Joachim Breitner

Good bye GNOME

Published 2014-07-19 in sections Digital World, English.

When I was young...

I have been a user of GNOME for a long time. I must have started using it in either 2000 or 2001, when LinuxTag was in Stuttgart. For some reason I wanted to start using one of the two Desktop Environments available (having used fvwm95 and/or IceWM before, I believe). I approached one of the guys at the GNOME booth and asked the question “Why should I use GNOME over KDE?”, knowing that it is quite a silly question, but unable to come up with a better one. He replied something along the lines of “Because it is part of GNU”, and that was good enough for me. Not that it matters a lot whether I use one or the other, but it was a way to decide it.

Back then GNOME was still version 1.2, with detachable menus and lots of very colorful themes – I first had something with thick yellow borders and then a brushed metal look. Back then, sawfish was the window manager of choice.

I used GNOME for many years. People complained when GNOME 2.0 came out, but I liked the approach they were taking: Simplicity and good defaults are a time saver! I did my bit of customization, such has having my panel vertically on the left edge, and even had a tool running that would react on certain events and make the window manager do stuff, such as removing the title bar and the borders from my terminals – naked terminals are very geeky (I forgot the name of the tool, but surely some will recognize and remember it).

Leaving the path of conformance

In 2009 I got more and more involved in Haskell and stumbled over xmonad, a tiling window manager implemented and configured in Haskell. I found this a user interface that like a lot, so I started using it. This was no problem: GNOME happily let me replace the default window manager (metacity) with xmonad, and continue working. I even implemented the necessary support in xmonad so that it would spare out the gnome-panel, and that the pager (which displays the workspaces and windows) would work, and even interact with xmonad.

I was happy with this setup for a few more years, until GNOME3 came out. Since then, it has become harder and harder to maintain the setup. The main reason is gnome-shell, which replaces both gnome-panel and doesn’t work with any window manager but the new default, mutter. I want to use GNOME’s panel, but not its window manager, so I was stuck with a hardly maintained gnome-panel. I fixed what I could (with some patches applied upstream two years after submission, and some not at all) and lived with the remaining warts.

The end (for now)

But a few days ago, GNOME 3.12 was pushed to Debian and I couldn’t even logout our shut down the computer any more, as gnome-session tries to talk to gnome-shell now to do that. Also, monitor configuration (e.g. remembering what setup to use when which monitors are attached) has been moved to gnome-shell. I tried to work around it a bit, but I quickly realized that it was time to make a decision: Either do it the GNOME way all the way, including using gnome-shell, or ditch GNOME:

Now as I said: I like the design and the philosophy of GNOME, including GNOME3, and I have told people who were complaining about it first to give it a try, and succeeded. I also tried it, but after years using a tiling window manager, I just couldn’t adjust to not having that any more. If xmonad could be changed to remotely control gnome-shell, I this might actually work for me! I think one of the biggest problems I had was to adjust to how gnome-shell handles multiple monitors. In xmonad, my workspaces are independent of the monitors, and I can move any workspace to any monitor.

So I had to ditch GNOME. My session now consists of a shell script making some adjustments (blank black background, loading the xmodmap), starts a few tools (taffybar, mail-notification, nagstamon, xscreensaver and dunst) and executes xmonad. So far it works good. It boots faster, it suspends faster.

I still use some GNOME components. I login using gdm (but it is auto-login, I guess I could try something faster), and gnome-keyring-daemon is also started. And I still use evolution (which has its own set of very disappointing problems in the current version).

Compared to my old setup, I’m still missing my beloved link-monitor-applet, but I guess I can implement an approximation to that in taffybar. The same for some other statistics like cpu temperature. I don’t have the GNOME menu any more, which I did not use regularly, but was useful occasionally.

The biggest problem so far is the lack of session management: I yet have to find a good way to logout and shutdown, while still giving Firefox time to finish without believing it crashed. Dear lazyweb: What is the best solution for that problem? Can systemd help me here somehow?

All in all I want to thank the GNOME guys for providing me with a great desktop environment for over a decade, and I hope I’ll be able to use it again one day (and hopefully not out of necessity and lack of viable alternatives).


I switched to XFCE after having Xmonad troubles in Gnome. It gives you a working panel, session management, desktop, etc.
#1 Pavel Grafov am 2014-08-19
I like about taffybar that it has integrated a systray. But I did not find it as easy to adjust height and colour of the bar, as with xmobar and trayer. The default is too greyish for me and way to tall.
#2 anonymous am 2014-10-08

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