GNOME at 20: Four reasons it's still my favorite GUI

In the 20 years since its initial release, GNOME has continued to innovate and improve.
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The GNOME desktop turns 20 on August 15, and I'm so excited! Twenty years is a major milestone for any open source software project, especially a graphical desktop environment like GNOME that has to appeal to many different users. The 20th anniversary is definitely something to celebrate!

Why is GNOME such a big deal? For me, it's because it represented a huge step forward in the Linux desktop. I installed my first Linux system in 1993. In the early days of Linux, the most prevalent graphical environment was TWM, the tabbed window manager. The modern desktop didn't exist yet.

TWM

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But as Linux became more popular, we saw an explosion of different graphical environments, such as FVWM (1993) and FVWM95 (1995), and their derivatives, including Window Maker (1996), LessTif (1996), Enlightenment (1997), and Xfce (1997). Each filled a different niche. Nothing was integrated. Rather, FVWM and its clones simply managed windows. Toolkits were not standardized; each window might use a different one. As a result, early Linux graphical environments were a mishmash of various styles. Window Maker offered the most improvements, with a more uniform look and feel, but it still lacked the integration of a true desktop.

Window Maker

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I was thrilled when the GNOME project released a true Linux desktop environment in 1999. GNOME 1 leveraged the GTK+ toolkit, the same object-oriented widget toolkit used to build the GIMP graphics program.

The first GNOME release looked very similar to Windows 98, the then-current version of Microsoft Windows, a wise decision that immediately provided a familiar graphical interface for new Linux users. GNOME 1 also offered desktop management and integration, not simply window management. Files and folders could be dropped on the desktop, providing easy access. This was a major advancement. In short order, many major Linux distributions included GNOME as the default desktop. Finally, Linux had a true desktop.

GNOME 1

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Over time, GNOME continued to evolve. In 2002, GNOME's second major release, GNOME 2, cleaned up the user interface and tweaked the overall design. I found this quite invigorating. Instead of a single toolbar or panel at the bottom of the screen, GNOME 2 used two panels: one at the top of the screen, and one at the bottom. The top panel included the GNOME Applications menu, an Actions menu, and shortcuts to frequently used applications. The bottom panel provided icons of running programs and a representation of the other workspaces available on the system. Using the two panels provided a cleaner user interface, separating "things you can do" (top panel) and "things you are doing" (bottom panel).

GNOME 2.6

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I loved the GNOME 2 desktop, and it remained my favorite for years. Lots of other users felt the same, and GNOME 2 became a de facto standard for the Linux desktop. Successive versions made incremental improvements to GNOME's user interface, but the general design concept of "things you can do" and "things you are doing" remained the same.

Despite the success and broad appeal of GNOME, the GNOME team realized that GNOME 2 had become difficult for many to use. The applications launch menu required too many clicks. Workspaces were difficult to use. Open windows were easy to lose under piles of other application windows. In 2008, the GNOME team embarked on a mission to update the GNOME interface. That effort produced GNOME 3.

GNOME 3

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GNOME 3 removed the traditional task bar in favor of an Overview mode that shows all running applications. Instead of using a launch menu, users start applications with an Activities hot button in the black bar at the top. Selecting the Activities menu brings up the Overview mode, showing both things you can do (with the favorite applications launcher to the left of the screen), and things you are doing (window representations of open applications).

GNOME 3 Overview mode

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Since its initial release, the GNOME 3 team has put in a lot of effort to improve it and make it easier to use. Today's GNOME is modern yet familiar, striking that difficult balance between features and utility.

4 reasons GNOME is my favorite GUI

Here at GNOME's 20th anniversary, I'd like to highlight four reasons why GNOME 3 is still my favorite desktop today:

1. It's easy to get to work

GNOME 3 makes it easy to find my most frequently used applications in the favorite applications launcher. I can add my most-used applications here, so getting to work is just a click away. I can still find less frequently used applications in the Applications menu, or I can just start typing the name of the program to quickly search for the application.

2. Open windows are easy to find

Most of the time, I have two or three windows open at once, so it's easy to use Alt+Tab to switch among them. But when I'm working on a project, I might have 10 or more windows open on my desktop. Even with a large number of open applications, it's straightforward to find the one that I want. Move the mouse to the Activities hot corner, and the desktop switches to Overview mode with representations of all your open windows. Simply click on a window, and GNOME puts that application on top.

