Last December I blogged about the uproar Linux creator Linus Torvalds had caused by posting on the gnome.org Usability list his extreme dislike for the direction the Gnome developers had taken with the UI. For those of you who may have missed his original post the high point follows:
Why rehash this now? A number of people have written to me about the wonders of Gnome 2.14. One reader of my review of Fedora Core 5 here on O’Reillynet went so far as to suggest that the performance improvements I was seeing were because of the wonderful new Gnome code. They aren’t. Carla Schroder, the author of the absolutely wonderful Linux Cookbook, was one of two people to praise the alacarte menu editor. Carla is usually right on about all things Linux so I tried it. Sadly, on my systems running Fedora it seems very broken. I really wanted to like the new Gnome. Honestly, I did. Gnome generally consumes less resources and memory than KDE and that, combined with excellent internationalization and localization, made it worth another long look. Sadly, I came away feeling every bit as frustrated with Gnome as I had been with previous versions.
The good news is that in Fedora Core 5 the performance improvements do result is a snappier, crisper KDE. On a modern system with significant resources I will repeat Linus’ sage advice: Just use KDE. For those of us dealing with embedded systems, nano-ITX technology, or older systems with limited resources, KDE may not be an option. The good news is that other alternatives just keep improving. Some are reaching the point where they are worth looking at even on a well equipped high end system. The idea that the “desktop wars” are strictly a Gnome vs. KDE battle may be a bit passé.
XFCE, which started out as a CDE look-alike, has become much, much more. With version 4.4 (now in beta) it offers Thunar, a new file manager to replace xffm. XFCE is also the only desktop environment other than KDE or Gnome that has a great number of translations done and which offers full right-to-left support for languages that need it, including Arabic, Hebrew, and Thai. While XFCE is not nearly as lightweight as it was in early versions the developers have done an excellent job balancing adding features with retaining as much performance as possible.
After a very long period of inactivity Enlightenment has been undergoing active development and also seeks to be a full desktop environment rather than just a window manager. While it was once viewed as eye candy and as anything but lightweight, in today’s world it’s rather fast and thin. With DR 17 Enlightenment begins to look like a future contender in the desktop wars. One thing it does sorely lack is the multilingual support seen in Gnome, KDE, and XFCE.
As always there are a variety of lightweight window managers that you can use if you’re not looking for the “desktop environment” experience. WindowMaker, IceWM, Fluxbox, AfterStep, aewm, and many others continue to be developed. The good news on this front is that there are now a wide variety of add-on applications that can add some of the creature comforts of the heavier desktops to almost any window manager. fbpanel does a good job adding a feature-rich desktop panel to any window manager that is NETWM compliant while only using a modest amount of resources. If you want desktop icons you can use xtdesk to add them. Looking for a lightweight file manager? emelFM may well be the answer.
With all of these options available I have adopted a Linus-like attitude towards Gnome. I may use a few apps that require Gnome libraries. I just don’t use it as my desktop any longer. I also have to wonder how long distributions like Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), Fedora, and Ubuntu will continue to have Gnome as their default desktop if it remains a source of frustration rather than a pleasant desktop experience.