Thu, 07 Aug 2014

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:

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.