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.
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