Gnome3 desktop environment finally arrives

It’s a day that many open source fans have been looking forward to for years. On Wednesday, 6 April 2011, Gnome3 – the latest version of the popular open source desktop environment – made its official debut.

Unlike most proprietary operating systems, open source desktops are highly customisable. Desktop environments such as Gnome and KDE are used to provide a specific look and feel for users and these are interchangeable. Gnome is one of the more popular desktop environments.

The new Gnome3 desktop, which runs on Linux as well as many other popular open source operating systems, has been years in planning and development. During that time its actual release was delayed numerous times as developers pushed back the release date to fix major problems.

The delays in releasing Gnome3 were probably mostly due to attempts to avoid the same fate as KDE4, another major desktop environment. KDE4, just like Gnome3, was significantly different to its predecessors with the result that many users complained of being lost, confused or frustrated.

Gnome3 is an equally big leap forward and there will undoubtedly be many users that will find it frustratingly different to what they are used to. Clearly the developers didn’t want to add to the expected confusion by allowing through unfinished or problem software that would turn users away.

The first thing that users will notice about Gnome3 is the space. The Gnome3 desktop is by default clear of all clutter. In its default state only a single hotspot, in the top left corner, is available to users. Through this users can launch applications, switch between windows and desktops and perform system changes.

At the heart of Gnome3 is Gnome-Shell which manages open windows and applications and significantly changes the way that the desktop works.

Major changes

Some of the major changes to the desktop include activities, messaging, snapping windows and changes to the windows control buttons.

The activities area includes a dock for switching between open applications or launching news ones, a window picker similar to Apple’s Expose for changing between windows, as well as an application picker and search tools.

The big change for many users on Gnome3 will be the new, simpler window control buttons. In place of the usual three maximise, minimise and close buttons, Gnome3 has just one button, a close button. Part of the rationale for this is that there is no panel to minimise applications to, so there is no need for a minimise button. In place of maximise users have new “snapping” windows that can be used for sizing a window to half the screen size or full size.

Messaging is also now built into the new Gnome3 desktop, so users are now able to receive and reply to incoming instant messages directly from their desktop.

One of the other changes in Gnome3 is the way multiple workspaces are handled. Gnome has always had the option for multiple workspaces but these were not widely used because of the way they were implemented. In Gnome3, pulling up “activities” allows users to add as many workspaces as they need. It is far more intuitive than previously.

Also, with “activities” open users can view all of their open windows and, more importantly, close them from the preview pane.

Gnome3 can be run on most open source desktop operating systems and already distributions such as Fedora have included the option to run Gnome3 as the default desktop. Many other Linux versions will include Gnome3 in their releases later this year.

There are also “live” CD versions of Gnome3 that can be run for testing. These can be downloaded from the website.

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Gnome3 desktop environment finally arrives