Gnome 3 goes native on Ubuntu Oneiric Ocelot

Fans of Ubuntu can soon enjoy Gnome 3, the new radical overhaul of the look and feel of the Linux desktop, at a single click.

The new interface can now be easily installed on the upcoming edition of Ubuntu, the Oneiric Ocelot, thanks to the migration of Ubuntu’s own user-interface ‘Unity’ from GTK-2 code to GTK-3.

Ubuntu is the most popular and arguably the most user-friendly linux flavors available today, but had created much heart-burn in the open-source community by more or less breaking away from the GNOME project. The GNOME project, along with KDE, create the ‘look and feel’ of open source operating systems such as Linux and BSD.

However, partly due to what it perceived as slow progress and partly due to the unwieldiness of the existing version of the Gnome interface (Gnome 2), Canonical, the Ubuntu sponsor, had decided to create its own user-interface (UI) from scratch.

The ‘Unity’ UI, which replaced Gnome 2 as the default in the current version of the Ubuntu in April this year, was designed to be more effects-heavy than the traditional and sedate Gnome 2, and was welcomed by some.

A large chunk of Ubuntu’s fanbase, however, were disturbed by the radical overhaul which did away with the horizontal ‘Window Bar’ that allowed people to move back and forth among running applications by clicking on the ‘minimized’ windows.

Instead, in Unity, there was a less-intuitive vertical bar on the left side that housed short-cut icons that also doubled up as ‘minimized’ windows when the application was already running.

However, it created problems for users trying to launch a new window, as clicking the ‘short cut’ icon would only serve to ‘maximize’ the existing window, rather than launch a new one.

The other big change in Unity, the absence of the traditional ‘unravelling menu’ system, too confused users.

Instead of clicking the ‘Start’ button, users now had to click on the ‘applications’ icon on the panel, select whether they wanted ‘installed’ applications or ‘available’ applications and then hunt through an alphabetic grid of all the applications to find the correct one and click on it.

Meanwhile, prodded by the Ubuntu rebellion, the traditional GNOME community decided to overhaul the system and come up with Gnome 3.

The new interface, while as radical and stylish as Unity, was comparatively less difficult to manoeuvre.

The short-cut icons did not represent minimized applications, avoiding the confusion of Unity and users could continue to use them to launch new Windows even when one was running.

Gnome 3 also introduced a more ‘funky’, yet quicker, mechanism to switch between running windows.

For this, one merely had to move the cursor to the ‘hot corner’ of the screen on the top left. All running applications would then appear magically as small windows and the user had to merely indicate his choice by clicking on the one he wanted brought forward.

Besides being stylish, quick and intuitive, this solution also maintained the number of clicks required to switch between two running apps to one, as in the traditional ‘panel’ set up.

Even the keyboard-shortcuts for switching apps were more cumbersome in Unity (Windows-key+W), compared to Gnome-3 (Windows-key).

However, die-hard Ubuntu fans were not able to try out the new Gnome UI on their desktops as Unity was written in the GTK-2 standard, while Gnome 3 was based on the new building blocks known as GTK-3. So, to install Gnome 3, one had to remove Unity.

However, in the snapshot development release of the next version of Ubuntu, called Ubuntu Oneiric Ocelot or 11.10 (2011-October), Unity itself has been migrated to the GTK-3 code. Besides, Gnome-3 is available as a simple one-click install.

Users can now simply install the ‘gnome-shell’ package and enjoy Gnome-3. However, going by initial indications, Ubuntu is likely to stick to Unity as its ‘default’ interface.

All open source operating systems are built by combining the fruits of many different projects. While a team led by the Linux foundation and Linus Torvalds work on the core functions of hardware management, memory allocation etc., teams such as the GNOME Foundation and KDE work on the ‘visible’ aspects, such as design, UI and also some of the applications.

GNOME is the most preferred UI among open-source operating systems, followed by KDE. Other niche UIs (called Desktop Environment in the jargon) such as ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘Xfce’ also exist.

While traditional open-source user interfaces have always lagged behind Apple OSX or Windows in terms of the ‘bling’ factor’ and style, KDE broke with tradition about three years ago doing a radical overhaul of its code with version 4.0. The move created many instabilities and difficulties for users, which led to a temporary dip in KDE’s popularity.

However, with the new KDE 4.6 version, most of the bugs have been squashed and the platform is approaching acceptable standards of stability and comprehensiveness.

Meanwhile, GNOME has got off to a much better start in its overhaul and surprised observers by creating a new UI that is not only more radical than what KDE was able to do, but also brings open-source UI at par or ahead of the OSX and Windows platforms in style and ‘bling’.