Thu, 07 Aug 2014
I still don't have a title » A pile of reasons why GNOME should be Debian jessie’s default desktop environment
GNOME has, for some reason or another, always been the default desktop environment in Debian since the installer is able to install a full desktop environment by default. Release after release, Debian has been shipping different versions of GNOME, first based on the venerable 1.2/1.4 series, then moving to the time-based GNOME 2.x series, and finally to the newly designed 3.4 series for the last stable release, Debian 7 ‘wheezy’.
During the final stages of wheezy’s development, it was pointed out that the first install CD image would not longer hold all of the required packages to install a full GNOME desktop environment. There was lots of discussion surrounding this bug or fact, and there were two major reactions to it. The Debian GNOME team rebuilt some key packages so they would be compressed using xz instead of gzip, saving the few megabytes that were needed to squeeze everything in the first CD. In parallel, the tasksel maintainer decided switching to Xfce as default desktop was another obvious fix. This change, unannounced and two days before the freeze, was very contested and spurred the usual massive debian-devel threads. In the end, and after a few default desktop flip flops, it was agreed that GNOME would remain as the default for the already frozen wheezy release, and this issue would be revisited later on during jessie’s development.
And indeed, some months ago, Xfce was again reinstated as Debian’s default desktop for jessie as announced:
Change default desktop to xfce.
This will be re-evaluated before jessie is frozen. The evaluation will
start around the point of DebConf (August 2014). If at that point gnome
looks like a better choice, it’ll go back as the default.
Some criteria for that choice will include:
* Popcon numbers for gnome on jessie. If gnome installations continue to
rise fast enough despite xfce being the default (compared with, say
kde installations), then we’ll know that users prefer gnome.
Currently we have no data about how many users would choose gnome when
it’s not the default. Part of the reason for switching to xfce now
is to get such data.
* The state of accessability support, particularly for the blind.
* How well the UI works for both new and existing users. Gnome 3
seems to be adding back many gnome 2 features that existing users
expect, as well as making some available via addons. If it feels
comfortable to gnome 2 (and xfce) users, that would go a long way
toward switching back to it as the default. Meanwhile, Gnome 3 is also
breaking new ground in its interface; if the interface seems more
welcoming to new users, or works better on mobile devices, etc, that
would again point toward switching back.
* Whatever size constraints exist for CD or other images at the time.
Hello to all the tech journalists out there. This is pretty boring.
Why don’t you write a story about monads instead?
― Joey Hess in dfca406eb694e0ac00ea04b12fc912237e01c9b5.
Suffice to say that the Debian GNOME team participants have never been thrilled about how the whole issue is being handled, and we’ve been wondering if we should be doing anything about it, or just move along and enjoy the smaller amount of bug reports against GNOME packages that this change would bring us, if it finally made it through to the final release. During our real life meet-ups in FOSDEM and the systemd+GNOME sprint in Antwerp, most members of the team did feel Debian would not be delivering a graphical environment with the polish we think our users deserve, and decided we at least should try to convince the rest of the Debian project and our users that Debian will be best suited by shipping GNOME 3.12 by default. Power users, of course, can and know how to get around this default and install KDE, Xfce, Cinnamon, MATE or whatever other choice they have. For the average user, though, we think we should be shipping GNOME by default, and tasksel should revert the above commit again. Some of our reasons are:
Accessibility: GNOME continues to be the only free desktop environment that provides full accessibility coverage, right from login screen. While it’s true GNOME 3.0 was lacking in many areas, and GNOME 3.4 (which we shipped in wheezy) was just barely acceptable thanks to some last minute GDM fixes, GNOME 3.12 should have ironed out all of the issues and our non-expert understanding is that a11y support is now on par with what GNOME 2.30 from squeeze offered.
Downstream health: The number of active members in the team taking care of GNOME in Debian is around 5-10 persons, while it is 1-2 in the case of Xfce. Being the default desktop draws a lot of attention (and bug reports) that only a bigger team might have the resources to handle.
