2011: the year Linux stopped being fun

In less than a week from now, I expect to be in possession of a Mac, most likely a Mac mini. It’s taken a long time since I last had an up-to-date Mac — I bought one in 2004, and had always planned to update it when it got long in the tooth, but by the time it did, I couldn’t find one that was affordable and had an acceptable specification. That’s largely changed now; although the Mac mini is expensive for what it is, it still has a decent hard drive and memory for the money. What’s also changed, however, is that Linux has become more of a pain to use and less likely to work on what must be fairly standard hardware. This has much to do with the drastic reworking the GNOME desktop has undergone in the last year or so.

Although I started out using SUSE (now OpenSUSE), I’ve been using mostly Ubuntu since 2006 and no other distribution proved as reliable as that one, particularly starting with the April 2007 (Feisty Fawn) release. I found that it detected my wireless card and downloaded the correct driver for it and that the desktop was conservative and didn’t get in the way. GNOME 2 had been in development since 2002, and although the very first version was lacklustre (I remember well the slow screen-redrawings of that version, whenever you moved or closed a window), it had developed into a very solid and reliable desktop. Along the way, KDE radically re-invented itself and after KDE 4 was first released, it took a couple of years for it to stabilise and become reliable, losing a large number of followers along the way when they did not recognise, much less like, what they saw. In addition, most well-used apps, many of them also available on Windows and the Mac (such as Firefox, Thunderbird and, more recently, Chrome) used the same application toolkit (which provides windows, buttons etc) as GNOME itself (called GTK+), so it looked well-integrated. Of the current generation of Linux distribution, only Ubuntu manages to replicate this (by updating its theme for the latest version of GTK).

Come the end of 2010, however, the GNOME developers had decided to radically re-work their desktop, and what they came up with was a “shell” in which everything except the application windows and one top panel are hidden, so as to maximise screen space for applications. At the same time, Ubuntu rolled out Unity, a Mac-like set-up with a menu across the top and a “dock” (or launcher, as they call it — not that the term “dock” is trademarked, as it has been used in open-source projects since the specification for OpenSTEP was open-sourced years ago) down the side. These had the advantage of maximising vertical screen space on small, wide screens such as are common on laptops, but the latter, in particular, does not suit screens with a high vertical resolution (such as my desktop screen). Although the launcher can be retracted, it cannot be repositioned or resized. As part of the design project (called Ayatana) it was part of, the system tray was crippled as its use was determined to be inconsistent and (supposedly) confusing, so apps that depended on it (like the one I develop, along with most KDE apps) were prevented from functioning. And other bugs started appearing, such as a failure to detect my wireless card, which had worked fine up until the April or October 2010 releases. It didn’t in either of the 2011 Ubuntu releases.

GNOME 3 featured the already-mentioned Shell, as well as a fallback mode which slightly resembles the old GNOME, if done right (which it often isn’t as it’s an afterthought). The Shell hides everything except a top panel featuring a clock and a calendar; you use the Windows key (or move the mouse to the corner) to activate the “Activities” screen, which allows you to start any application, choose another virtual desktop (similar to the Mac’s Spaces) or use its Dock (yes, it has one now as well) to launch a commonly used app. The only problem is configurability is poor — the basic product does not even come with a configuration tool to change the fonts used — and it does not offer an easy way of turning off annoying features such as “edge tiling” (a window shrinking to half the size of the screen when moved to the edge — it seems not to appreciate that you just might have wanted the window to be at the edge). Although it offers a system of extensions (which do things as simple as allowing you to shut down the system from a desktop menu, which you could do in the old version of GNOME), many of these (including the simple one just mentioned) will actually cause the desktop to crash. At least one “reworking” of GNOME Shell is heavily based on such extensions — I installed Linux Mint 12, after finding that the latest version of Ubuntu would not even play sound on my laptop — and I found that, although it bizarre screen effects when switching applications (in particular, when switching to Qt apps, such as mine). Regarding the lack of configurability, an editorial response to a letter in Linux User and Developer magazine mentioned a “developer knows best” attitude, in which desktop capabilities are limited by the tastes and design decisions of the developers.

Currently, on my laptop, I’m running KDE on Linux Mint 12 (as Mint is based on Ubuntu, you can download software from Ubuntu’s repositories, and from any third-party Launchpad repository also). KDE is on the face of it, nowadays, a very stable and presentable desktop, which has regained the usability it lost in the big move to KDE 4. I hardly ever use its two special features, Activities and Plasmoids, except for the folder displays on the desktop background (a good alternative to the automatic display of the contents of the Desktop folder on the background). However, I generally find that I do not use any KDE applications when I’m using KDE, as many of them are not up to scratch (there are exceptions, such as the photo manager Digikam and graphic editor Krita). The mail client (KMail, which can also be used as part of Kontact, which also offers a calendar and various other organiser-type features) is especially awful: it continually threw up errors when trying to configure a simple IMAP email account (giving the impression of failure, and indeed it kept exiting), and continues to do so during use. I use it, in fact, only because Thunderbird refuses to display the contents of some messages (which I am certain is a problem in Mint, not Thunderbird, as I have never come across this problem with Thunderbird before and it is not a problem with OpenSUSE or, for that matter, Ubuntu).

In short, a year ago, Linux (and mostly Ubuntu at that — I tried others, but always came back to it) was a reliable operating system, fairly easy to use if you had a bit of computer experience, with a well-maintained desktop on which nothing looked out of place. Today, we have a hotch-potch of ill-conceived desktops with important features missing and some unwanted, forced on us by developers who believe they know best and did not think to consult with application developers outside their circle, and the people behind the biggest distribution even seems to be neglecting hardware compatibility. The reason, some have alleged, is the drive towards making the desktops compatible with the small-screen netbooks, yet this is no reason to neglect the traditional desktop user or screen formats other than cinema aspect (it may also be that, with the rise to prominence of the Linux-based Android on mobile phones and tablets, securing a place for Linux on the desktop has become less important to many people). The upshot is that Linux is no longer the pleasure to use that it was a year and a half ago (while at least one of the commercial rivals has finally put out a usable and reliable operating system) and my use of Linux is likely to drop considerably as of next week.

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