Open Ballot: Has desktop fragmentation gone too far?


First there was TWM. Then we had multiple window managers. Then KDE came along, and Gnome started as a result of licensing issues. Xfce grew up. And now, after a decade of the three big desktops slugging it out, it's about to get a whole lot more complicated with the addition of Unity and Gnome (3) Shell. Some distros are talking of forking Gnome 2.x to keep the older desktop alive.

We're going to record our next podcast soon, so we want your opinion: has desktop fragmentation gone too far? Is there strength in diversity, and are all these desktops good for the free software ecosystem? Or is it just duplication of effort, a nightmare for Linux documentation writers, and preventing Linux from building a unified front against Windows and OS X?

Tap your musings into the box below, and we'll read out the best in our podcast. Live a little, though, and come up with a better name than Anonymous Penguin. Cheers.

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Your comments

Mindshare is finite

We have always been at war with eurasia.
I think there is and always has been to much fragmentation on the desktop. The great thing is people only pay attention to a limited number of projects. Users will be aware of three or four choices and the best will hopefully get the most mindshare. On the developer side hackers will be drawn by two fairly quanatitive factors platform potential and quality of development tools oh and maybe user popularity.

For all the options you have how meny do you actually consider.

Not really

It depends which aspect of the desktop you're talking about. Most widely-used window managers (xfwm, kwin, metacity and whatever lxde uses) have the same basic features (panel, main menu, workspaces, etc), and since all of them (except kwin) use the same toolkit. Even then, if you use a theme like QTcurve or Oxygen-gtk then they look basically the same. It's more a matter of how willing you are to change settings.

Just to add

that I've had a play with gnome 3 and watched a video of unity - I think it's a very exciting time for linux in general, and I'm glad that people are re-thinking the desktop paradigm (afterall windows 95 is pretty old!). I'm sure that rough edges in unity and gnome3 will be ironed out in due course.

However, I still stick by my earlier comment that business users just aren't going be impressed with gnome 3.



The only linux related OS having any chance of competing with Windows on the desktop right now is Ubuntu. And it isn't a Linux OS. It's Ubuntu OS, based on linux. It's also based on Unity which is based on GNOME. But it's Ubuntu OS. not unity, and not GNOME, and not linux.

When you ask about desktop fragmentation, that's really irrelevant, because the major competing desktop linux based OS is based on only one desktop. If the question is what can be done to have the best chance to feel good about ourselves as linux users and have some kind of successful linux based desktop OS, then we should all drop what we're doing and back Ubuntu OS.

Who here is going to do that? And will Canonical pay us all, or something? Otherwise, what's the point of striving for desktop consolidation? I don't get the point.

But if you do want to aim for that, don't talk about desktop fragmentation. That won't solve anything. Instead, talk about making a sacrifice by backing Ubuntu OS - full time, and unconditionally.


I'd say no, but honestly, after trying out both Gnome 3 AND Unity, I'd say that there's a little bit of fragmentation for fragmentation's sake now.

Gnome 3 and Unity share a lot of the same concepts, IMHO, but Unity fails at being simple and getting out of the way, especially on a smaller screen. Gnome 3 does it better. I just don't know why Canonical decided to go a different direction with it.

I thought I'd end up having to switch to KDE or XFCE (or switch from Ubuntu to another distro) when Gnome 3 and Unity came out. Now I think I'm just going with Gnome 3 and Fedora.

Time to focus on the customer

I got tired of this Gnome vs KDE saga a long, long time age.
If GNU/Linux is ever the cross the bridge to mainstream computer users and really take on Windows and Max OSX, we as GNU/Linux developers have to realize one very important thing:
The vast majority of computer users are not techies. They don't give a damm if it's KDE, Gnome, Windows or Aqua - and for that matter probably don't really care if it's Windows, Mac, or GNU/Linux. They just want it to work, work well, and for the most part they want the desktop to look really nice. This may irk the likes of you and me, who should and do care about these things, but we can't; and shouldn't; try to make the end users care.
In this respect, we have a lot to learn from Apple. They took a Unix machine, wrapped it in a beautiful GUI, and made a fortune. I doubt very much if most Mac users even know they're using a 100% compliant Posix operating system,
or they they have xterm command line available to them. I'll even bet that that's news to some of you reading this right now..
Android is leading the way IMO. While there is certainly an awareness that Android is not Apple, to the end users, they look the same, act the same, and do the things the want from a iPhone and more.

Too Many Desktops?

