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19 December 2011, 13:12

LXDE and Xfce – the other desktops

by Richard Hillesley

GNOME and KDE may be the high profile Linux desktop environments, but they are not to everybody's tastes. Richard Hillesley describes the different approaches taken by a couple of the more prominent alternatives.

If we believe everything we read, users are abandoning GNOME in droves, in frustration at the perceived quirks or failings of GNOME 3 (or Unity, Ubuntu's alternative shell for GNOME 3) and are turning to minimalist desktops, such as LXDE or Xfce, in a quest for continuity and stability.

Back in July, Linus Torvalds complained that GNOME 3 was "an unholy mess" and expressed the feelings of many users when he wrote: "I used to be upset when GNOME developers decided it was 'too complicated' for the user to remap some mouse buttons. In GNOME 3, the developers have apparently decided that it's 'too complicated' to actually do real work on your desktop, and have decided to make it really annoying to do."

As a result, he wrote, "I'm using Xfce. I think it's a step down from GNOME 2, but it's a huge step up from GNOME 3."

This may have been harsh on the developers of the GNOME shell and GNOME 3 who are trying to re-draw perceptions of the desktop, but certainly has the sympathy of many users.

Part of the traditional free software process is the idea of "release early, release often". Get the software out there ahead of the curve, and draw the community into the process. Over the years, the bazaar has been the accepted model for free software development, but may not work so well for an unfinished sketch of how the desktop might work in the distant future, especially when the new paradigm has the potential to interrupt the current workflow for many millions of users.

Being different

Gnome 3 and Unity are trying to gear the desktop towards the devices of the future – but many users are finding themselves having to mould the new desktop to the devices of the present. It isn't that the GNOME shell and Unity don't fulfil their promise (although some argue that this is the case), but that they create different expectations of the user and the hardware. Olivier Fourdan, the creator of Xfce, speaking in another context, expressed the problem well: "People are so used to Windows, they've been using Windows for so long that they don't realize that Windows is not easier than Linux (nobody is born knowing Windows, there's always a learning curve and learning Windows is no easier than learning Mac OS or Linux). I believe the user interfaces (GNOME, KDE, Xfce, whatever) that come with Linux are much more versatile, easy to use and more productive than what Windows offers, but they are different and not everybody feels confident when it's different."

More recently, Torvalds slightly changed his tune when writing about GNOME 3: "Hey, with gnome-tweak-tool and the dock extension, gnome-3.2 is starting to look almost usable.

"Now I just hope those things become part of the standard GNOME shell setup and made available in the regular 'system config' thing rather than hidden off. Sure, make them default to off if you want that 'clean default', but make them easy to find and part of the standard install.

"Or would that be too close to 'Ok, we admit we were wrong' and thus not politically acceptable?"

Responses to GNOME 3 and Unity are mixed, to say the least, but perceptions may change as the software matures and the rough edges disappear. GNOME 2 is a recognised and familiar interface, especially on Ubuntu, and although it may continue as a fork and a partial approximation of GNOME 2 can be run in GNOME 3 fallback mode, the code is being deprecated and won't be developed in the future.

In the meantime, KDE will perhaps regain some of the users it lost during the troubles it incurred in the process of a similar transition to KDE 4, and LXDE and Xfce will gain another set of users who are happy to jump to a relatively familiar GNOME 2-like interface.

Reassuringly for such users, the LXDE Design Principles ask contributors to "consider the conventions of both GNOME and Windows, and try to follow the habit of most users. Do not deliberately make the GUI different only because you want to be different from Windows. Usability is always the top concern. Windows might not be good in some areas, but like it or not, most computer users in the world are used to it. Trying to fight your users is apparently unwise."

Next: Xfce - the cholesterol free desktop

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