3 Apr 2012

Unity, GNOME3, Windows 8 and… jumping rats

I am not a full-time Linux blogger, you know. I am an IT consultant. It means that from time to time I have to run a training course about the software I implement.

More often than not, I start my training course with a parable I adore.
Lively Eyes on a Lifeless Corpse
Image by Furryscaly
A group of scientists made an experiment. They gathered a few rats in a box and started to lower a piece of cheese for them. Once the rats started to jump in the attempt to be first to reach the cheese, scientists poured cold water on them. This way, they taught these rats not to jump while the cheese is in the air. Wait until it is on the floor.

Then, one of the rats was replaced with a fresh one. Cheese started to come down and new rat… did not move!

One after another, all the trained rats were eventually replaced with rats who never felt cold water on their skin. But… no one jumped for the cheese!

Why? Because this was a rule for the place!
Why do I like the parable? Because very often people see only one way of doing things, and simply because everyone does the same. But there is always another way, and sometimes this way is better than the old one.

Stop, you may think. What has all this to do with Linux and Open Source?

It actually has lots to do! Not only for Linux, but also for the mightiest competitor: Microsoft Windows. Years 2011 and 2012 brought, and will bring, significant changes to all of these operating systems. Maybe not on the core level, but certainly on the user interface level. Unity, GNOME3, and now Windows 8 user interface styles are... I won’t say they are bad or wrong. I will say they are different.

Many people wrote on the Internet about their rants, excitement, pros and contras. I myself did not stand aside from that battle. I compared them both on early stages and running in the same Ubuntu system. But the war is far from being finished. It has just started. There will be more to come when the new Windows 8 eventually hits the shelves of computer stores. This wave promises to be much stronger than the Unity and GNOME3 ones.

But why is this war happening? One of the reasons, and far from the most productive, is that people got used to "good old" principles of desktop organisation. There should be a panel, taskbar, desktop icons, panel shortcuts and so on. They must exist on the user’s desktop. They were there for 17 years now, starting from Windows 95. Or even longer, if we look at early versions of Mac OS. Where no such items exist, there is a risk for the user to feel stuck.

But does it all mean that "classical" desktop is better than "new" one? Not necessarily! The only person who should really decide is the user. Not only the user who feels himself comfortable with the CLI interface of a Unix server, but also the user whose only task on the computer is to start the Internet browser and check the e-mail or Facebook page.

Let’s stop ranting and blaming new interface in dumbness and all the sins in the world. Let users decide! Let developers follow the users’ needs and add features when and as they needed!

If you don't understand why you need to wait for the cheese to go down, don't stop others from jumping.


  1. Looks like in the future only Linux/BSD will have usable desktops (KDE)

    1. First of all, there are still XFCE, LXDE, OpenBox and Co.
      Second, let users give their voice, and let developers listen to that voice.
      Compare Unity in early stages and now. I think that general impression and acceptance now is much better.

    2. The users did decide. They overwhelmingly stated in the Gnome user survey, which Gnome refused to host this time around for some undisclosed reason, they prefered the Gnome 2.x set up because they are using desktop PCs with huge displays.

      The touchy feely tablet paradigm being forced on them is just not relevant.

  2. Windows users will vote with their wallets, an I predict their wallets won't open for Windows 8. Those who have just upgraded to Windows 7 don't have much incentive to upgrade to 8. Most businesses will also stick with XP or 7 and skip 8. Metro is a big mistake, it might be ok on a tablet but like 1% of people actually have a touchscreen computer! Windows tablets are too expensive, and lack the established apps stores of of iOS and Android, particularly the ARM version of Win8.