No - variety is the spice of life (well -maybe). But I accept that Windows users may find it confrontational coming from a 'no choice' background. I use Gnome2, XFCE and LXDE depending on capability of the machine. I prefer Gnome2. KDE is far too flamboyant!

no again

After reading all post's (yes I did read my own post again) I get to the same point where key features have to be developed in partnership so that no mater what you choose, apps will just work and fit well on your desktop. Windows?! Mac?! are not a good example. I have the perfect DE in my mind. The problem(not a problem in the free open source world) is that some, or many, or most don't agree. Give me shattered glass any time, opposed to no glass at all.

alt tab

All of the desktops have applications. A terminal is all you realy need to survive. And when people want buttons that do this or that fine. I have been using Gnome shell and it works no problem in fedora 15. I use alt tab to do application switching and keep my apps at full screen. I have a dual display setup and keep my browser on one side and use the rest for everything else. Simple and easy nvidia hardware drivers work well. I think that ubuntu is wasting time with unity. Stick with the shell. Bring all the develpers to gether to customize the shell.

Would be perfect, but

As much as it would be perfect to have a desktop that was as simple as GNOME, as functional as KDE but have the same speed as Xfce and LXDE, I can't see it happening.

It's the "Linux-way", there will always be a group of people who wouldn't like it, or want something "better" which would cause another desktop to be created. Yes, this does cause a lot of duplicated effort, but I can't see this changing for the foreseeable future.

I'm not saying any particular desktop is bad, but I think that if there was one "super-desktop" it would certainly push Linux forward into the desktop market.


Maybe the community could compromise, lots of desktops but one set of libraries. This would save a lot issues.

I can give you an example, I was using GNOME and I wanted to install kcachegrind (excellent tool for analysing valgrind output), now I realise that there are GNOME alternatives, but I wanted kcachegrind because I'm used to it and I think it's the best. Now, when I came to installing this program I had to installed 100mb's worth of KDE-dependencies which is ridiculous! I shouldn't have to download over 100mb just to get this one program. If all desktops standardised on one library/toolkit, the different desktops would not be so much of an issue.

Again, I can't see this happening for the foreseeable future either. :(

Listen to yourselves

For all those that say fragmentation is a bad thing or is currently too much, I say bah. If you don't like what YOU use, change it to suit your preferences. There is a reason these many different fragments survive, especially desktop environments and window managers, namely that people actually use them. I use ratpoison on my seven year old laptop because even lxde was a bit slow, and now am used to configuring and resizing everything based on the keyboard, which suits me. On my desktop I use a full bling gnome2+compiz pinguy environment, because I've got the specs to support it, but I like to run openbox on it too, just to see things zoom along. I like having many options and exploring new distros, DE/WMs and setups is exciting and what drew me deeper into *Nix. Additionally, why do people whine about learning new package managers? You know there is a certain learning curve to each new distro, and it seems to me the best package managers have a lot of the same features (pacman, zypper, pisi etc.).

I do hope Gnome2 becomes a legitimate fork because I cannot run Gnome3 on my main computer (laptop) and I think Gnome2 is a natural choice for businesses looking to convert older computers from XP to GNU/Linux. I do like KDE, I just don't use it much (OpenSUSE on the desktop).

As I said above, fragmentation exists because people want different things and are willing to support them in their free time, especially for the smaller projects (do you think anyone at Red Hat works on code for before spouting senseless crap about consolidating distros or unifying DEs, think about other people who use and like software and configurations that are in contrast to your own tastes.

Fragmentation is the wrong word...and NOT the issue...

I would not call having multiple desktops and window managers fragmentation, I would call it having options or choices.

However, as we all know this thread is REALLY about Gnome 3 and Unity, how horrid and unusable they both are, and how they are being crammed down our throats as if we were Apple customers, I for one, refuse to swallow...

I am now up to 8 distros on my Grub bootloader (Grub LEGACY BTW, because while I love choice, I will not be forced to switch to something that does not work for me), because it is readily apparent that the entire Gnome team have broken into Mark Shuttleworth's medicine cabinet, and subsequently and collectively overdosed on the crazy pills that I am convinced he has been taking, as that is the only possible explanation for the existence of Unity.

That being the case, I am preparing for the day when I have to switch from my now perfect desktop to something else due to lack of updates. Certainly, the case could be made that if your desktop is so perfect, why switch at all, but I have my reasons, not the least of which is that I support others, and have to stay up to date.

