One Week With GNOME 3 Classic: Day Two (Reorientation)

Incommunicado

After my experience on Day One, I decided to make two significant changes to my working environment in order to adapt to the GNOME Way. Despite many years of using Pidgin as my primary communications application (since way back when it was still called gAIM… get off my lawn), I decided that the lack of notification availability was a significant detriment to my ability to get things done in my day job, so I bid it a tearful farewell and started looking for an alternative.

I settled on Empathy, because at first glance it was offering me the most complete replacement. It has support for connecting to multiple communication protocols, including Google Talk, AOL Instant Messenger (believe it or not, some of my contacts still use this) and Facebook Messenger. So I configured all of my services and tried it out.

The first problem that I encountered with Empathy was that it failed to recognize my Google Apps hosted domain name for Google Talk. It failed attempting to find the appropriate server. (TODO: file a bug and add it here). Oh well, being reasonably tech-savvy, I added Google Talk as a standard Jabber account and it worked fine after that.

The second issue I encountered with Empathy was that I could not exit it. When I selected “Quit” from the file menu, nothing happened. I was able to exit all IRC rooms by closing the window containing all of my tabs, but Empathy continued to run in the background. Furthermore, if I tried to kill it with fire the ‘kill’ command, some process somewhere started it right back up again in the background. My assumption here is that some part of the Empathy subsystem must be necessary to GNOME Shell, so I decided to just shrug it off.

For the most part, Empathy worked reasonably well as an IRC client. I missed a few nice features from Pidgin (namely the ability to have it notify me of certain keywords, not just my name), but on the whole it appeared to be a mostly acceptable solution. I went through my day without any particular complaints.

Throw Away the Key

The other major change I settled on yesterday was switching my window manager from KDM to GDM, in order to address the other serious limitation that I had faced on Day One: the inability to lock my screen. After a quick Google search, I was reminded that there is a handy package in Fedora by the name of ‘system-switch-displaymanager’ (and the GNOME variant, ‘system-switch-displaymanager-gnome’). I installed the GNOME variant through GNOME’s “Software” application, which then prompted me to run it immediately if I wished (I did). I was presented with a very simple interface with a radio button allowing me to select between KDM and GDM (the two display managers I had installed). I did this, and it informed me that it was switched, but that I’d need to restart the X server for it to take effect. I opted for a full system reboot (after running a set of available updates).

When the system had come back up, I was presented with a new login screen that was largely unimpressive. My username was on display in the middle of the screen, the Fedora logo appeared at the bottom and everything just floated in a sea of uninteresting grey. Now, I realize that most people don’t spend much time staring at their login screen (unless of course they have forgotten their password or the authentication server is down), but at the same time the screen is so bleak that I can’t help feeling like a new user who saw this as their first greeting would similarly expect the rest of the Fedora experience to be similarly bland and tasteless.

I went ahead and logged in, of course. The very first thing I tested was whether I could immediately lock my screen. This worked, and I was pleased to discover a small but meaningful change in the lock screen. In GNOME 3.6, where the gnome-shell-based lock screen made its debut, one needed to either drag the window shade upwards with the mouse or else strike the “esc” key (which was not visually indicated) in order to be able to start entering the password. As of GNOME 3.8, you can simply start typing and this will trigger the window shade to get out of the way. This also allows me to return to my classic (admittedly oddball) mechanism of starting to type my password by hitting backspace a couple times, in case I had accidentally hit the keyboard previously.

With the lock screen validated, I went to look for the “Switch User” option, but it was no longer there. It seems that when I logged in with GDM, it detected that mine was the only active user on the system and did not give me this opportunity. While this is interesting on a single-user system, it’s a bit puzzling that it should behave this way on a system that is joined with a central identity store (such as mine is to an LDAP server). The workaround here is to lock the screen, then select “Log in as another user” from there. I have not bothered to report this as a bug because it really is an edge case. It would only be an issue for the second user attempting to use the machine, after which the option would be there.

My Daily Nitpick

Making Space In my Head

Throughout this second day, I had very little trouble to report. This is a good sign. I encountered only two problems (one of which I had mentioned as a problem with GNOME 3 since its inception in my Prologue entry). Specifically, it takes some time to adapt from my traditional horizontal workspace arrangement (which in KDE or GNOME 2 could also be a two-dimensional grid) to the strict vertical arrangement of GNOME 3.