3. No wasted screen space

With other desktop environments, windows have a title bar with the name of the application, plus a few controls to minimize, maximize, and close the window. When all you need is a button to close the window, this is wasted screen space. GNOME 3 is designed to minimize the decorations around your windows and give you more screen space. GNOME even locates certain Action buttons in the window's title bar, saving you even more space. It may not sound like much, but it all adds up when you have a lot of open windows.

4. The desktop of the future

Today, computers are more than a box with a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. We use smartphones and tablets alongside our desktop and laptop computers. In many cases, mobile computing (phones and tablets) displaces the traditional computer for many tasks. I think it's clear that the mobile and desktop interfaces are merging. Before too long, we will use the same interface for both desktop and mobile. The key to making this work is a user interface that truly unifies the platforms and their unique use cases. We aren't quite there yet, but GNOME 3 seems well positioned to fill this gap. I look forward to seeing this area develop and improve.

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photo of Jim Hall
Jim Hall is an open source software advocate and developer, best known for usability testing in GNOME and as the founder + project coordinator of FreeDOS. At work, Jim is CEO of Hallmentum, an IT executive consulting company that provides hands-on IT Leadership training, workshops, and coaching.

11 Comments

Excelent article! I liked how GNOME looked before I was using it.

WindowMaker is hardly a thing of the past. Given the junkfest of both KDE and GNOME my desktop is still WindowMaker (with a few other components like Thunar).

"Before too long, we will use the same interface for both desktop and mobile."

Seems like a party line from ten years ago. It hasn't worked for Canonical after a long time trying, and seems unlikely to for Red Hat -- both of whose business is significantly on servers. Google probably has the best shot by drip feeding more traditional desktop environment features into its mobile operating systems.

Great article! I've been with Linux since before Gnome, and I think one of the great things about it for me was that I could use it before I had to use it for work. In fact I've never "had to" use any Linux for work, I've chosen to. I think that says a lot about the various projects that exist.

I also love FreeDOS, although I don't use it much any more, it was crucial in my looking into how OS's work; so thank you for that also.

Have you used KDE ? It's cpu consumption is far lower and if your working on environments that charge for cpu, go KDE.
__R

By "working on environments that charge for cpu" I assume you mean doing some sort of remote-desktop connection to a server, which is running a graphical desktop? For example, servers running in environments like AWS charge based on CPU time.

I don't run a GUI on my servers, only my laptop. It doesn't make sense (to me) to run a GUI on a server. Instead, I ssh into the server and run server commands via a terminal.

In reply to by Dick Waite (not verified)

If you read your article you'll see a lot of time "mouve the mouse, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click". Moving your hands away from the keyboard and bringing them back makes you loose a *lot* of time - even though you're so used to do that you dont realize you're loosing between one and two hours a day because of that (no joke). All the good keyboard shortcuts and things that was making me love Gnome have disappeared in the profit of "mouse, click, mouse, click, mouse, click, mouse, click". Even the Alt-Tab wants to show "previews" of Windows and takes a lot of time! With Gnome 3, I'm a lot slower than with Gnome 2. This is not progression, this is pure regression.

I think the only keyboard shortcuts I use on GNOME are Alt-Tab to switch windows, Alt-F4 or Ctrl-Q to close an open window, and Super (aka "Windows key") then start typing to launch a program. (Depending on the program, I may use the "standard" keyboard shortcuts to copy/cut/paste text, or open a file. But those are application keyboard shortcuts, not GNOME per se.)

For example, when I need to fire up a terminal window, I often type {Super}term{Enter} which brings up GNOME Terminal. Note that "term" is enough for GNOME to suggest "GNOME Terminal" as the matching application.

But that's habit. For other programs (especially programs I don't use all the time, like GIMP or Inkscape) it's more natural for me to use the mouse and the GNOME Applications menu.

In reply to by Olivier Pons (not verified)

I suppose I'm something of a Luddite, as I am still wedded to Gnome 2, combined with---believe it or not---FVWM. Scientific Linux 6.9. What I like most about this setup is the virtual window manager, which provides me with lots of space on my desktop.

So my question: Why doesn't GNOME incorporate the virtual window manager attributes of FVWM? It would be a big improvement.

Disappointing that this article erases KDE from Linux history. KDE predates GNOME by a couple of years and the development of GNOME was a reaction to KDE, specifically the "proprietary at the time" QT toolkit it was built with.

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