So, I was assuming that Xubuntu would be my natural choice, as I am already familiar with it, and 4.8 looked very nice. As I have tried about 100 flavors of Linux over the past 4 years, I have realized that the reason I stay with Ubuntu as my main OS is for the overall ease of use and widespread compatibility across the board, so I wanted to stay in the Ubuntu ecosystem. After installing Lubuntu however, I may switch to it entirely, and at the very least, it does and will continue to have its own substantial partition and it is now a permanent part of my system. Another gem I have found is Liquid Lemur, which has some brilliant scripts to automate some otherwise mundane, and even painful tasks, and presents itself well, as a VERY attractive XFCE desktop with a Debian base. This may well wind up as my Laptop OS when it is released (it stands at Beta2 as of the moment).

I am an Ubuntu loyalist, even evangelist, and do what I can to support Ubuntu. I have a paid Ubuntu One account, buy things from the Canonical store (including discs of every release to hand out) and while it did not actually support Ubuntu, I recently spent about $80 USD on a new video card so it would be compatible with Unity, as I wanted to give it a fair trial.

Sadly, it is a complete mess, totally counter-intuitive, and a complete regression IMHO, as it takes entirely too
much digging and far too many clicks to get to the things I actually use. Gnome 3/ Shell is simply Unity's somewhat more attractive, yet slightly more insane cousin. Neither are usable.

And finally, to my point...

What the Gnome Team, and Canonical have completely failed to realize is that while it is totally obvious they are preparing desktops for the tablet market, they are not only in the wrong battle entirely, but by abandoning the desktop, they have already lost on both fronts.

Yes. I said they have ABANDONED the desktop.

Unity and G3 are OBVIOUSLY designed for tablets. The problem is that the market is already lost.

But the desktop market is still viable, and CAN be won.

I look at my Gnome 2/Ubuntu Desktop, and it is, as I mentioned, perfect. I have 10.10, the lovely silvery Ambiance theme running, Compiz just the way I like it, my new 1GB Nvidia card taking all the load off my completely stable and reliable AMD CPU, and it is a glorious, harmonious, fluid thing of beauty. I can switch to a subtle Orta theme (sans the STUPID Faenza icons) in a moment, or have a more rigid and business like look with Ambiance or even go with one of the fun Bisigi themes. I can do this all with a few clicks. Those same few clicks (plus a few dozen more) MAY (or may not) open a text editor in Gnome 3 or Unity. ;)

But I digress...what I am trying to get out here is that if we want Linux to succeed, we need to preserve the choices for advanced and adventurous users, but we also need to present some consistency and aesthetics to to potential users to pique their interest in the first place.

The single most popular OS in history was/is Windows XP. How did Microsoft achieve this? Was it through innovation? Rock-solid security? An eye-catching interface?


OK, now that you have stopped laughing, the answer is obviously, no.

What they did was precisely...nothing. They patched and patched until it was somewhat stable (people forget that XP got an even more hostile welcome from the users than did Vista when XP was first released), and by keeping it around for so long, it simply became "the desktop". Vista gave it a MAJOR face lift (for all of its perceived ills, it was certainly much more attractive than XP), but the underpinnings remained unscathed.

The little minor tweaks to Windows from XP to 7 have engendered users as it is now very visually appealing, yet reasonably stable (for Windows), but the biggest hook is that is is simply familiar to its users.

Linux does not present that to the new user, and as many above have stated, we need to have a few common standards. Just like "default" programs, there should be a "default" desktop, and also like default programs, it should be easy to change to whatever you like.

The bottom line is that there HAS to be a balance, and there has to be some sort of MAJOR communal effort to get at least the back end (package management) unified if Linux is to ever be more than a hobbyist OS on the desktop.

As I heard on another podcast recently, albeit about a different issue, changes like Unity and Gnome 3 are simply solutions looking for a problem...

@bananaoomarang In fact, you


In fact, you *are* voting.

Everyone is voting. Users vote by using the software they like and want then helping with bug reports and testing offering feedback and ideas. Providing documentation and support in forums for that software.

Developers are voting by choosing the libraries and creating the software.


These things put together all help create the "best" (in theory) or at least "most popular" choices.

In addition, I don't know that it's a taboo to say this but I think it's quite obvious as well and true generally:

Sometimes in democracies the majority - even vast majority - are wrong.

