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Fri, Nov. 11th, 2016, 03:54 pm
Why I don't use GNOME Shell

Although the launch of GNOME 3 was a bumpy ride and it got a lot of criticism, it's coming back. It's the default desktop of multiple distros again now. Allegedly even Linus Torvalds himself uses it. People tell me that it gets out of the way.

I find this curious, because I find it a little clunky and obstructive. It looks great, but for me, it doesn’t work all that well. It’s OK — far better than it was 2-3 years ago. But while some say it gets out of the way and lets them work undistracted, it gets in my way, because I have to adapt to its weird little quirks. It will not adapt to mine. It is dogmatic: it says, you must work this way, because we are the experts and we have decided that this is the best way.

So, on OS X or Ubuntu, I have my dock/launcher thing on the left, because that keeps it out of the way of the scrollbars. On Windows or XFCE, I put the task bar there. For all 4 of these environments, on a big screen, it’s not too much space and gives useful info about minimised windows, handy access to disk drives, stuff like that. On a small screen, it autohides.

But not on GNOME, no. No, the gods of GNOME have decreed that I don’t need it, so it’s always hidden. I can’t reveal it by just putting my mouse over there. No, I have to click a strange word in the menu bar. “Activities”. What activities? These aren’t my activities. They’re my apps, folders, files, windows. Don’t tell me what to call them. Don’t direct me to click in a certain place to get them; I want them just there if there’s room, and if there isn’t, on a quick flick of the wrist to a whole screen edge, not a particular place followed by a click. It wastes a bit of precious menu-bar real-estate with a word that’s conceptually irrelevant to me. It’s something I have to remember to do.

That’s not saving me time or effort, it’s making me learn a new trick and do extra work.

The menu bar. Time-honoured UI structure. Shared by all post-Mac GUIs. Sometimes it contains a menu, efficiently spread out over a nice big easily-mousable spatial range. Sometimes that’s in the window; whatever. The whole width of the screen in Mac and Unity. A range of commands spread out.

On Windows, the centre of the title bar is important info — what program this window belongs to.

On the Mac, that’s the first word of the title bar. I read from left to right, because I use a Latinate alphabet. So that’s a good place too.

On GNOME 3, there’s some random word I don’t associate with anything in particular as the first word, then a deformed fragment of an icon that’s hard to recognise, then a word, then a big waste of space, then the blasted clock! Why the clock? Are they that obsessive, such clock-watchers? Mac and Windows and Unity all banish the clock to a corner. Not GNOME, no. No, it’s front and centre, one of the most important things in one of the most important places.


I don’t know, but I’m not allowed to move it.

Apple put its all-important logo there in early versions of Mac OS X. They quickly were told not to be so egomaniac. GNOME 3, though, enforces it.

On Mac, Unity, and Windows, in one corner, there’s a little bunch of notification icons. Different corners unless I put the task bar at the top, but whatever, I can adapt.

On GNOME 3, no, those are rationed. There are things hidden under sub options. In the pursuit of cleanliness and tidiness, things like my network status are hidden away.

That’s my choice, surely? I want them in view. I add extra ones. I like to see some status info. I find it handy.

GNOME says no, you don’t need this, so we’ve hidden it. You don’t need to see a whole menu. What are you gonna do, read it?

It reminds me of the classic Bill Hicks joke:

"You know I've noticed a certain anti-intellectualism going around this country ever since around 1980, coincidentally enough. I was in Nashville, Tennessee last weekend and after the show I went to a waffle house and I'm sitting there and I'm eating and reading a book. I don't know anybody, I'm alone, I'm eating and I'm reading a book. This waitress comes over to me (mocks chewing gum) 'what you readin' for?'...wow, I've never been asked that; not 'What am I reading', 'What am I reading for?’ Well, goddamnit, you stumped me... I guess I read for a lot of reasons — the main one is so I don't end up being a f**kin' waffle waitress. Yeah, that would be pretty high on the list. Then this trucker in the booth next to me gets up, stands over me and says [mocks Southern drawl] 'Well, looks like we got ourselves a readah'... aahh, what the fuck's goin' on? It's like I walked into a Klan rally in a Boy George costume or something. Am I stepping out of some intellectual closet here? I read, there I said it. I feel better."

Yeah, I read. I like reading. It’s useful. A bar of words is something I can scan in a fraction of a second. Then I can click on one and get… more words! Like some member of the damned intellectual elite. Sue me. I read.

But Microsoft says no, thou shalt have ribbons instead. Thou shalt click through tabs of little pictures and try and guess what they mean, and we don’t care if you’ve spent 20 years learning where all the options were — because we’ve taken them away! Haw!

And GNOME Shell says, nope, you don’t need that, so I’m gonna collapse it all down to one menu with a few buried options. That leaves us more room for the all-holy clock. Then you can easily see how much time you’ve wasted looking for menu options we’ve removed.

