GNOME 3.14 is now out. It's a release full of polish from the desktop environment once preferred by most Linux distributions--and almost a story of redemption. After arguably losing its way around GNOME 3.0, GNOME is back with a vengeance.
GNOME Shell has matured immensely since their immature launch. Thanks to solid releases like GNOME 3.14, GNOME will once again be the default desktop on Debian, pushing out Xfce. GNOME 3's "classic mode" offers enough familiarity to be the default desktop on Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7, too.
What's new in GNOME 3.14
GNOME 3.14 includes several redesigned applications. The Weather app has been reworked with a new layout, and now uses GNOME's built-in geolocation features to automatically display the weather for your current location.
The Evince app--GNOME's PDF viewer--now has less interface getting in the way so it can display more of your documents at once. It also supports high-resolution displays and offers improved accessibility features.
GNOME now has multitouch support, too. Gestures involving multiple fingers can be used to navigate the desktop interface. Evince, and GNOME's image viewer, Eye of GNOME, now support pinch-to-zoom.
The Photos app gained support for Google accounts, meaning photos uploaded from Android, through Google+, or via Picasa are now integrated. It already allows you to access photos from Facebook and Flickr. Photos can also now access local photo servers over the DLNA protocol.
"Captive portal handling" is another modern feature for GNOME. When you connect to a Wi-Fi network that requires a click-through--for example, in a coffee shop, hotel, or airport--GNOME will automatically bring up the web page you need to click, just like other modern operating systems do.
You can try GNOME 3.14 yourself by downloading this official live image based on Fedora. Boot it in a virtual machine, put it on a USB drive, or burn it to disc--whatever you prefer. Check the official release notes for more details.
Winning back hearts and minds
GNOME 2 was once the default desktop environment on Ubuntu and most other popular Linux distributions, from Fedora to Debian. It was a stable, simple environment. With GNOME 3 and the GNOME Shell desktop, the GNOME team made radical changes. There was no more taskbar or pop-up menu. The interface used lots of 3D effects, and performance was initially poor for many people, especially on hardware with poor 3D drivers in Linux.
Most controversially, the desktop environment was very simple, with even more features stripped away. In 2011, Linus Torvalds himself said of GNOME 3, "The developers have apparently decided that it's 'too complicated' to actually do real work on your desktop, and have decided to make it really annoying to do."
Linux distributions started to bail. Ubuntu thought they could do better, so they made their own Unity desktop. In 2013, Debian switched to their more traditional Xfce desktop as their default, partly because it was a more familiar experience for GNOME 2 users. It wasn't just Linux distributions, either--many Linux users at the time had negative reactions and looked for other desktop environments.
Well, if you haven't tried it in a while, GNOME 3 has improved. Performance is now good. Debian just switched back to GNOME as their default desktop, partly because its accessibility and systemd integration was better than Xfce's, but the interface has improved enough to make those considerations possible.
GNOME 3.8 brought a "classic mode"
Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7 is using GNOME 3, too. But they're using it in "Classic Mode," where GNOME 3 behaves more like GNOME 2. This gives an easy upgrade path and a familiar experience to those enterprise users. Classic mode is a feature that users begged for after the abrupt changes of GNOME Shell, and GNOME added it in GNOME 3.8. Classic mode isn't the same as GNOME 2; all of GNOME 3's fancy features are still there, they just take an extra click or two to access.
The free CentOS distro is based on RHEL, so you'll see GNOME 3's Classic Mode in CentOS 7, too.
Make no mistake: If there wasn't a classic mode, Red Hat probably would have joined Debian in switching to Xfce, or done something even more drastic. "The last thing we want to do is disrupt our customers' workflows," it said.
Classic mode is actually just a collection of officially supported "extensions" to GNOME Shell that you can install to make it behave like GNOME 2 in just a few clicks. This is one of GNOME Shell's strengths--a powerful extensions system you can use to extend and adapt your desktop interface.
Ubuntu's still betting on Unity
Ubuntu won't switch back to GNOME any time soon. They're focused on their vision of a computing experience that adapts to different screen sizes, so the same interface can power a small smartphone screen and then become a full windowed desktop environment when you dock that phone to a larger monitor. They need their own Unity desktop for that, and we'll start seeing Ubuntu Phones soon.
But GNOME is getting better and better. Even if you like Ubuntu, there's now an official GNOME "spin off" of Ubuntu that you can use to get GNOME and Ubuntu together. GNOME 3's future is looking brighter. They even won Linus back: "I'm actually back to gnome3 because with the right extensions it is more pleasant," wrote Linus Torvalds in 2013.