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I last updated the contents of this page on Date: 2005/10/29 23:10:39. Since then I have just changed the format.

It's been a while since people talked much about “UNIX on the desktop”; it's a reality. For me it's been a reality for over 15 years: I've been using various flavours of UNIX on my main machine since May 1990. In many ways, not much has changed: even in 1990, the X window system had most of the features I still need today. Of course, applications were a different matter.

Since then, things have changed in other areas: it's no longer “UNIX on the desktop” (the horizontal wooden surface holding up the monitors); it's “the desktop on UNIX” (the clutter on the screen that requires you to click on images to do anything and reduces the available screen real estate). I've tried, but I can't make friends with them.

So what's the problem? Maybe it's solvable, but it's apparently so far from the “State of the Art” that it's difficult to find the solution. I'm writing this after my latest attempt to set up the version of GNOME distributed in Ubuntu “Breezy Badger”, so much of this relates to GNOME, but that's not directed specifically against GNOME. Previous experiences with KDE caused similar problems, though. Here are the problems I see:

Keyboard layout

To its credit, GNOME does allow you to remap some keys on the keyboard, but not all. I have managed to end up with Ctrl in the right place, but the bottom left-hand corner then became a CapsLock, which I don't want at all on the keyboard, and for some reason which I keep hitting accidentally. X has had remapping since I started using it, but I can't find out how to do it under GNOME. It's also nicer to be able to do this anywhere on the root screen, rather than the GNOME way of requiring you to find the beginning of the menu with the mouse.

Mouse key bindings

One of the nice things with X is that you can combine mouse clicks and modifier keys to get a large number of different functions. With three mouse buttons and three modifier keys (Ctrl, Shift and Alt) you can thus get 56 different combinations. This enables you to do things like iconify with a single click, without first finding the button to click on (I bind this to Alt-Mouse 2, for example). More generally, I'm used to my key combinations, and I'd like to keep them.

Starting applications

GNOME starts applications from a two-level menu, so just about anything you start requires careful navigation (and possibly searching) of the menu. That's enough of a pain by itself, and possibly one that could be changed. I currently use fvwm2, and over the years I've built up a set of menus (using all three mouse buttons) which enables me to start most programs with a single selection. It would be nice to be able to have that ability with GNOME.

Lack of network support

I run my X system across multiple displays on multiple machines. GNOME not only doesn't seem to have no support for such a concept, it actively works against it by starting the X server with the flag -nolisten-tcp. While that might be a reasonable default, and maybe it's possible to turn it off, it makes it a pain to use in my environment.

Application defaults

Once I find my xterm, it starts up with a default size (something tiny like 80x25). Maybe it's possible to change the defaults, though I haven't found how, but I'd expect the “desktop” to remember the size and start the next one with that size.

Window size

I could have sworn that it was possible to set default sizes for windows under GNOME, but I couldn't find it this time. But some windows are ridiculously small. This is almost certainly an application problem, not a GNOME problem, but it's symptomatic. For example, the software update application (whose name is not easy to find; another issue) has a non-resizeable download progress window which is about 20% of the width it needs to be, and equips it with a scroll bar. I did this on a laptop with 1920x1200 display, but the window is still minuscule.

Summary: what good is GNOME?

GNOME looks nice. So does KDE. But when it comes to working, even after I've solved the problems above, I don't see that it adds very much. About all that's of interest at the moment are the menus. For all their shortcomings, they enable me to find applications that I wouldn't know about otherwise. It's just a pity that it's made so cumbersome.


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