If you'll indulge me; I researched and sent this essay to 2600 Magazine, where it appears in their current issue. It's a personal Linux memoir, but also a history of GNOME 2.X and MATE.
"Applications, Places, System: A Personal View of Linux"
It's June 26, 2002. My freshman year of college is over and a summer of relaxation begins. One year of college, one year of independence, one year of downloading MP3s through Kazaa, LimeWire, Grokster, Audiogalaxy and others at 1.544 MBPS. I fell in love with electronic music in high school, and college amplified that emotion. It wasn't just trance but breakbeat and ambient via Musicforhackers.com; tagline "Soundscapes for compromising a remote host." When you're trudging through calculus homework, you can benefit from Aphex Twin or Brian Eno.
In Ottawa, Canada, the GNOME (GNU Network Object Model Environment) Foundation released version 2.0 of their desktop. As foundation president Miguel de Icaza stated, “The GNOME 2.0 project is the culmination of a major effort which had the dual objectives of dramatically improving developer productivity and significantly enhancing the GNOME user experience." (1)
Unfortunately, the significance was lost on me, because I was only vaguely aware of Linux's existence. Beginning with my first family PC in 1995, a Packard Bell 486, I explored Windows 3.1 and 95. The world of DOS became clear, and I was able to configure boot disks with autoexec.bat and config.sys with ease. Whatever it took to run Star Wars-TIE Fighter, Silent Service 2, F117 Stealth Fighter 2.0, or any number of 90s simulators. By the time I graduated high school, my PC skills were based in Windows. Our school had Apple PCs with those hockey puck mice, but they were oddities, like a Fiji Mermaid or pickled cyclops piglet in a circus sideshow.
Then I was a college freshman with a brand-new Compaq desktop running Windows XP, sifting through our campus LAN looking for unprotected folders full of MP3s. My games of choice were Half Life, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, American McGee's Alice and Quake 3 Arena. Everything Just Worked. In the spring of 2002, a teacher's assistant offered a recommendation. "You should try this," he suggested, like a street corner pusher in a rain-soaked city.
It was a Knoppix live CD; a weird fascinating experience. What is this desktop environment? What's with this penguin? At the time, I didn't know it was a Debian-based distribution using KDE. I only knew it wasn't Windows and, although interesting, wasn't my preferred OS. The live CD was returned the next day, and I didn't think about Linux for another 9 years. Amusingly, the Knoppix site looks like it hasn't changed in the past two decades, and that is no criticism. (2)
These 9 years pass in a flurry of ones and zeroes. My computer interests shift from the physical PC as an object of amazement to exploring the ever-expanding internet. I embraced social media with Facebook before Myspace, due to having a .edu email address. The personal MP3 collection grows, while movies are more easily accessible through LimeWire and that greatest of file hosting sites, the late great Megaupload. (3) Then, in the summer of 2011 I have my next Linux experience. During those in-between years spent running Windows Vista and Windows 7, I missed a significant amount of drama in the FOSS world.
On June 7, 2008, Andy Wingo blogged that “The problem, as I see it, is that GNOME is in a state of decadence -- we largely achieved what we set out to achieve, insofar as it was possible. Now our hands are full with dealing with entropic decay.” (4) Dissatisfaction grew and GNOME 3.0 began to take shape. (5) Two years passed and the GNOME 2.x desktop environment was the default in many distributions, including SUSE Linux Enterprise, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Fedora, Debian, Ubuntu and Linux Mint. The timeline progresses:
April 29, 2010: Ubuntu 10.04 LTS is released with GNOME 2. (6)
September 29, 2010: GNOME 2.32 is released as the last major software version. (7)
October 10, 2010: Ubuntu 10.10 is the last version released with GNOME 2. (8)
November 17, 2010: GNOME 2.32.1 is released as the last iteration of the desktop environment. (9)
April 6, 2011: GNOME 3.0 is released. (10)
April 28, 2011: Ubuntu 11.04 is released with the Unity desktop environment. (11)
Why the emphasis on GNOME 2.x? That comes later. Why the emphasis on Ubuntu? I’ll cover that now. In the summer of 2011, I bought a Cr-48 Chrome Notebook through Craigslist. This was Google’s pilot experiment Chromebook, distributed in limited numbers to participants in the Chrome OS Pilot Program. The light minimalist “black slab” design, resembling the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, was attractive. It also seemed like a fun device for experimentation once I learned that conventional full-featured operating systems could replace the stock OS. Carefully following instructions, I successfully installed Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal. (12)
This was my first experience with Linux since trying Knoppix in college. I didn’t know anything about the enormous variety of distributions other than Ubuntu, which happened to be the most popular search result. I was completely unaware of the GNOME 2.x/GNOME 3.0 controversy, and how new desktop environments sprang up in its wake. This was an entirely recreational and experimental project that lasted for roughly one month. MacOS never interested me, Windows was the “old reliable”; Linux (Ubuntu) was something new. Unity didn’t bother me, as I had nothing to compare it with inside the Linux DE ecosystem. It was fun while it lasted, but as before I soon returned to Windows 7.
As I was testing Ubuntu, a more significant project was underway. On June 18, Argentine programmer Germán “Perberos” Perugorría posted an announcement on the Arch Linux (13), Ubuntu (14) and Linux Mint (15) forums. Disappointed with the disestablishment of GNOME 2.x, he spent six months forking the project into a continuation called MATE. Named for the traditional South American drink, the project was described as “a non-intuitive and unattractive desktop for users, using a traditional computing desktop metaphor.” Perberos described the project philosophy as a representation of mate drink preparation through its culture of sharing, simplicity and efficiency. (16) It wasn’t long before he was contacted by Clement “Clem” Lefebvre, of Linux Mint fame, who assisted with expanded development of the desktop environment. Clem posted the first blog entry on the project’s homepage on December 5, 2011. (17)
I returned to Linux in time for the release of Ubuntu 16.04 LTS and fell into a downward spiral of distro hopping. Ubuntu, Debian, CentOS, Fedora, Antergos, Mint and even setting up Arch from scratch. Lots of flirting without commitment; I suffered from option paralysis. The only aspect I settled on was a preference for the MATE desktop. Since its inception, the DE had propagated to every distribution. I first experienced it through Ubuntu MATE. As Perberos described it years earlier, I was drawn to and appreciated the efficiency and simplicity. Windows 8.1 and 10 were tolerated, not enjoyed. When the Windows 11 beta was leaked, I took it for a test drive and decided 2021 would be my Year of the Linux Desktop.
Linux revitalized my perspective of the PC as an Environment in itself, not simply a tool for accessing the Internet. It has been a wonderful journey, more fulfilling than the endurance tests of Win 8/10/11. It calls back to my mid-90s adventures with DOS and boot disks. The idea of community development, globally-shared hobbies, enthusiastic support and Free & Open Source Software is immensely appealing. In contrast to the cold monolithic CLOSED world of Enterprise software, Linux is OPEN, with all the vibrancy and chaos that includes.
I credit Ubuntu with bringing a popular marketing campaign to Linux, without which I may have never taken the plunge. I also credit Perberos with epitomizing the idea of a software passion project, by working hard to resurrect a dead desktop environment through skill and enjoyment. MATE, and GNOME 2.x by extension, symbolize the Linux experience for me. Function over form; “unattractive and unintuitive.” That three-tier menu, Applications-Places-System, as iconic an element as NCC-1701. Spanning years of FOSS development; inspiring countless retired GTK2 themes across DeviantArt, and perhaps most perfectly realized with the Ambiance and Radiance themes of Ubuntu 10.04 LTS. GNU/Linux is how I want to experience the digital world - Free as in Freedom.