Reimagining the Open-Source PC Desktop
Updated: Jan 18
How Endless is collaborating with GNOME to improve user experience.
Introduction: Why the desktop is important to Endless OS.
The fundamental purpose of any desktop (or mobile) operating system is to allow you to find the apps you need, launch them, and switch between them. Endless OS’s app-based desktop has been tailored to be as easy to use as a smartphone, even for users with no prior computer experience. When you start an Endless OS computer, you are immediately presented with a grid of app launchers, familiar to anyone who has used a mobile device. Our user testing and feedback from our partners over the years has shown that new users find it straightforward to find and launch apps on Endless OS.
The Endless OS user interface was not created from scratch. Almost a decade ago, the Endless team opted to build the Endless OS desktop upon GNOME, the most widely-used open source desktop environment. GNOME provides a desktop interface, referred to as GNOME Shell, which is used to launch apps and switch between them. It also provides fundamental apps, like a file manager, system settings app, and web browser, as well as an “app store” app, GNOME Software, to find and install new apps. GNOME has been in constant development for over 20 years by a combination of volunteers and paid contributors from various organisations, including Endless team members, and the project publishes major releases with new functionality every 6 months.
To create the Endless OS user interface, we started with GNOME but made it look and behave quite differently, with particular focus on launching, switching, discovering, and installing apps. While GNOME has proven to be a solid and ever-improving basis on which to build our interface, our field research has historically found that users who could successfully find and launch apps to perform specific tasks on Endless OS would struggle to complete these same tasks on a vanilla GNOME desktop, supporting our decision to design and build a different interface. Over the years, Endless has collaborated with other GNOME contributors to bring elements of our easy-to-use app-based desktop to GNOME itself, such as an app grid that is fully under the user’s control, but the two designs have remained stubbornly divided in other ways. This has downsides for us and for GNOME: it has limited the audience for our work, and led to us spending a significant fraction of our limited engineering resources maintaining our desktop experience atop successive GNOME versions, instead of improving desktop computing for all.
As our CEO Robert McQueen wrote last year, since establishing Endless OS Foundation as a nonprofit we have taken a new approach to overcoming the barriers we see to digital equity. Rather than defining our goal purely in terms of making Endless OS the solution to these barriers, we are investing in the open-source projects on which Endless OS is based, so that more people can benefit from our work than we could hope to reach with Endless OS alone. Under this new approach, we have increased our focus on collaborating with the GNOME community to improve GNOME itself, to make usable free software desktop computing widely available and reduce the cost and literacy barriers to digital equity.
Rather than defining our goal purely in terms of making Endless OS the solution to these barriers, we are investing in the open-source projects on which Endless OS is based, so that more people can benefit from our work than we could hope to reach with Endless OS alone.
GNOME 40: A better desktop through collaboration and user testing.
In 2020, the GNOME design team and engineers from a number of organisations—including Endless—had assembled a prototype of a new design for the GNOME desktop which aimed to address some long-standing shortcomings in the GNOME interface, including the empty desktop presented when you first log in, the workflow for juggling many open apps, and the inconsistent spatial model of the desktop. These are some of the main areas where Endless OS had diverged from GNOME, so we were keen to support this initiative and seek out a design which improves on the best elements of both GNOME and Endless OS.
Endless sponsored the GNOME Foundation to engage a third-party agency to conduct moderated user testing, to assess the relative usability of the released version of GNOME, the new prototype, and the Endless OS desktop. Working with an external firm enabled this research to represent a pool of users less biased towards tech-savvy users and those with existing GNOME experience. In parallel, we conducted further user testing sessions with participants in Guatemala, Kenya and the USA, aiming for good representation of younger users and those with limited computing experience. Collaborators from other organisations attended some of the sessions we arranged, as well as conducting a variety of their own user testing and diary studies.
Findings from these research projects were fed back into a new iteration on the design, which engineers from Endless, Red Hat and other organisations implemented in the GNOME desktop. As well as improvements to multi-tasking and virtual desktops, the new design gives more prominence to the app grid, makes the initial state of the desktop more approachable than the previous blank screen with wallpaper, and gives the desktop a more cohesive feel with clear spatial relationships between its elements.