I mean think of what you just wrote. The majority/plurality use Ubuntu. And now Ubuntu's making a decision that you don't like with Unity. What are you going to do? If it was a voting system - or quasi voting system like you proposed, and the same thing happened guess what? You'd be stuck with Unity whether you like it or not.

That's democracy. Whereas Linux, on the other hand, is freedom - true freedom - which democracies can never provide. (Linux, GNU/Linux, FLOSS licensing whatever you want to call it).

But I mean this comes to the heart of this question about 'fragmentation'. I'm glad some other commenters here Get It. Because it is a sort of baffling question unless you look at it from a certain perspective.

As I wrote earlier, if your primary goal is to gain substantial market share and/or compete with Microsoft, Apple, or whomever, then you want consolidation, you want focus, you want familiarity, and you want fewer choices. Because this is the best path to make this happen, as far as competing in the software desktop industry is concerned, most apparently agree.

Nevermind that the concept is essentially entirely antithetical to the fundamental idea behind free software in the first place; you can already help participate in the consolidation of the desktop experience and try to take on Microsoft et al already:

Use Ubuntu. Develop for Ubuntu. Support Ubuntu. I don't many disagree that today, this brand has the best chance (at the moment anyway) to actually make any kind of dent in the desktop market (whether vis a vis the mobile market, or diretly). Ubuntu has already conslidated the desktop experience for its brand OS, first with GNOME, and now with Unity/GNOME. You don't actually need to care what other desktops are doing because as I've said, if you want a conslidated desktop, and you want it to be Linux or free/open source, then take a collection of software that you consider the best, put it together and package it up into your own OS and make it popular.

And that's what Ubuntu has done (begun to make it relatively popular anyway). In other words, you don't need to wish away the competition; you don't need to hope for amorphous ideals of consolidation; you just need to make your own brand better.

That's why I say if all of this is your goal, then hop board the Ubuntu train and follow its roadmap full steam ahead (of course, don't forget that you'll have to make sacrifices when you eventually don't agree with its evolving branded consolidation processes). Because right now, this is your best shot. And you don't live forever.

Just remember: if someone call it Linux, correct them and say it's Ubuntu with Ubuntu's (consolidated) desktop experience. Not Linux. Because unlike Ubuntu - unless the GPL/etc magically retroactively changes its own terms - Linux will always look different, always behave different, always be libertarian - as opposed to democratic, always spawn derivatives, be fragmented, be dynamic, and be free.

There is no single answer

GNU/Linux isn't just one thing. It is a family of OSs that are used in myriad ways. The ability to choose EXACTLY the right window manager and desktop environment for a specialized system may be priceless to one person and useless to another.

Missing the point...

The unverified poster above, wwhile doing a fine job of articulating his or her ideas, and making valid points all, is missing the crux here.

The driving forces behind both Gnome 3 and Unity are WRONG. They have made bad decisions, screwed up the desktop, and if we do not, as a community scream it at them from the rafters, how are they going to be aware of our collective dissatisfaction?

I would be of the same mindset were it any product that I was using, free or commercial. I too, hope someone (who is NOT the Mint project, as that is simply not an option for me) keeps gnome 2x alive.

On the bright side, it will be a long time before it is an actual issue, and hopefully both projects will be dead or at least molded into something usable by then...

Focus on Office Suite NOT Desktop Management

As a newbie, I appreciate a desktop that has basic, accessible menus and options to customize to my hearts content.

Unfortunately, unity and gnome 3 are actually a step backwards in both of these areas.

Linux Mint's enhancements to gnome 2.x should receive serious attention due to its similarity to Windows and Mac desktops. Newbies don't care that much about learning desktop interfaces, we want quick access to useful programs.

The Linux community should spend far more time on enhancing Libre office suite, so it can take on ms office. Once this gap is reduced, then and only then will Linux begin to gain users on the desktop and in the workplace.

downvote Fragmentation upvote Diversity

Are there too many different kinds of plants and animals? I think most people appreciate diversity.

I suspect the fuss is really about Gnome becoming Gnome2, GNOME3 and Unity. A bit like the way some ancestral ape evolved into homo sapiens, and the chimp, and the gorilla, and the bonobo, etc. etc.

Give it some time. People will make their choices. Some desktop environments will dominate. Others will be forgotten.

It is the Way Of The Jungle. It is true that there may be a lot of duplication of effort. But this is a development methodology that has a proven track record that spans about 3 billion years. Maybe more.

Imagine if all animals had been Tyrannosaurus Rexes, because a billion years ago some CTO thought that it was the coolest animal. You'd never have been born.