    1. Only time will show... 8-)
      But I agree about Win7 vs Win8 on corporate market.

  3. I bought a cheap netbook for my girlfriend last fall. Instead of using the Windoze installed on it, I installed Ubuntu 11.10 with Unity and she was happy. It was sluggish but she only opens Firefox and surfs. I noticed she was routinely getting confused with the Unity sidebar popping up and sometimes "losing" her Firefox session. So, I installed Linux Mint LXDE and she's MUCH happier. She feels comfortable with the "normal" taskbar/desktop shortcuts we're all used to. I, too, tried Unity for the better part of last year but didn't really find it that wonderful. Now, I'm back to Linux Mint GDE and life is productive. I'll be resurrecting my dad's old PC with Linux Mint LXDE at the end of the month and will be helping my friend install the same on his aging laptop very soon. All have asked about Unity and Windows 8 but they quickly forget those when I show them the Linux Mint interface. All they say is "that's pretty" and "that looks normal" :)

    1. On another pole, there are still some people who feel comfortable in Unity / GNOME3. 8-)

    2. I guess that's why Linux Mint is only 90% ahead of Ubuntu 11.10 in hits on Distrowatch.. People are adapting.. Come to think about it, they're voting their minds.

    3. It was also my understanding that running with LXDE the computer was somewhat faster.

  4. Somebody needs a refresher course in desktop history. OS/2 had the model we use today years before Windows '95. Similarly, the Unity. GNOME 3, MacOS and Windows 8 desktop paradigm started in 2007 with Xandros Presto! on the Asus EeePC, quickly followed by Linpus Lite. If you don't like the new paradigm blame Linux on netbooks because that's where it all started.

    Oh, and the users have decided. They overwhelmingly don't like the new paradigm on Linux. Ubuntu doesn't care and neither do the GNOME developers. Their target audience isn't the current user base. So... the users don't get to decide.

    1. Users still have a choice: LXDE, XFCE and KDE are still in classic desktop layout, without intention to change. Even if you have installed Ubuntu with Unity or Fedora with GNOME3, all these "classical" desktop environments are just one "sudo apt-get install..." away (Fedora command will be slightly different, but that's not the point).
      Some users do the change. Others can stay and help developers with their opinions and requests. Which side of barricades are you at? It's your own decision.

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. People write all sorts of stuff, but they all try to do the same: they want to sell you the changes, which most do not like. Now we get told a story about rats and scientists. That is very funny. I cannot wait for the next "surprise explanation" for why we need these changes!

    Sarcasm aside, why not writing about the real reasons why we need these changes? Perhaps if no reasons can be found then it may have all been unnecessary and are the creations of idle minds.

    1. I am not going to be funny with this rats' story. I am not going to sell you the new interface. As well, I am not going to use it myself in the nearest future. I am kind of settled on KDE + XFCE, and feel comfortable in those.
      I understand your position: you don't like new interface.
      But there are people who might like it. Accept it. Let developers do their work. It's far from the end. If you don't like it, don't use it. But at the same time, criticise constructively. This type of criticism helps. Others do not.

    2. I've made an honest stab at using Unity and Gnome 3. They just don't work as well as Gnome 2. I understand the breaking into the touch device market, but It makes no sense to try to make a desktop a touch device. You'd have to have the arms of a monkey to use one of those things. Totally senseless for the desktop. If it's fork you want that's exactly what you'll get. Folks don't like having things shoved down their throat no matter how you cut it. Maybe that's why Linux Mint is 4000+ on Distrowatch and Ubuntu is only 2000+.. I've never really been a fan of Linux Mint, but I am now.

    3. DarkDuck, you are funny to me and you will not change it if you keep writing like this.

      Let us first talk about those rats. What is up with them? Perhaps you think the scientists have control over the rats' behaviour and that it is the scientists' power now. The truth is that the rats do not care. They too know something. They know that the cheese will keep coming with or without them jumping. And jumping consumes energy so why waste it? If the rats had kept jumping then the experiment would have been boring and the scientist could have stopped their research, because it had no effective results. But now do the rats get free cheese! You think rats are scared of cold water? They live in cold, dark and wet sewers by the millions! You then do not need cold water to stop them from jumping. Just throw the cheese at them or shove it into their tiny faces. It works just like cold water.

