At long last GNOME 3.0 launches

This free open source desktop features a new UI. Touchscreen support promised in six months.

The twice delayed GNOME 3.0 will finally be released to the public on Wednesday. It features a completely new user interface, meaning get ready for a learning curve to discover how to interact with your new GNOME desktop. The UI is one step away from support for touchscreens. A GNOME spokesperson told Network World that "substantive support" for touchscreens and their drivers is coming in six months, with the GNOME 3.2 release.

This is the first major upgrade of GNOME in nine years. Some of the new features include:

  • Activities view, which makes use of the "Windows" key included on most PCs.
  • Integrated messaging: Instant messages appear as little pop-ups at the bottom of the screen. You can ignore or reply without changing your workspace.
  • "Side-by-side" window tiling to move windows around similar to Windows 7 Snap.
  • A redesigned file manager.
  • GNOME3.0 Activities manager

    GNOME 3.0 messing

    GNOME 3.0 integrated messaging/chat.

You'll notice that a persistent Windows Dock is missing, hence the "Activities" view becomes the central navigation experience.

Activating new workspaces and working with windows in GNOME 3.0

3.0 seemed more focused on backward compatibility than in letting users load it onto the hottest, newest laptops and tablets, but it is moving in the right direction. The new UI looks set up for touchscreen/tablet use, with bigger navigation buttons and drop and drag activation of new workspaces.

"GNOME 3 is not ready for touchscreen yet, but important improvements have been done on the platform and we expect to have a first go on this with 3.2.  The Shell is more suited to touch than GNOME 2 (with the panel) was, especially considering the bigger hit targets in the application browser and the ability to move between workspaces by grabbing the background and swipe it in any direction. Also, the ability to maximize by dragging the windows to the top of the screen, instead of hitting a small button, is something that also improves touchscreen-friendliness," says explains GNOME spokesperson Sumana Harihareswara.

I'm not sure that GNOME 3.0 lives up to its makers claims that it offers innovation beyond what is seen in other desktop experiences, but the new interface is polished. It feels like a modern experience, rather than one crafted for the machines built in the early 2000s.

Some say that the most exciting changes occur under the hood and in efforts to reach out to more would-be app developers. "The Shell was written in using a formal scene-graph technology (Clutter) and JavaScript to take advantage of the wide body of existing web developers as potential contributors," explains Harihareswara.

Nathan Willis, of Linux Today also includes another long list of under-the-hood features for app developers that he particularly likes. For instance, the graphics library is much improved. He writes:

"That list starts with GTK+ 3.0, the basic widget library and application framework. GTK3 was officially released on Feb. 10, and it sports some impressive new features. First, all image drawing now goes through the Cairo graphics library, and the different rendering backends are swappable at run-time (including X11, Wayland, other OSs like Mac OS X's Quartz, or even HTML5), so an app can be compiled once and run regardless of the renderer needed."

He however, panned the new UI, saying that it imposes a single way of working on the users. To me, that sounds a lot like proprietary PCs like Macs or Windows. (Disclosure: After fussing around for a short time, I couldn't get the USB-bootable version of the GNOME 3.0 preview to work on my Ubuntu PC. So I can't offer a personal opinion on the matter. Am interested to hear if you love the new UI, hate it or feel some other way about it. In the meantime, I'll be eating some humble pie and asking for help on getting it going on my PC from some of my Linux-guru buddies.)

So how will you get it? Obviously, as of today, you can download it and install it yourself, if you have the expertise and the desire to do so. If you use any distro other than Canonical's Ubuntu, you can expect your distro maker to push out GNOME 3.0. Harihareswara didn't have a list of the dates/versions from distro makers who plan to offer GNOME 3.0. Not surprisingly, she said users can expect Fedora and OpenSuSE to push it out "fairly soon, in their next major releases." Debian will be predictably slow, but is expected to have GNOME 3.0 eventually, too.

As for Ubuntu, Canonical will be using a good chunk of the underlying GNOME 3.0 Shell platform, mostly under the hood stuff to make it easier for Linux desktop developers. But as, Network World reported a few months ago, Ubuntu will be using its own tablet/touchscreen friendly Unity desktop user interface instead.

Over 3,500 people have contributed changes to the project's code repositories, including the employees of 106 companies. GNOME 3 includes innumerable code changes since the 2.0 release nine years ago.

Users can download GNOME 3 from http://gnome3.org to try it immediately, or wait for distributions to carry it over the coming months.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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