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GNOME logo
Shows Overview mode (
GNOME 3.8 desktop
Developer(s) The GNOME Project
Initial release March 3, 1999 (1999-03-03)
Stable release 3.8.0 (March 27, 2013 (2013-03-27)) [±]
Development status Active
Written in C, C++, Python, Vala, Genie, JavaScript
Operating system Unix-like with X11
Available in more than 50 languages
Type Desktop environment

GNOME (pronounced / ɡ ə ˈ n m /) is a desktop environment and graphical user interface that runs on top of a computer operating system. It is composed entirely of free and open source software and is developed by both volunteers and paid contributors, the largest corporate contributor being Red Hat. It is an international project that includes creating software development frameworks, selecting application software for the desktop, and working on the programs that manage application launching, file handling, and window and task management.

GNOME is part of the GNU Project and can be used with various Unix-like operating systems, most notably GNU/Linux and as part of OpenSolaris Desktop.


GNOME 1, March 1999

GNOME was started in August 1997 by Miguel de Icaza and Federico Mena as a free software project to develop a desktop environment and applications for it. It was founded in part because K Desktop Environment, an already existing free software desktop environment, relied on the Qt widget toolkit which at the time used a proprietary software license. In place of Qt, the GTK+ toolkit was chosen as the base of GNOME. GTK+ uses the GNU Lesser Public License (LGPL), a free software license that allows software linking to it to use a much wider set of licenses, including proprietary software licenses. GNOME itself is licensed under the LGPL for its libraries, and the GNU General Public License (GPL) for its applications.

The California startup Eazel developed the Nautilus file manager from 1999 to 2001. De Icaza and Nat Friedman founded Helix Code (later Ximian) in 1999 in Massachusetts. The company developed GNOME's infrastructure and applications, and in 2003 was purchased by Novell.

GNOME 2 (the previous major release) was very similar to a conventional desktop interface, featuring a simple desktop in which users could interact with virtual objects, such as windows, icons, and files. GNOME 2 used Metacity as its default window manager. The handling of windows, applications, and files in GNOME 2 is similar to that of contemporary desktop operating systems. In the default configuration of GNOME 2, the desktop has a launcher menu for quick access to installed programs and file locations; open windows may be accessed by a taskbar along the bottom of the screen, and the top-right corner features a notification area for programs to display notices while running in the background. However, these features can be moved to almost any position or orientation the user desires, replaced with other functions or removed altogether.


Initially, "GNOME" was an acronym of GNU Network Object Model Environment, referring to the original intention of creating a distributed object framework similar to Microsoft's OLE; it was dropped, because this no longer reflects the core vision of the GNOME project.


GNOME 2.6, March 2004

The GNOME project provides two things: The GNOME desktop environment, a graphical user interface and core applications like Web, a simple web browser; and the GNOME development platform, an extensive framework for building applications that integrate into the rest of the desktop and mobile user interface.

The GNOME project puts heavy emphasis on simplicity, usability, and making things “just work” (see KISS principle). The other aims of the project are:

  • Freedom — to create a desktop environment with readily available source code for re-use under a free software license.
  • Accessibility — to ensure the desktop can be used by anyone, regardless of technical skill or physical circumstances.
  • Internationalization and localization — to make the desktop available in many languages. At the moment, GNOME is being translated to 175 languages.
  • Developer-friendliness — to ensure ease of writing software that integrates smoothly with the desktop, and allow developers a free choice of programming language.
  • Organization — to adhere to a regular release cycle and maintain a disciplined community structure.
  • Support — to ensure backing from other institutions beyond the GNOME community.

As with most free software projects, the GNOME project is loosely managed. Discussion chiefly occurs on a number of public mailing lists. Developers and users of GNOME gather at an annual meeting known as GUADEC to discuss the current state of the project and its future direction.

GNOME often incorporates standards from to allow GNOME applications to better interoperate with other desktops, encouraging both cooperation and competition.

Major subprojects

GNOME relies upon a large number of different projects:

  • GNOME Shell – a user interface of GNOME 3.
  • GSettings – a configuration storage system (replacing GConf in older GNOME versions).
  • GVFS – a virtual file system.
  • GNOME Keyring – backend for storing encryption keys and security information. Seahorse is a common frontend.
  • GNOME Translation Project – for translating documentation and applications into different languages.
  • GTK+ – a widget toolkit used for constructing graphical applications. The use of GTK+ as the base widget toolkit allows GNOME to benefit from certain features such as theming (the ability to change the look of an application) and smooth anti-aliased graphics. Sub-projects of GTK+ provide object-oriented programming support ( GObject), extensive support of international character sets and text layout ( Pango) and accessibility ( ATK). GTK+ reduces the amount of work required to port GNOME applications to other platforms such as Windows and Mac OS X.
  • Human interface guidelines (HIG) – research and documentation on building easy-to-use GNOME applications.
  • LibXML – an XML library.

A number of language bindings are available, allowing applications to be written in a variety of programming languages, such as C++ ( gtkmm), Java ( java-gnome), Ruby ( ruby-gnome2), C# ( Gtk#), Python ( PyGObject), Perl ( gtk2-perl), Tcl ( Gnocl) and many others. The only languages currently used in applications that are part of an official GNOME desktop release are C, C++, Python, Vala and Javascript.

