The GNOME desktop may have declined in popularity, but GNOME technology remains more popular than ever. In fact, if you tally the number of users today on leading desktops, well over a third run applications designed for GNOME. Not even KDE, GNOME’s long-time rival, exceeds this popularity.
Part of the popularity of GNOME technology is due to the GTK+ toolkit, one of the first and most mature for free software. In the last few years, KDE’s Qt toolkit has come to rival GTK+, but GTK+ remains a frequent choice for developers.
Another reason for GNOME’s popularity is the attention that its developers have always paid to usability and design. Unlike KDE’s applications, whose designs often make completeness the main priority, GNOME’s favor a simple and uncluttered look. Users might rely on KDE’s applications when facing problems, but GNOME’s are frequently easier to use in the most common work cases, and have traditionally been more aesthetically pleasing.
As the following examples show, the GNOME desktop may be struggling, but GNOME technology remains as influential as ever.
Average users may not have heard Orca, but for thousands, it is the screen reader that allows them to use free software. In fact, considering the cost of proprietary assistive software, and the chronic unemployment of the legally blind, Orca is the only way that many can use a computer at all.
Moreover, Orca’s support for multiple profiles allows it to be used by multiple users, as well as with multiple languages.
Applications need to be written specifically to support Orca, but today most GNOME applications routinely are. Orca’s major drawback is that the project’s web site is some years out of date, linking to solutions for problems that existed a number of years ago, but not to any current problems that might exist.
The photo manager Shotwell is another application developed by the Yorba Foundation. In many ways, it is an example of GNOME’s focus on interface design at its best.
The first time you open Shotwell, it scans your home directory for photos, removing duplicates from its list but not the hard drive. When the scanning is complete, you can click through to the main display. In the left pane is a tree in which pictures are arranged by date and by directory, in the right; a light tray with a zoom and icons for rotating and enhancing selected pictures, and uploading them to Facebook.
And that, in less than 80 words, is a reasonable summary of Shotwell. It is not a feature set that compares favorably with KDE’s digiKam, let alone with GIMP — yet, for the majority of users, it is probably all that is needed.
What makes Shotwell stand out is how it has reduced photo management to the barest of essentials, then arranged those essentials so that average users can run it without detailed help.
GIMP has become so popular in its own right that many users do not associate it with GNOME at all. Yet over the years, much of the development of GTK+ has been to meet the needs of GIMP.
As you probably know, GIMP was free software’s earliest answer to PhotoShop — a tool designed for editing raster graphics. Today, as Steve Czajka’s comparison in GIMP Magazine shows, GIMP is as suitable for professional graphics as PhotoShop, lacking in some features and having an advantage in others.
Famously, GIMP relies on a series of floating windows plus one or more editing windows. This arrangement is one that users either praise or condemn strongly. In recent releases, GIMP has offered a single window mode, but continues to default to its original flock of windows.
Although sometimes condemned by those who have never bothered to look closely, GIMP remains a major free software success story.
Ubuntu has abandoned the GNOME desktop, but continues to use GNOME applications. One of its most useful contributions in the last few years has been Byobu.
Described as “a text based window manager,” Byobu has two purposes. The first is to provide a virtual terminal with status indicators about the current session along the bottom.
The second and most important purpose is to split a virtual terminal into multiple ones. This ability is especially useful if you want to keep an eye on more than a single operation at the same time — for instance, if you want to do something else while waiting for a package to finish compiling. Since you can split a terminal vertically or horizontally, you can adjust the size and shape of each virtual terminal as needed.
The idea is simple, and not original with Byobu. However, it has never been as well implemented.
Many distributions have pushed the Geary email reader into service before its first general release because of the widespread dis-satisfaction with Evolution, GNOME’s main e-reader, and Mozilla’s semi-neglect of Thunderbird. However, like Shotwell and other applications developed by the Yorba Foundation, Geary’s main strength is its simply and easy-to-use interface.
Geary’s main innovation is its arrangement of email as conversations, rather than threads. Mostly, its accomplishment is to strip down email to its basics, such as contacts lists, spell-checking, and connection to the calendar of your choice, allowing it to deliver its services notably faster than most email readers.
For now, experienced users might miss the ability to have a signature file or the ability to set email to plain text. Possibly, too, adding encrypted email will be a major challenge to Geary’s design principles. However, the work that has been done on Geary so far is enough to make it a major contender to its faltering alternatives on GNOME.
Tomboy began as a panel application. When panel apps disappeared in the third GNOME release series, Tomboy survived where many applets disappeared.
The free desktop has countless note tools, of course. However, what makes Tomboy stand out is its compactness and selection of just the right features. Sitting among the notifications, it includes a short but complete menu of items, and opens in a small window that reminds users that it is for writing the online equivalent of post-it notes, not complete essays.
Its notes can be written with four font sizes, and four font weights, and can include HTML links. Add the ability to store notes in collections and export to HTML, and Tomboy has just enough structure and enough features to be both unobtrusive and useful.
Using the GTK+ toolkit, Inkscape has become the free software replacement for Adobe Illustrator, editing and creating vector graphics for amateurs and professionals alike. With the sides of its editing windows crowded with icons (primitives on the left, functions on the right), Inkscape looks more like a typical KDE app than most GNOME ones, but its arrangement has the advantage of allowing many tools to be accessed with a single mouse-click.
One notable feature of Inkscape is that tool settings are placed in full-sized separate windows, instead of being crammed into smaller windows, as they are in GIMP. Other features include an emphasis on paths, which are used for advanced positioning of objects, and rate an entire top-level menu, and an assortment of filters and extensions.
When you compare Inkscape with Illustrator, the advantages remain almost equally distributed: Illustrator has gradient meshes, multiple strokes and fills for a single object, and print color management, Inkscape keybindings for editing by screen pixels, on-canvass editing of cloned objects and gradients, and one-click paint bucket fill.
Hidden in Standards
This list could be twice as long. It could stretch, for instance to include Empathy for messaging, or Cheese for managing cameras. Something might also be said about Web (once Epiphany), and how it has taken Firefox’s feature set to create a web browser well-integrated into the GNOME Shell. Something might also be said about basic utilities like Simple Scan, or the Brasero DVD burner, or about the versatility of Gedit, GNOME’s long-time text editor.
Still, I sometimes wonder if GNOME’s attention to interface standards doesn’t prompt its applications to be under-estimated. Many of its applications look so simple that most users are probably unaware of the effort it took to make them that way.
GNOME’s designers might prefer that their efforts be overlooked, arguing that a design that calls attention to itself is a flawed design. However, it seems worth noting that, as Isaac Asimov once pointed out, stained glass windows are centuries old –but plate glass, which seems so plain, requires more advanced manufacturing techniques. Maybe the same could said about interface designs.