You don’t need all those confusing toolbar buttons neither, nossir, we gonna take most of them away too. We’ll leave you the most important ones. It’s cleaner. It’s smarter. It’s more elegant.

Well, yes it is, it’s true, but you know what, I want my software to rank usefulness and usability above cleanliness and elegance. I ride a bike with gears, because gears help. Yes, I could have a fixie with none, it’s simpler, lighter, cleaner. I could even get rid of brakes in that case. Fewer of those annoying levers on the handlebars.

But those brake and gear levers are useful. They help me. So I want them, because they make it easier to go up hills and easier to go fast on the flat, and if it looks less elegant, well I don’t really give a damn, because utility is more important. Function over form. Ideally, a balance of both, but if offered the choice, favour utility over aesthetics.

Now, to be fair, yes, I know, I can install all kinds of GNOME Shell extensions — from Firefox, which freaks me out a bit. I don’t want my browser to be able to control my desktop, because that’s a possible vector for malware. A webpage that can add and remove elements to my desktop horrifies me at a deep level.

But at least I can do it, and that makes GNOME Shell a lot more usable for me. I can customise it a bit. I can add elements and I could make my favourites bar be permanent, but honestly, for me, this is core functionality and I don’t think it should be an add-on. The favourites bar still won’t easily let me see how many instances of an app are running like the Unity one. It doesn’t also hold minimised windows and easy shortcuts like the Mac one. It’s less flexible than either.

There are things I like. I love the virtual-desktop switcher. It’s the best on any OS. I wish GNOME Shell were more modular, because I want that virtual-desktop switcher on Unity and XFCE, please. It’s superb, a triumph.

But it’s not modular, so I can’t. And it’s only customisable to a narrow, limited degree. And that means not to the extent that I want.

I accept that some of this is because I’m old and somewhat stuck in my ways and I don’t want to change things that work for me. That’s why I use Linux, because it’s customisable, because I can bend it to my will.

I also use Mac OS X — I haven’t upgraded to Sierra yet, so I won’t call it macOS — and anyway, I still own computers that run MacOS, as in MacOS 6, 7, 8, 9 — so I continue to call it Mac OS X. What this tells you is that I’ve been using Macs for a long time — since the late 1980s — and whereas they’re not so customisable, I am deeply familiar and comfortable with how they work.

And Macs inspired the Windows desktop and Windows inspired the Linux desktops, so there is continuity. Unity works in ways I’ve been using for nearly 30 years.

GNOME 3 doesn’t. GNOME 3 changes things. Some in good ways, some in bad. But they’re not my ways, and they do not seem to offer me any improvement over the ways I’m used to. OS X and Unity and Windows Vista/7/8/10 all give me app searching as a primary launch mechanism; it’s not a selling point of GNOME 3. The favourites bar thing isn’t an improvement on the OS X Dock or Unity Launcher or Windows Taskbar — it only delivers a small fraction of the functionality of those. The menu bar is if anything less customisable than the Mac or Unity ones, and even then, I have to use extensions to do it. If I move to someone else’s computer, all that stuff will be gone.

So whereas I do appreciate what it does and how and why it does so, I don’t feel like it’s for me. It wants me to change to work its way. The other OSes I use — OS X daily, Ubuntu Unity daily, Windows occasionally when someone pays me — don’t.

So I don’t use it.

Does that make sense?

Sat, Nov. 12th, 2016 09:32 am (UTC)
Kerrick Staley

Like most software, GNOME 3 requires a bit of learning before you can use it most effectively, but it's actually a really easy learning curve because GNOME is designed to be intuitive.

The biggest thing I'd recommend is learning the keyboard shortcuts. Pressing the Super (aka Windows) key will open the Activities overview. Pressing the Super key and then typing the name of an app then Enter will launch that app (I never use the mouse to launch an app). Super + Tab switches between running apps. There are a few more here: https://help.gnome.org/users/gnome-help/stable/shell-keyboard-shortcuts.html.en. It's actually shorter and easier to remember than the man page of even a simple command line tool like "ls"—and you probably have dozens of command line tools memorized, including complex tools like find, sed, and curl.

This may sound preachy, but life is a lot better when you stop worrying about customization. Learn how the software works and adapt yourself to it. Think of how many places you have to do this in the real world: bicycles, cars, election ballots, transit systems, and grocery stores all have "UI"s that can be counterintuitive or slow, which you don't have much control over. But you don't complain because you can't change their UIs. GNOME is far easier to use than any of these, but because other desktops offer more customization, users can feel like GNOME is lacking. But if you accept that GNOME is not really intended to be heavily customized and just try to get used to the vanilla experience, you may actually be really happy using it.