Release cycle

Each of the component software products in the GNOME project has its own version number and release schedule. However, individual module maintainers coordinate their efforts to create a full GNOME stable release on an approximately six-month schedule. Some experimental projects are excluded from these releases.

GNOME releases are made to the main FTP server in the form of source code with configure scripts, which are compiled by operating system vendors and integrated with the rest of their systems before distribution. Most vendors use only stable and tested versions of GNOME, and provide it in the form of easily installed, pre-compiled packages. The source code of every stable and development version of GNOME is stored in the GNOME Git source code repository.

A number of build- scripts (such as JHBuild or GARNOME) are available to help automate the process of compiling the source code.


GNOME runs on top of the X Window System and is available in most Linux distributions and BSDs either as the default desktop environment or an option. It is also installed with Solaris as part of OpenSolaris Desktop (previously known as Java Desktop System) since the Solaris Express 10/04 release.

Controversy over supported platforms

In May 2011 Lennart Poettering proposed systemd as a dependency for further releases of GNOME. As systemd is available only on Linux, the proposal led to the discussion of possibly dropping support for other platforms in future GNOME releases. While some people responded to the proposal with criticism others suggested the idea of a GNOME Operating System on top of the Linux kernel.

GNOME 3.2 Release Notes state that multiseat support is only available to those using systemd. The systemd dependency was questioned again in November 2012, where the GNOME release team concluded that it can be relied upon for non-critical functionality


Until the release of GNOME 3.0, GNOME used the traditional computing desktop metaphor. Users can change the appearance of their desktop through the use of themes, which usually consist of an icon set, a window manager border and GTK+ theme engine and parameters. In GNOME 3 Adwaita replaced Clearlooks as the default GNOME theme. The Human Interface Guidelines help developers to produce applications that look and behave similarly to each other, which provides a cohesive GNOME experience.


GNOME has evolved from a traditional desktop metaphor to a user interface where switching between different tasks and virtual workspaces takes place in a new area called the overview. The redesigned GNOME features several main changes: released as the new interface for Gnome, GNOME Shell replaces the original GNOME Panel; Mutter replaces Metacity as the default window manager; and the minimize and maximize buttons no longer appear on the titlebar by default. Many of the default GNOME applications have also gone through redesigns to provide a more consistent and unified user experience.

In the default configuration of GNOME, the desktop has a top panel holding (from left to right) an activities button, clock, system status area and user menu. Clicking on the activities button or moving one's mouse to the top-left hot corner brings one to the overview.

  • The system status area holds various system indicators, such as those for volume, Bluetooth, network, battery, and accessibility.
  • The user menu holds a chat-availability indicator, shortcuts to system settings, and session actions such as logging out, switching users, locking the screen, or suspending the computer.
  • The overview (accessed by clicking on the activities button in the top panel, or touching the top-left hot corner) shows the window picker, the workspace changer on the right, the dash on the left, a windows button, an applications button, and a search bar. While in the overview, users can click on the windows and application buttons just under the top panel to switch between the window picker and the application picker.
  • The window picker gives users a quick overview of current activities, and provides a way to switch to other open windows or close multiple windows easily.
  • The application picker provides an easy way to launch applications.
  • The dash houses shortcuts to favorite applications and open windows.

The default interface also features a new system for notifications. In GNOME 3, notifications pop up from the bottom of the screen, instead of showing in the top right of the screen as in GNOME 2.x.


Since GNOME 2.0, a key focus of the project has been usability. To this end, the GNOME Human Interface Guidelines (HIG) were created. Following the guide, developers can create high-quality, consistent, and usable GUI programs, as it addresses everything from GUI design to recommended pixel-based layout of widgets.

During the 2.0 rewrite, many settings were deemed of little or no value to the majority of users and were removed. For instance, the preferences section of the Panel was reduced from a dialog of six tabs to one with two tabs. Havoc Pennington summarized the usability work in his 2002 essay "Free Software UI", emphasizing the idea that all preferences have a cost, and it is better to "unbreak the software" than to add a UI preference to do that:

A traditional free software application is configurable so that it has the union of all features anyone's ever seen in any equivalent application on any other historical platform. Or even configurable to be the union of all applications that anyone's ever seen on any historical platform (Emacs *cough*).

Does this hurt anything? Yes it does. It turns out that preferences have a cost. Of course, some preferences also have important benefits - and can be crucial interface features. But each one has a price, and you have to carefully consider its value. Many users and developers don't understand this, and end up with a lot of cost and little value for their preferences dollar.

Havoc Pennington

GNOME 3 abandoned the traditional desktop metaphor in favour of GNOME Shell. This move received mixed reaction from the user community, though the outcome is not yet clear. The MATE desktop environment, software forked from GNOME 2, aims to retain the traditional GNOME 2 interface while keeping it compatible with GNOME 3. The Linux Mint team addressed the issue in another way by developing the "Mint GNOME Shell Extensions". Thus there evolved, the Cinnamon user-interface, which attempts to provide a more traditional user environment based on the desktop metaphor, like GNOME 2.

In March 2013, GNOME 3.8 was released, which includes a new "Classic mode" that restores a number of features such as an application menu, a places menu and a window switcher along the bottom of the screen, as extensions to the Shell.



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