      Perhaps check Phoronix. There people had the chance to write about GNOME 3 and Phoronix received over 5000 responses from their readers.

      GNOME 3 is a failure, but it is not the end of the project. Skewing the fact of what it is is bad. One needs to see and accept failure before one can correct them. Or as they say, you lose you learn. As long as this does not happen will the GNOME project lose support. In the end it is a choice they have to make.

      I did like GNOME 2 a lot, with all the little apps people wrote for it was it going into a very nice direction. But I too did move on and do not cry a tear over the loss, but I think Xfce has a good chance of becoming the next big desktop environment. I never wanted a huge desktop and Xfce is focusing on just that. I probably should have switched a long time ago!

  6. I like the rat parable - maybe its a Russian thing, though, since I am of Russian descent, all my grandparents coming from Russia. I like gnome shell on Ubuntu 11.10, but I can appreciate other desktop environments for what they have to offer. And its true - in my line of work, too, clients tend to do things one way because that's what everyone does and what they've always done - even if I show them an EASIER way, a QUICKER way they will often stick to the old, long, arduous method. That kind of mindset is very hard to conquer... :( Same thing with OS's and DE's... people get set in their ways and anything new just confuses them to death, so they will stick with old and clunky as opposed to being confused (even if only for a short time while they get used to NEW)... To each his or her own, though... :)

  7. There is a reason why so many people are complaining about Unity and GNOME 3. The paradigm, it's just plain wrong for the sort of use they make of their desktop. Because of this no amount of cold water is going to stop them complaining.

    You see the other thing people don't like being forced to do, is search for a distribution that has a desktop that suits the way they like to work, or install such a desktop over the top of GNOME 3 or Unity.

    1. > no amount of cold water is going to stop them complaining.
      Actually, these people have never tried cold water, but they still don't jump. And they curse those colleagues who try to jump.

      >people don't like being forced to do, is search for a distribution that has a desktop that suits the way they like to work, or install such a desktop over the top of GNOME 3 or Unity
      That's what this blog (and similar) is for. People can read about the distribution, see screenshots and make their decision about the system they want to use. Then, there are Live CDs which you can create yourself or buy, and try system before installing.
      And, finally, there are different versions of systems readily made with different DEs. I have written about Fedora KDE, Fedora GNOME, Fedora XFCE, Fedora LXDE, Xubuntu, Kubuntu, and other versions of the same distributions.

  8. I wasn't fond of Unity's first two releases, and stayed with Gnome 2's classic Application / Places / System tri-menu for Ubuntu.

    But with the latest release I gave Unity a fair shot (using MyUnity to reduce button sizes and remove auto-hide) and found that I'm now quite fond of it.

    I also use Win 7, SUSE 11 Gnome (with a more conventional Start-like menu in the lower left labeled Computer), and Mint with Cinnamon on various work and home machines - but Unity has become my preferred graphical shell. Not sure exactly why - it just has a more natural feel. *Shrugs*

  9. Dumb-de-do. Remember Windows Me and Windows Vista? MS will sell Windows 8. Windows 9 will probably be heralded as the second coming after the hassles with Windows 8.

    Meanwhile is the user really getting the choice? Gnome2 and all it's integrated goodness is getting dropped in favour of clutter based interfaces - remembering we're talking about users - not techies.

  10. Most of the conversations in which "the people spoke" comment comes up are faulty, just like in politics when somebody declares that the "Americans spoke..." In these situations what we hear is what some spokesperson is saying, and not what the people say. The author is correct in allowing the user to make his/her own decision.

    I wasn't overly excited about the Unity/Gnome3 changes, but truth be told, these new desktops are much cleaner and less distracting than the traditional desktop. For the last 2-3 weeks Unity has stayed out of my way and allowed me to do the work I needed to do. With a little bit of education (i.e. video tutorial, slideshow, etc.) users can quickly learn the quick and easy way to get around the new desktops.

    In my opinion, Unity and Gnome3, but especially Unity, will be a well liked desktop environment in less than 3 years.

