Unity, Gnome 3 and my way out of this madness

I will remember 2011 as the year when the Linux desktop took a huge step backwards. After decades of evolution we finally had a nice Gnome 2 based desktop providing a clean and efficient environment where one could focus on getting the work done. Even the Ubuntu variant with their this-makes-me-wanna-puke-brown and purple theme was okay, because it took only a few mouse clicks to switch back to something more pleasant looking, e.g. the Clearlooks theme. All this is gone now as the majority of Linux desktops come with either Gnome 3 or Unity – two equally useless and pathetic attempts at making the Linux desktop look like a cellphone.

I am, however, not going to talk about what’s wrong with Gnome 3 and Unity, and I’m not going to make any attempts at constructive criticism either. It would be waste of time since I consider both of them to be broken by design. The Gnome 2 desktop that came with Ubuntu 10.10 was perfect for me and that should make it pretty clear that I am never going adopt anything like Gnome 3 or Unity on my desktop computer.

I am not going to talk about KDE either. Although I give credit to the kde-folks for not going in the same direction as the Gnome and Canonical designers (if they really have any designers…), KDE has always been a little too “busy” and heavy for my taste. It is still on the table as a potential future desktop for me, but I am not quite there yet.

My way out of this madness is actually very simple – go back to the desktop I was using between 2001 and 2006! It’s called Xfce Desktop and despite continuous development and improvement, it has provided a clean, efficient and consistent user interface over the years.

As my preferred Linux distribution is Ubuntu, switching from Unity to Xfce is very simple. On computers where Ubuntu is already installed I can simply install the xubuntu-desktop package via the package manager. On computers that require fresh installation I can install Xubuntu directly without any traces of Unity or the overlay-scrollbars – the other unbelievably stupid invention from Canonical this year.

I have spent most of November and half of December trying to get used to first Unity, then Gnome 3. They both confused the hell out of me and considering that I have been using computers and Linux since 1995 it was just wrong that I could no longer control my own computer. Going back to Xfce with the Clearlooks theme was great relief and I could finally have some work done again instead of wasting time trying to figure out how to do some simple tasks, like start a new session for an application or resize a window.

Then one day I got surprised. I launched the gedit text editor and it looked like crap:

Default Gtk+ 3 theme looks like crap

I was beginning to worry that this was some bug in Xfce and I will have to live with it, but a Google search taught me that this is because gedit is now using Gtk+ 3 whereas Xfce still uses Gtk+ 2 and the two versions of Gtk+ use different and incompatible theme engine. In other words, the Gtk+ 2 theme I was using for Xfce was not available as a Gtk+ 3 theme.

Knowing this the solution was to find a theme that looks like Clearlooks and supports both Gtk+ 2 and 3. Fortunately for me, Jean-Philippe Fleury has done exactly that – the Clearwaita theme which contains the Clearlooks theme for Gtk+ 2 and a modified Adwaita theme for Gtk+ 3. The screenshot below shows Thunar (Gtk+ 2) and Gedit (Gtk+ 3) side by side using the Clearwaita theme:

Thunar and Gedit with the Clearwaita theme

I am now a happy hacker again and all of my computers are back in a usable state. I am looking forward to one year from now, and see whether Gnome 3 and Unity will survive. Maybe they will realise that were trying to fix something that wasn’t broken, or that they were trying to appeal to users who’d never consider using Linux in the first place. In the mean time they can continue pissing off users who do more than Facebook and Twitter on their computers.