I mentioned it in passing in the Prologue, but the vertical arrangement of workspaces is more of an issue to the “feel” of the environment than it should be at first glance. It does what it’s supposed to do, and the keyboard shortcuts that control it behave in alignment with their horizontal counterparts (ctrl-alt-left/right becomes ctrl-alt-up/down, sensibly). But it doesn’t line up with the way my brain is wired to process things. This is my own interpretation, backed by my own philosophy and absolutely zero user-experience design work, but to me it seems like the human mind and eyes are designed very explicitly to perceive the universe more or less along a single plane.

Putting on my (extremely) amateur anthropologist hat, throughout history, human beings have largely evolved to deal with other land-based threats. Barring certain legends about rocs, griffins, dragons and Sarlacc pits, humanity has never faced a consistent predator that attacked from the sky or the earth beneath their feet. As a result, our eyesight was designed around providing us with a much larger view of our periphery than of above and below us (approximately 1.6 times larger, following the so-called golden ratio). I attribute this basic understanding of the world to why it feels so unexpectedly alien to be shifting up and down to get access to additional work in my workspace.

Ultimately, this is something that I know I will adjust to. I did so when I switched to GNOME 3 the first time. However, I remember that it took me almost a month to adapt to thinking about my environment that way in the first place, and then when I switched away again to Cinnamon and then KDE, I took to returning to the horizontal placement immediately. It just came more natural to me. I don’t know how much of this can be attributed to natural tendency versus many years of conditioning, but I know that it did not go unnoticed.

“Software” is an Adolescent Joke

The other nitpick I encountered yesterday was when I went to use the “Software” tool in GNOME. I’m not sure where exactly to begin with it, but it is perhaps the most poorly designed tool (from a user-experience point of view) that I have ever used. And I’ve used Oracle products.

To begin with, the application presents the user with a single window with a search box, a frame containing a set of collections and a larger frame containing an enormous set of options with check-boxes. Scanning through these hundreds of choices is daunting, and the search box is only useful if you already know what it is you are looking for.

Furthermore, there is no immediately visible way to configure the Software tool. I had to ask someone and be told that, unlike nearly every other application on the system, the options for the Software tool were hidden in a menu under the application name in the top bar. While I recognize this as a standard practice in OSX, it’s such a jarring discontinuity from the rest of the Fedora operating system that it makes no sense whatsoever.

The first thing I tried to find in the options menu was a way to configure it similarly to Apper from KDE (which I love). Specifically, I wanted to have it automatically download all of the packages that I would want for updates and then tell me about it so that I could update them at a time of my choosing. No such luck: with the Software tool, it is apparently all or nothing. I noticed that occasionally my user menu would grow another option underneath it that read “Reboot and install updates”, which I assume is probably accomplishing this behavior, but I have no real way to verify that.

The second thing I wanted to do with Software was configure it to automatically install security updates immediately. No such luck, it’s all or nothing.

Finally, I went to “Check for Updates” which unexpectedly launched a new window of bizarre proportions. It filled my entire screen from top to bottom, but only about one-fourth of the width. Moreover, it offered a truly bizarre layout. I could resize the window in either direction, but the only pane that would grow larger was the one listing the set of packages to be installed. Meanwhile, the “Details” pane remained locked at two lines wide, meaning that for packages that bothered to write decent update notes (which is a different issue for another blog post sometime), it was an extremely painful chore to attempt to read them.

All in all, the Software application experience is one that I would like to forget and I can only hope that the GNOME folks are planning to significantly overhaul it in the near future. As it is, I will not be using it and will stick to Apper if I want a graphical interface with decent searching or the basic yum command-line if I already know what I need.

Conclusions

Yesterday was an adjustment period. On Day One I had identified what I saw as major problems and yesterday I set about finding workarounds to them. I don’t love that I was forced out of my comfort zone in order to find applications that worked more cleanly in GNOME Classic, but I’m willing to explore my options. Perhaps I’ll find something I like better. Time (and the next installation of this series) will tell.

