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Can GNOME Regain the Evolutionary Advantage Over KDE?

The Internet has a habit of making anything you say obsolete as soon as you say it. No sooner had I compared the future of the GNOME and KDE desktops than GNOME announced that a version 3.0 would be released after all.

Because of the announcement and the subsequent discussion, I immediately had to reconsider my original conclusion: Does KDE have the evolutionary advantage after all? Or could GNOME regain it and continue to surpass KDE?

At this stage, definitive answers are impossible. While GNOME's plans have received widespread publicity, they are still in the earliest stages. Few milestones have been set, apart from having GNOME 3 released a year from now, and the plans are essentially wish lists that have not been officially approved.

However, assuming that the plans go ahead in something like their present form, one thing seems clear: Whether GNOME competes successfully in the long term depends on usability issues.

Specifically, GNOME's success depends mainly on whether users will accept the vision of usability contained in GNOME 3.0. This vision depends partly on GNOME's final road map, and partly on the influence of Ubuntu's Mark Shuttleworth's campaign to make the desktop the rival of Apple, which should be in place about the same time that GNOME 3 appears.

The GNOME wish list

Considering that GNOME has championed incremental releases for the past seven years, the rapidly developing plans for GNOME 3.0 are surprisingly revolutionary.

According to Vincent Untz's email to the desktop-devel-list and the discussion that follows it, GNOME 3.0 will be an ambitious re-imagining of the desktop. The GNOME Shell will replace the current panel and window manager, and GNOME Zeitgeist will introduce file management that is based, not upon the traditional hierarchy of folders, but on such alternatives as bookmarks, calendars, tags, and comments.

Behind the scenes, GNOME 3.0 will see a number of libraries deprecated, such as the esound sound server and the file system layer libgnomevfs, and the introduction of new ones, such as Clutter. In addition, a staging area will be created for applications like GStreamer that do not quite conform to the desktop's standard, and greater provisions for D-Bus, Avahi, and other technologies that are, strictly speaking, external to GNOME, but whose use the project wishes to encourage.

Another factor that will affect GNOME 3.0 is the development of the third version of GTK+, the widget toolkit that GNOME uses. Although currently detailed plans for GTK+ 3 are yet to be drafted, they will almost certainly be affected by the efforts in GNOME.

An emphasis on usability

My first impression when reading the plans for GNOME 3.0 is that the planners are being optimistic. Considering that KDE 4.0 took eighteen months to plan and another eighteen to implement, the chances that GNOME 3.0 will be released in a year seem small.

It seems likely that at least six to eight months will be needed just to finish organizing the effort. I mean no disrespect to GNOME, but I wonder whether, after years of incremental releases, the project has under-estimated the time needed for such disruptive changes.

As I look more closely, I also notice that in a number of cases, the plans are not so much a rebuilding from scratch, like KDE 4.0, as they are a vacuuming out of some of the cruft that has accumulated over the years. Perhaps this difference makes the schedule more realistic, but I wonder how thorough a cleaning will result.

In general, it appears that GNOME 3.0 will not be as much of a fresh start as KDE 4.0 was, although this appearance may be due to the lack of detailed plans and my lack of familiarity with some of the technologies to be introduced. Certainly, the fact that the GNOME Shell uses Javascript should make it easier for developers to contribute to the project.

For now, the plans for GNOME 3.0 seem best judged by the changes to usability they propose. Nor is that the worst criterion; while developers might worry about the state of the back end, end-users are more apt to be concerned about the state of the desktop (unless, of course, the back end significantly affects performance). And, by this criterion, GNOME may be about to attempt changes that are far more radical than the ones that had KDE users screaming obscenities last year.

Next Page: The GNOME Shell, GNOME Zeitgeist and Usability Changes