This redesign was the headline feature of GNOME 40. Following its release in April 2021, these improvements reached millions of GNOME users, and received positive feedback—confirming our theory that our team can deliver a larger impact by working closely with the broader open-source community. You can read more about this initiative in the GNOME Shell blog and in many articles like this one written about GNOME 40.
While this project was ongoing, I re-read The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman, and came across the following passage:
Ever sit down to a typical computer? If so, you have encountered “the tyranny of the blank screen.” The person sits in front of the computer screen, ready to begin. Begin what? How? The screen is either completely blank or contains non-informative symbols or words that give no hint of what is expected. – Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition, 2002 (pp. 178)
Despite being originally written in 1988 to describe text-based computer interfaces, this idea is equally applicable to the graphical user interfaces of today, and reinforces the importance of the work done in Endless OS and now GNOME 40 to make the available actions clear from the moment you sit down.
These improvements reached millions of GNOME users, and received positive feedback—confirming our theory that our team can deliver a larger impact by working closely with the broader open-source community.
Discovering your new favourite apps with GNOME Software 41.
Of course, it is not enough to have a great desktop: you also need great apps, and an inviting and user-friendly way to discover and install them. Endless OS comes pre-loaded with many apps, with many more a quick download away. There are now over 1,800 apps available to install, mostly from Flathub, a community project co-founded by Endless.
The Endless OS App Center is based on GNOME Software, the GNOME project’s app store application. As with the desktop, the two share underlying technology, but the Endless OS App Center historically replaced much of GNOME Software’s user interface with a more visually-engaging design, with bold tiles for apps, and simplified category navigation. As with our custom desktop, this approach carried an ongoing maintenance cost, while simultaneously limiting the impact of our work.
In 2020 Endless worked with Tobias Bernard, a GNOME designer who shares our vision of a vibrant ecosystem of apps for GNOME, to re-imagine GNOME Software itself as an engaging experience to find, install, and manage apps on your system. This project had the auxiliary goal of giving app authors a greater incentive to target the GNOME platform and provide high-quality artwork and metadata so their app stands out, safe in the knowledge that it will be presented well to potential users.
Working from these designs, engineers from Endless, Red Hat and Purism gave GNOME Software a dramatic overhaul, bringing banners, nicer tiles, a new system of goal-oriented categories, and a consistent, modern presentation of each app's details. Behind the scenes, we also worked extensively on making GNOME Software faster and more reliable.
This work was released in GNOME 41 in October 2021, and was once again one of the headline features of the release.
There are now over 1,800 apps available to install from the Endless OS app center.
Looking forward to Endless OS 5.
Our OS team is now moving ahead towards Endless OS 5, the next major version of our OS. We have designed and prototyped a new desktop interface which marries the research-validated improvements in GNOME 40 and 41 with the key field-proven elements of the Endless OS desktop, most notably the prominent placement of app launchers on the desktop. Endless OS 5 will also adopt the redesigned GNOME Software, as well as the many other improvements in GNOME 41 as a whole.
Development builds of Endless OS 5 are already available, and we plan to release it later this year. In the meantime, we are conducting further user research to validate both GNOME 41 and our new desktop experience with the users we exist to serve, and to inform future contributions & improvements to the GNOME desktop as a whole, beyond Endless OS.
In parallel, our work in GNOME has not stopped, and nor has the vibrant GNOME community! For the GNOME 42 release in March 2022, Endless engineers supported the project’s move to a new visual style with GTK 4, and continued our work on making the desktop fast and reliable. We have also sponsored several GNOME Foundation projects to bring verified apps to Flathub, integrate web app discovery into the GNOME desktop, and improve the developer experience for app creators targeting the GNOME platform. Our work continues, in collaboration with the GNOME community, to make an approachable and competitive app-based desktop available to all, for free.
Our work continues, in collaboration with the GNOME community, to make an approachable and competitive app-based desktop available to all, for free.
Are you interested in learning more about our work on the app-based desktop, or in helping us to validate this work among under-served users? Feel free to contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or connect with me on LinkedIn.
Will Thompson is the Director of OS at the Endless OS Foundation. Will has been involved with GNOME and other free and open source projects since the late ’00s, and lives and works in London, United Kingdom.