(For a laugh, try this:
$ apt-cache search 'window manager' | egrep -v 'lib|\-dev|\-dbg|\-doc|\-common' | egrep 'window.*manager'

Yes, almost

For what sake was created unity? To throw copy gnome3? Well without nonsences like 1 button and oversized titlebar, but lacking in everything. Also Unity seems a little bit ugly (no gnome 3 tabs) etc... I think customized gnome-shell would have solved everything. And for gnome2: revival of old ugly (default configuration sucks) zombie, which should have died long time ago, reviving for old PC's is a waste of time. There is XFCE which in my opinion is really powerfull DE. It has composition etc. I think those people should migrate to it. For even more oldschool pc's LXDE is even one more option. So Unity and gnome 2 is pointless, only thing that could really throw in the mix I think is E17.


One of the things I truly enjoy about linux is the variety and choice it provides. I have tried KDE, XFCE, Gnome 2.x, E17 and Unity so far. Windows doesn't have this kind of freedom and openness. The only problem I have is with the current trend of the newer desktops limiting the users ability to customise the desktop to their own needs and design. When I first tried unity, the first thing I wanted to do is remove the panel and side bar and load up Avant_Window_Navigator but I couldn't figure out how to remove those elements. But thankfully, I have other options open to me. With linux there are so many people that contribute ideas and code that makes all aspects of linux grow and develop in ways Windows never will.

the problem is somewhere else

actually the problem is not fragmentation of the desktop due to windowmanagers, those are only user interfaces.... different style for different people.

The problem is the fact that different distros prefer a certain window manager and add all kind of scripts, helper tools and handmade stuff around it. Automount, wifi and network control, volume control, suspend, resume, screenshot, system hotkeys, etc.
Thus switching from one wm to another gives not just a different UI but suddenly many stuff stops working or works different.

This is what really creates fragmentation.

I like

I like eating corn and shit mashed together in a paste. And wiping it on the gnome shell and kde desktop. mmmmmm.


I've been using Gnome for years.

As a programmer, I have a fundamental objection to KDE. The QT framework acts as a preprocessor, meaning what you see (as a debugging programmer) is not what you wrote. I could say more, but suffice to say, KDE is a non-starter for me.

I've been using Ubuntu for the last few years, but no more. I have several Linux boxes. Some are relatively powerful and many are Atom mobos (who can argue when a full-blown mobo costs only a bit over $100 USD?)

But Ubuntu's latest bloatware won't run on an Atom (in all its bling). I want a consistant interface, so Ubuntu is out. Sure, I could opt for the crippled Ubuntu Gnome iface, but how much effort will they put into that?

And now Gnome is going bling. Again, will my Atoms handle it? I think not. And even if they did, why spend the CPU cycles on bling?

Mint has a distro called XFCE or some other non-memorable tla (fla?). I've been running it in a VM and it seems really usable. So I guess if I can every remember what its called, I'll be switching to it, until its developers get the bling bug.

Getting tired of it all.

I want something that is easy to use.
That allows for some customizations and runs widgets.
Allows me to run the programs I want to run.

Start with an uncluttered desktop. I will put the menubar on the bottom, hiding it most of the time, unledd I moss over it.

The Chrome OS might work, if it can run my favorite Gnome and KDE applications. I for sure need gnome-terminal and the ability to run ssh to administer my other boxes.

XFCE is buggy

got tired of unity so i went with xfce (4.8) and boy is it buggy. autohide menu is temperamental, alt+f2 is temperamental, workspaces freezing randomly...

i'm tellin ya it's all just crazy and here i am back on unity givin it another shot. i told myself fk it what the hell


Too many choices equal none choice!
All of the current desktop environments on linux are lacking of refinements and usability compared with windows and mac OSX. Whatever I choose ,it is far from my satisfactory.
For example, there are hundreds of art,design open source alternative softwares but none of them is handful and powerful as photoshop,autocad and visio etc. Why? Because consistency is important for both user habits and progressive evolution of DE. Reinvent a new desktop environment for some purpose is short-sighted. It meets parts of users' needs in the short time but is harmful in the long run. IMHO, Usability is not equal to fragmentation.One choice sometimes is the best choice.


Well open source and free software is great. Surely though
Linux needs even more ubuntu-style easy and wide immediate hardware
support when you boot your pc without hacking, integration between distros,
general centralisation and ease of use! How else can it ever really compete
on the desktop?

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