GNOME 3.0 with GNOME Shell officially launched

The GNOME Desktop team has sent its latest creation into the wild, officially launching GNOME 3.0 - the biggest redesign the project has enjoyed in around nine years.

Launched today, GNOME 3 is a radical departure from its predecessor - thanks largely to a new creation, GNOME Shell, which sits on top of the desktop and promises a distraction-free environment for getting things done that might come as a surprise to those switching from the team's previous releases.

"We've taken a pretty different approach in the GNOME 3 design that focuses on the desired experience and lets the interface design follow from that," designer Jon McCann explained during the launch. "With any luck you will feel more focused, aware, effective, capable, respected, delighted, and at ease."

While the team behind the project has been hard at work on back-end improvements, including display enhancements, a new application programming interface that promises to make harnessing the new features as easy as possible, and streamlined libraries, it's the front end that will strike most people as software's outstanding feature.

The Shell looks, at first glance, to be taking design cues from Canonical's Unity - a homebrew user interface developed for Ubuntu 11.04, and used in place of GNOME Shell in that release in a move that didn't win Canonical any love from the GNOME community. Despite this, Canonical's chief technical officer Matt Zimmerman is full of praise for the project.

"In the face of constant change, both in software technology itself and in people's attitudes toward it, long-term software projects need to reinvent themselves in order to stay relevant," claimed Zimmerman. "I'm encouraged to see the community taking up this challenge, responding to the evolving needs of users and questioning the status quo."

Sadly, while Zimmerman seems pleased with the work the team has done over the past five years, that pleasure doesn't extend to a dropping of Unity from Ubuntu.

Like Unity, the GNOME Shell drops the traditional window list and dock layout in order to offer a more streamlined interface with fewer distractions. While widget and applet fanatics will miss the customisation freedom that GNOME 2 Desktop offered, the team claims to have ensured that no functionality is lost with a switch to a cleaner desktop environment.

The main purpose for the changes to the desktop become clear when you hear the team's plans for the Shell: a single interface that is compatible with the majority of computing devices around. Its layout makes it suitable for smaller-screen devices like netbooks - where every pixel counts, and taskbars can steal critical screen space from the currently running application - while the icon-based launcher and pop-up window picker feels natural on a touch-sensitive device such as a tablet.

It's an approach which is likely to polarise the community, and there's some bad news for those who don't like the new interface: work on GNOME 2 is now done and dusted, and while the project will live on in distributions for some time to come, it won't be getting any official updates or new features.

There's good news on the horizon, however: GNOME 3 is fully compatible with existing GNOME 2 applications, and while developers will be expected to modify their code if they want to take advantage of the new features on offer there should be a minimum of software compatibility issues in the short term.

Miguel de Icaza, co-founder of the GNOME Project back in 1997 with fellow student Federico Mena Quintero, is confident that GNOME 3 will please the project's many fans - and even stands a chance of winning over those who prefer alternative projects like KDE.

"The new GNOME Shell is an entire new user experience that was designed from the ground up to improve the usability of the desktop and to give both designers and developers a quick way to improve the desktop and adapt the user interface to new needs," he claimed. "I could not be happier with the results."

As is becoming increasingly popular with new software launches in both the proprietary and open-source communities, fans of the project have gathered today to host launch parties. While it's certainly a somewhat geeky excuse for a celebration, that hasn't stopped people from all over the world getting the beers in to count down the launch - including the Manchester Free Software team here in the UK.

While some niggles remain with the new GNOME release - including concerns that the new Clutter framework breaks accessibility features that exist in GNOME 2 - the new release is looking like a real winner. Only time will tell, however, if distributions pick up on GNOME Shell for their default desktop or, like Canonical, make the leap to an alternative instead.

GNOME 3 is available for download from the official website - but less technical users are advised to wait until a package is available from their chosen distribution's official repositories.