GNOME 3.4 Released – Usability Issues Galore


Today the GNOME project has released version 3.4 of its longstanding desktop environment. Available at http://library.gnome.org/misc/release-notes/3.4/, the release notes for GNOME 3.4 paint a picture of polish and improvement across the board.

I initially was quite impressed with GNOME 3.0, and the 3.2 version which followed provided even more evidence of polish, though there were warning signs I chose to ignore, hoping that in time the project would listen to its users and reverse course. Unfortunately this hasn’t happened.

GNOME 3 places emphasis on touch as a new input method for the desktop – as such it features gesture based window management and touch oriented application launching facilities as well as an on-screen keyboard. This was fine with me as to date the GNOME desktop had not disadvantaged users of keyboards and mice, as Microsoft has made the mistake of doing with Windows 8.

Unfortunately, with the 3.4 release, the GNOME project has joined Microsoft in this error – from now on, key applications will run in fullscreen mode by default, even on high-resolution 1920×1080 (or higher) screens, with no discoverable way to revert to windowed mode other than possibly a ‘fullscreen’ menu option newly placed, not within the application’s menu bar (this is now non-existent for the apps in question), but in the bar at the very top of the screen, hidden under the application’s name.

Thus one can:

  1. Drag the window downward from the top of the screen
  2. Hit alt-space and choose ‘unmaximize’
  3. Choose ‘fullscreen’ from the application’s ‘main menu’
  4. Deal with the app in fullscreen mode and sacrifice the benefits of 30 years of multi-window multitasking in the desktop metaphor

Solutions 1 and 2 give no visual cues to the user and thus will not be discovered by the GNOME project’s target audience (the inexperienced). Solution 3 has no basis in any previous desktop environment in either the open source or proprietary landscapes, meaning inexperienced and experienced users alike may not find this right away if at all. This leaves the user with option #4, to put up with an increasing number of applications which now launch in full-screen mode even on the largest displays, and that’s just how it’s gonna be.

Even more worrisome to me is the GNOME roadmap, which touts the eventual elimination of scrollbars and menubars in favor of an iconified tool menu similar to that found in Google Chrome, and other alarming trends. This can be seen here: https://live.gnome.org/RoadMap.

It’s important to note that the Linux desktop has a marginal position in the marketplace as it is. Due to the inability of open source user interface designers to actually listen to their target audience, or their lack of skill in designing fluent user interfaces, the Linux desktop has never gained traction – due to the upsurge in consumer interest in appliance-computing (in the form of smartphones and tablets) over desktop computing, the Linux desktop is not likely to make any headway at all.

What better way to ensure its irrelevance, than to alienate new and experienced users alike, condemning their dissatisfaction as grousing, and to tell them they’ll just have to get used to it? I can’t think of one.