Despite all the talk about the mythical Year of the Linux Desktop, somewhere in the last few years, free software passed a milestone without anyone noticing. At some point, after years of struggling to rival proprietary desktops, both GNOME and KDE have caught up in features and narrowed the gap in usability. We are now at a point where free software is often an innovator on the desktop.
Of course, GNOME and KDE have long had features that Windows lacked, such as multiple desktops and finer controls for customizing the user experience. However, in the last few years, both major free desktops have added features that show not only an interest in usability, but, at times, an effort to anticipate what users might actually want. The focus is by no means consistent, yet scattered here and there are features that can make any user glad that they're using a open source desktop.
In 2001, the GNOME Usability Study Report, sponsored by Sun Microsystems, made GNOME the first free desktop to examine the desktop experience. Since then, GNOME has codified usability in its Human Interface Guidelines.
These guidelines are sometimes applied too literally, or as though they were the only consideration. But over the years, they have given GNOME an understated look and a high degree of efficiency. Applied well, the guidelines have resulted in some welcome features such as the multiple timezone clock.
With some patience, you might create the same convenience with the menu editor, but you'd take much longer to do so. The one problem is that neither drawers nor their contents support icon text, but you can overcome this problem by a careful selection of icons.
For some years, GNOME has emphasized two productivity applications that are not heavily tied to a specific desktop: OpenOffice.org and Firefox. Given the mature feature sets of both applications, this decision seems only sensible. GNOME still includes AbiWord and Gnumerics, the remnants of efforts to build an office suite, and some distros also include Epiphany, GNOME's default lightweight Mozilla-based browsers. But these applications are largely sideshows. By contrast, KDE still emphasizes both KOffice and the Konqueror browser, despite their relatively small followings.
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