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10 thoughts on “One Week With GNOME 3 Classic: Day Two (Reorientation)

  1. “Furthermore, there is no immediately visible way to configure the Software tool. I had to ask someone and be told that, unlike nearly every other application on the system, the options for the Software tool were hidden in a menu under the application name in the top bar. While I recognize this as a standard practice in OSX, it’s such a jarring discontinuity from the rest of the Fedora operating system that it makes no sense whatsoever.”

    This is a change that’s occurring gradually in all GNOME applications; they have some rules about what actions should go on the global menu and what should go in the menus in the app window. But basically it’s not gnome-packagekit to blame here, it’s just following the rules GNOME is setting. If you look, you’ll notice gedit has stuff up on that menu now, and so does Boxes and a few others.

    “I noticed that occasionally my user menu would grow another option underneath it that read “Reboot and install updates”, which I assume is probably accomplishing this behavior, but I have no real way to verify that.”

    So this is a problem GNOME’s had since F18, now. The ‘offline update’ feature showed up:

    https://fedoraproject.org/wiki/Features/OfflineSystemUpdates

    But they didn’t drop the graphical ‘online’ updater (gpk-update-viewer), and they didn’t change the Updates Available notification to trigger the ‘offline update’ thing rather than gpk-update-viewer. So GNOME’s ‘update’ story is currently very confused. See https://bugzilla.redhat.com/show_bug.cgi?id=863592 , https://bugzilla.gnome.org/show_bug.cgi?id=687149 and https://bugzilla.gnome.org/show_bug.cgi?id=683745 .

    Offline updates do do more or less what you want: the updates are downloaded and cached in the background, and when you hit ‘restart and install updates’, the system reboots to a special systemd target, installs all the updates, then does a ‘normal’ reboot.

    “Finally, I went to “Check for Updates” which unexpectedly launched a new window of bizarre proportions. It filled my entire screen from top to bottom, but only about one-fourth of the width. Moreover, it offered a truly bizarre layout. I could resize the window in either direction, but the only pane that would grow larger was the one listing the set of packages to be installed. Meanwhile, the “Details” pane remained locked at two lines wide, meaning that for packages that bothered to write decent update notes (which is a different issue for another blog post sometime), it was an extremely painful chore to attempt to read them.”

    That sounds odd, it might be a Classic-specific issue. On my system, gpk-update-viewer comes up in a fairly ‘expected’ taller-than-wide shape.

    In general, gnome-packagekit indeed isn’t great, it doesn’t get much dev work these days. There are various plans to replace/supplement it, I believe.

    1. What on this good Earth was wrong with the ages old method we have used till now – install updates and restart affected programs? It’s not like Linux is Windows where opened files can’t be overwritten. Why would you make an advanced OS be dragged down to the likes of Windows?

  2. Lol, yes I agree with everything about the Software tool.

    At least the desktop entry to launch straight into the Software Update tool is back.

  3. It seems you found the ” Software ” updater program not the ” least poorly designed tool ” but the “Most poorly designed tool. ” of “least well designed tool .” Clearly this monster even mucked with your otherwise fine command of language, on top of its functional flaws. Gnome 3 seems infected with a ” Do it our way ” attitude, rather like Windows 8. Just think of all the pain you are saving other potential users, who otherwise have to fight their way Gnome alone.

  4. I think all applications in Gnome3 are *supposed* to have their menus in the name on the top bar. At the moment, some menus are in the top bar, some in the window bar so it’s slightly confusing. I expect it’ll get cleaned up in coming releases.

    1. Yeah, I have been informed that this is the plan, but it is still problematic. The real problem is that there is no UI element indicating that someone should look in the system bar for more menus. This seems to me to be a clear case for adding something like a down-arrow next to the application name in the system bar, which would at least indicate that there might be something useful there.

      Another major problem is that it diverges sharply with the non-GNOME software on the system, serving only to provide a disconnected experience (similar in many ways to the complaints that Windows 8 users have about switching back and forth between classic and Metro applications.

  5. I tried software update once or twice with each Fedora version from 18 onward, and now I just go to the command line and run yum update. If I want a list of software, I run yumex, my old favorite.

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