Caveat: if there's something that makes your workflow 3x faster, definitely spend a few minutes setting that up. But things like the position of the app title vs the position of the clock are not worth splitting hairs over. The GNOME team actually cares deeply abut usability and although some design decisions may seem quirky, every feature is scrutinized through the lens of ease-of-use. GNOME's UI Design Principles talk more about this and are a good, short read: https://developer.gnome.org/hig/stable/design-principles.html.en

Tue, Nov. 15th, 2016 09:53 pm (UTC)

So its different, and uncompromising, and I don't need to use it, so I won't, I'll stick to MATE, which is still being developed for people who saw no reason to switch from Gnome 2

Mon, Jan. 16th, 2017 12:18 pm (UTC)

Actually, yes, that's more or less my position.

Only I took the path of even less resistance and went with what my preferred distro gave me: Unity.

GNOME 2 struck me as a good, spirited attempt to copy the basic Windows 9x UI but make it more customisable -- more panels, more choices, etc. Unfortunately, it didn't reproduce one of the single options that is most important to me -- a vertical taskbar -- so I was never all that happy with it.

Apple's UI is a slightly uneasy merger of the classic MacOS Finder plus the NeXTStep Workspace. It's not a perfect blend, but it is consistent and it works fairly well -- and Apple incorporated some Windows details over the years: resizing from any edge; alt-tab switching; consistent keyboard shortcuts; more Windows/Mac-like scrollbars (for a while).

So yes, I'm sure that the GNOME team has put a lot of research into its design. However, I'm equally sure that MS and Apple both did, too -- and I suspect that they had a lot more money and manpower to throw at it.

So, when GNOME 3 tore up the rulebook, Ubuntu just went with a slightly enhanced, slightly more PC-ish version of the Mac desktop. That works for me. I like it. I find it natural and efficient. I make no claims of it being intuitive. I struggled a bit with Mac OS X in the early days, and tweaked it and used add-ons to make it more Classic MacOS-like. I don't any more. I'm used to it. Switching between Mac and Unity is fairly painless; I barely think about it.

GNOME 3 makes me work, because it's so unlike Mac or Unity or GNOME 2 or Windows or anything else I use, but I don't see any benefit from the differences.

Tue, Jan. 17th, 2017 10:06 am (UTC)

Similarly I wanted something where I could switch between Windows and Linux, hence GNOME 2. I hated Unity when I first saw it, pushing a mobile big-button system on a huge desktop seemed foolish. Of course the rise of mobile means more and more stuff looks horrid on desktop unless people maintain separate styles.

Sun, Jan. 15th, 2017 04:38 pm (UTC)

> Like most software, GNOME 3 requires a bit of learning before you can use it most effectively, but it's actually a really easy learning curve because GNOME is designed to be intuitive.

I suspect everyone will tell you their software is intuitive. This isn't a good way to start your point. I think it would be more interesting to see each of the UI design teams explain why their defaults are the better experience. There are choices that have been made, sell those.

Apple, for one, is famous for making it harder to turn of some of their default choices because they are fully convinced theirs is the right way. They've backtracked when testing hasn't equaled reality. If Gnome, Mate, Cinnamon, or whomever thinks there way is better, tell me why.

Mon, Jan. 16th, 2017 12:18 pm (UTC)

That's a very good point. I'll look into that.

Tue, Jan. 17th, 2017 10:09 am (UTC)

Many developers force changes on their users because they feel its right and don't want to support config panels and larger code bases. As often their choices are attention seeking rather than sensible, this leaves many people dreading upgrades. "All I wanted was the old stuff with the bugs fixed"

Tue, Jan. 17th, 2017 10:20 am (UTC)

> Many developers force changes on their users because they feel its right and don't want to support config panels and larger code bases.

I think this is a reasonable request from the developers to their users, but if you're removing an option or default that a majority of your user base wants, you should be considering that more carefully anyway. Otherwise, I think you have to accept that you can't please all the people all of the time. Every change may leave a few users behind, but as long as you are growing and doing right by the vast majority, you're probably doing ok. Obviously there are exceptions to this rule.

> As often their choices are attention seeking rather than sensible, this leaves many people dreading upgrades. "All I wanted was the old stuff with the bugs fixed"

I think is because there isn't a lot of testing and decision making behind some of these choices. Changes like these drive the release news cycle. "Same Thing With Fewer Bugs" was never a headline. If you're writing an application whose primary method of user attraction is release news, you're doing it wrong.

Tue, Jan. 17th, 2017 10:30 am (UTC)

I think too few users voice their annoyance with changes, they just put up with them. And reversing a change is a career limiting move at any level in an organisation, as everyone wants to save face.

I totally agree about the news cycle. The demand for novelty by developers, journalists and resellers does the consumer a disservice.

Tue, Jan. 17th, 2017 05:06 pm (UTC)

> I think too few users voice their annoyance with changes, they just put up with them. And reversing a change is a career limiting move at any level in an organisation, as everyone wants to save face.

For some products, yes. For many projects, I think they get trapped in "yes is forever; no is temporary."

> I totally agree about the news cycle. The demand for novelty by developers, journalists and resellers does the consumer a disservice.

Those demands are driven by the consumer.