    1. quote::truth be told, these new desktops are much cleaner and less distracting than the traditional desktop ::quote

      Utter rubbish. It is precisely becuse they are way more distracting that I don't like them.

      They both require extra mouse clicks/ keystrokes to initiate something I can do in 1 or 2 mouseclicks on my old GNOME 2 desktop and my new KDE4 desktop, The "menu" on both plasters itself across the entire desktop with huge icons, and GNOME 3 even loses virual desktops when I close the last or only Window on that virtual desktop, and they both have this panel at the top of the screen that won't and can't be hidden. And they both seem hell bent on requiring that you know the command nasme of the application you want to run, so you can type it into a desktop search engine to locate it.

      That is horribly distracting.

      No give me a the nice clean GNOME 2 + Compiz desktop I used to have or the KDE4 one I currently have. No distracting icons on the desktop, a nice clean menu that stays out of the way, a fixed number of virtual desktops so you can easily locate open applications when you want them, and a panel that hides when not in use.

  11. I didn't like Unity on my desktop when it came out and ended up switching to Kubuntu. I like it much better - it's fast and stable and pretty much works the way I'm used to working on a desktop. On the other hand, I know things change as technology gets better, and nothing is forever. That's why I didn't stay with Gnome 2 or go to Mint. And it's also why I installed Gnome 3 Shell on my Ubuntu 11.10 partition, even down to downloading and installing the Cantarell font. And despite how different it is from what I've used the last 20 years or so, I have grown to like it on the desktop, so much so that I switch back over to KDE less and less. No real insight on why - it's just easy to use, nice to look at, quick and responsive. That works for me.
    I just really hope they're not making maximized windows, a la Unity, the default, as I've read recently. And if they ever go to global menus, I'm definitely gone.

  12. Nice post - change is inevitable, especially in this business.

    I think it is important to remember a few things when it comes to the new and cutting edge interfaces.

    First, they are not necessarily "finished" yet - Windows 8, for instance, is just a preview, and I believe I have read in a few places that there will be official ways to disable Metro, not to mention the three or so third-party utilities that already do that.

    Also, is F/OSS ever "truly finished"? And even if you don't like it, you can change it.

    Second, and this may be more important - no one has forced me to upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 8 (and 7 will be supported out to 2020 apparently). Similarly, if I like GNOME 2 - well, Ubuntu 10.04 LTS is still supported, or I could switch to an RHEL clone and have 10 year support in some cases, with GNOME 2.x for a good long time yet.

    Ask yourself *why* you are upgrading before you do it - is your job to run the latest, greatest shiny shiny packages or can you get your real work done with what you have?

    Honestly, Firefox 14 or whatever doesn't seem to make the pages look any differently from Firefox 11, as long as 11 is patched for security issues, I would consider that to be good enough.

    I have tried all of the new interfaces myself, and to be honest I can work well in any of them due to the way I work (I tend to single task as it works best for me, which means full screen apps).

  13. I will be echoing many people. I tried Fedora 16 with Gnome 3 for about 2 weeks, then reinstalled PCLOS KDE. I tried the Windows 8 Beta. After finding it diffucult to simply close a window, and deal this how clumsy the interface is, I decided to build a new desktop, with Windows 7. I had to replace my 2005 Build... I have to post Anonymous, firewalls block the other options...

  14. IF it doesn't feel like an upgrade - its probably not.
    Just changing for the sake of change is wrong.
    So time will get all the desktop experiments out the door until someone actually start making sense again.
    My making sense of this thread is - compiz is the only true future desktop for linux - all the rest is simply the same old thing (aka windows). anyone who sees the compiz at work for the first time says -wow - this is the real deal. Linux will always compete with windows so go forward , not back or sideways(like unicrap)

    1. I can't agree or disagree with you.

      There is upgrade or non-upgrade for people who are in computer world for some time. But there is nothing like this for people who see computer for the first time. Maybe that's the target market for GNOME3 / Unity? Who knows...