes Firefox if I'm doing web dev (to try both with Gecko and Webkit)

Most of the time, I also have the following running in background:
- empathy
- rhythmbox
- evolution
- another epiphany window for "fun stuff" (whereas the previous one was for hacking stuff)

And I never miss the window I'm looking for, because I'm not "cycling through various lists": I use the arrow keys in the alt-tab dialog.

That's actually much more convenient since I now have a window preview of all windows. When using the mouse and the window list, how do you know which "Terminal - msourada@localhos...." window you should be "targeting"? I know I have never been able to and was always missing the one I wanted when I tried using the Gnome 2 (or Windows FWIW) window list.

Anonymous said...

bochcha, couldn't you have window previews in the alt-tab dialog of GNOME 2 if you enabled Metacity compositing (which I know few people did) or used Compiz?

You get window previews by default with KWin's desktop effects in KDE4 also, BTW.

Matt Walton said...

1) I like GNOME Shell a lot. I'm not going to go into why here, I think bochecha covers it nicely.

2) This what I really wanted to say: I think computer newbies are a false use case. Don't make it complicated for the sake of it, obviously, but there is a learning curve involved in using a computer. The curve should be achievable, but we shouldn't expect interfaces to be immediately usable by somebody who's never used a computer before without reference to something to explain the basic concepts to them. Somebody's going to have to tell them about the mouse and how it moves the pointer and has little buttons on it and that you 'click' on things.

nicu said...

I think there is no such thing as "newcomers", computers are not mobile phones... people DO NOT walk into a store, buy a computer, go home, unpack and start using it for the first time, they *always* have some amount of previous knowledge and for a good while they will rely on the help of others (friends, colleagues, teachers). So such a disruptive metaphor break will work only for newcomers who have a GNOME Shell advocate in their circle.

Anonymous said...

Ive installed about Linux on the computers of family and friends around 25 times over the past 3 years.
Ive also installed another 70-80 at our LUGfests and I have only one rule: make the Linux newbie feel at home.
If that means skin it to look like a Mac and Windows box, then so be it.
Honestly, that has happened only 3 times and all were Mac wannabees.
At LUGs and home, I offer KDE and Gnome and on old hardware we mix XCFE, LXDE and a few more without giving choice. (Im really into E17 these past 6 months)

For friends I have an older multibooting laptop which I lend them.
They get to run a fully installed an customized GNome and KDE versions (not vanilla) to show them all it can be.
They see which one they like and they tell me and thats the one I install.

Do you know what the ratio is when people are giving the choice? 75% at our LUGfests and 90% for my family and friends.

Why? The Windows factor.
Ive installed Linux for a few seniors who have never used a computer (and Linux is not harder to learn) but most have been using Windows at certain points of their lives.

While they may not be twins, KDE and Windows share a few common characteristics.

Task bar. Ive used top panels, I now use disappearing side panels and everthing in between (I hate docks and all my panels disappear) but show a top panel to a Windows convert and you might as well speak in latin for some.
It just throws them off.
(ironic since I remember you could move the XP taskbar to the top or sides too).

The text on top that is always visible like on a Mac is also 'different' enough to feel alien.

It looks and feels different,
We get a lot of these and werent sure until we figured out that they meant the GTk look and feel is different from what the Windows people are used to seeing.
Thats a real intangible but its always there.

These arent the only reasons why Gnome feels more alien to Windows users but they are the ones that come out most often.

Of course, the greatest thing about Linux desktops besides the choice is the flexibility and possibility to change the defaults.
Ive been using KDE4.6 the past 2 weeks on my test laptop and the first thing I did was make all fonts bigger, I change the window decoration to Plastik because its easier to see, as well as the theme (I hate the light ones and prefer darker or transparent themes) and
honestly it looks nothing like the outlay of Windows.
But after doing so many conversions, I understand what people mean when they say its different.
Different is not bad, diffeerent might be scarier than it really is for some.
I get that.
But my job isnt to convince them to try different, my job is to make the switch to Linux as smooth as possible. If that means KDE instead of Gnome or even installing Puppy Linux on a Duo Core (she really likes it!!), then so be it.

I think that Gnome vs Unity is again one of those mindless battles. Its not a zero sum game.
The more choice we have, the better it is.

Danny said...

"I don't know how for others, but for me gnome-shell makes e.g. writing a code (which in my case requires switching to and fro between terminal, file manager, gedit and web browser) pain it the butt."

i just use alt + tab to switch between all those :)

SteveFC said...

So far gnome3 and Fedora 15 has been working great for me. As for switching between apps, I highly recommend middle clicking the title bar of windows. It moves the window to the back so you can easily switch through windows quickly with the mouse. With the keyboard, alt tab works fine.

Adding cairo-dock or avant can easy the transition, but I don't really find a need for them.

Bells and whistles will come later on, but I do like the bare bones approach of gnome-shell.

Anonymous said...

I've just watched my sister (a semi-power user) and her boyfriend (hardware enthusiast and serious gamer) install Fedora 15 with Gnome 3/shell and love it (obviously the gaming for sis' bf means he continues to dual-boot Windows, but otherwise he likes Gnome 3/shell).

I (10+ years I.T. professional, 3+ years Linux technical user) am impressed also, to the point where I am going to move my main ArchLinux running workstation from Fluxbox to Gnome 3/shell and give it a serious trial as my main environment.

I find much of your article to be subjective.

Sorcix said...

I'm using Arch linux with Gnome 3, and I love it! Using Gnome 2 or the windows interface just feels old.

And that's the power of linux. If you don't like Gnome Shell, there are alternatives. Just know that there are other people out there that do like Gnome Shell, so it isn't a dead end at all.

Gordon said...

I may have agreed with you before I gave Gnome 3 a go. At first I didn't like that I couldn't have my favorite apps on the clock-status-bar and that there are no desktop icons.
After having used it for a few weeks, I'm getting used to it and actually think it's pretty cool. The no-desktop-icons thing, makes it feel very fresh (otherwise I would have cluttered it up by now!)
It's definitely a departure from the Gnome 2.x, but it's meant to be and I'm looking forward to see how it develops.

Anonymous said...

I was suspicious about GNOME-Shell at first. Now I like it so much :)

I find the windows faster in GNOME-Shell than in Compiz or KDE. For me, working with multiple desktops is now easier than ever.

I also like the new ideas behind GNOME-Shell, especially the dynamic number of desktops. As everything new, it takes time to get familiar with GS. But it IS practical, IMHO.

Anonymous said...

I agree to 110%!

I have try Gnome 3 for 1 day (almost), and I can't even get a themes to work, and I love to use my glass themes :-)

So Gnome 3 is useless for me right now :-(
I will try Xfce, hope that one is cool!