Upstream health: While GNOME is still committed to its time-based release schedule and ships new versions every 6 months, Xfce upstream is, unfortunately, struggling a bit more to keep up with new plumbing technology. Only very recently it has regained support to suspend/hibernate via logind, or support for Bluez 5.x, for example.
Community: GNOME is one of the biggest free software projects, and is lucky to have created an ecosystem of developers, documenters, translators and users that interact regularly in a live social community. Users and developers gather in hackfests and big, annual conferences like GUADEC, the Boston Summit, or GNOME.Asia. Only KDE has a comparable community, the rest of the free desktop projects don’t have the userbase or humanpower to sustain communities like this.
Localization: Localization is more extensive and complete in GNOME. Xfce has 18 languages above 95% of coverage, and 2 at 100% (excluding English). GNOME has 28 languages above 95%, 9 of them being complete (excluding English).
Documentation: Documentation coverage is extensive in GNOME, with most of the core applications providing localized, up to date and complete manuals, available in an accessible format via the Help reader.
Integration: The level of integration between components is very high in GNOME. For example, instant messaging, agenda and accessibility components are an integral part of the desktop. GNOME is closely integrated to NetworkManager, PulseAudio, udisks and upower so that the user has access to all the plumbing in a single place. GNOME also integrates easily with online accounts and services (ownCloud, Google, MS Exchange…).
Hardware: GNOME 3.12 will be one of the few desktop environments to support HiDPI displays, now very common on some laptop models. Lack of support for HiDPI means non-technical users will get an unreadable desktop by default, and no hints on how to fix that.
Security: GNOME is more secure. There are no processes launched with root permissions on the user’s session. All everyday operations (package management, disk partitioning and formatting, date/time configuration…) are accomplished through PolicyKit wrappers.
Privacy: One of the latest focuses of GNOME development is improving privacy, and work is being done to make it easy to run GNOME applications in isolated containers, integrate Tor seamlessly in the desktop experience, better disk encryption support and other features that should make GNOME a more secure desktop environment for end users.
Popularity: One of the metrics discussed by the tasksel change proponents mentioned popcon numbers. 8 months after the desktop change, Xfce does not seem to have made a dent on install numbers. The Debian GNOME team doesn’t feel popcon’s data is any better than a random online poll though, as it’s an opt-in service which the vast majority of users don’t enable.
systemd embracing: One of the reasons to switch to Xfce was that it didn’t depend on systemd. But now that systemd is the default, that shouldn’t be a problem. Also given ConsoleKit is deprecated and dead upstream, KDE and Xfce are switching or are planning to switch to systemd/logind.
Adaptation: Debian forced a big desktop change with the wheezy release, switching from the traditional GNOME 2.x to the new GNOME Shell environment. Switching again would mean more adaptation for uses when they’ve had two years to experience GNOME 3.4. Furthermore, GNOME 3.12 means two years of improvements and polishing to GNOME 3.4, which should help with some of the rough edges found in the GNOME release shipped with wheezy.
Administration: GNOME is easy to administrate. All the default settings can be defined by administrators, and mandatory settings can be forced to users, which is required in some companies and administrations; Xfce cannot do that. The close integration with freedesktop components (systemd, NM, PulseAudio…) also gives access to specific and useful administration tools.
In short, we think defaulting to GNOME is the best option for the Debian release, and in contrast, shipping Xfce as the default desktop could mean delivering a desktop experience that has some incomplete or rough edges, and not on par with Debian quality standards for a stable release. We believe tasksel should again revert the change and be uploaded as soon as possible, in order to get people testing images with GNOME the sooner the better, with the freeze only two months away.
We would also like that in the future, changes of this nature will not be announced in a git commit log, but widely discussed in debian-project and the other usual development/decision channels, like the change of init system happened recently. We will, whichever the final decision is, continue to package GNOME with great care to ensure our users get the best possible desktop experience Debian can offer.