Death by papercuts – and the limits of polish


Pop! OS has been in the news lately because of Linus breaking his system by installing steam and because the GNOME devs felt they needed to complain about the System76 devs.

Limits of polish

There is a larger underlying issue at play here. The success of linux on the desktop is very much linked to Canonical and their famous Ubuntu project. A project which worked very hard on making Debian more user-friendly and on lowering the threshold of linux in general. Canonical did great things in that respect, but they had a clear upper limit of the amount of polish they would provide.

One of the best sub projects Canonical did for the community was 6 years ago: the one hundred papercuts mission ( In which they supported and organized the community in solving small and smaller bugs which kept breaking the user experience.

IMO papercuts sprints should be an annual event where the whole community comes together

But Canonical also (for a long time) clearly didn't focus on a more unified aesthetic or more convenience for the user. This is where then distros like Linux Mint and Elementary (among others) stepped in to push the limits of polish further. And while Linux Mint (maybe boringly) replicated something akin to the windows experience, Elementary is clearly going for a MacOS X-style UX. Mint's stability is very good, Elementary looks much nicer, but is buggy.

Interestingly, in all of these distros, GNOME has been replaced or modified. I remember back when GNOME 3 was released and it was barely usable at all. Nowadays, GNOME is a good base to work with, but stuff like the extension system or semantic search remain pretty underwhelming. And I haven't even mentioned things like Solus' Budgie DE.

Papercuts and polish

And I feel that this pretty much describes the key issue which keeps holding linux on the desktop back: you can die by papercuts, and you can be turned off by a low level of polish, but sometimes polish can't cover up papercuts, and sometimes the lack of polish is a deep papercut. You can have a stable base system and a functional DE, and yet in combination of these two, you produce many papercuts and just applying more polish does not solve all of this (looking at you, Elementary).

One of the most important reduction of papercuts in Ubuntu was the introduction of the recovery menu you could boot into. But it is crazy to think that this still basically is the state of affairs a non-tech user has to deal with when their system breaks.

Let me come back to Pop! OS. Pop certainly looks and feels like Ubuntu, if Canonical and GNOME gave it 15% more effort. And this has to do because System76 has actual customers who won't buy their machine if they are not satisfied with the experience.

The reason MacOS used to be really good (up until Snow Leopard) is that you could feel that they tried to really make most of the stuff you would encounter as convenient as possible. Apple's limit of polish used to be very high, something Microsoft never had to bother with, because they knew they'd win by default (this goes for every single windows release sans Windows 2000 and Windows 7, where they at least tried to give a bit of a shit).

Pop! OS does many things really well, IMO, yet their beef with GNOME seems to lead now to something we have already seen when Ubuntu developed Unity (and MIR): frustration and insisting of their own "vision" leading to more fragmentation of ressources. If System76 go through with it and not only remixes GNOME into COSMIC, but develop their own rust-based DE, we will again see a drop in polish and an increase in papercuts.

What I feel is needed:

1) A project dedicated to making the linux desktop easier, more convenient, and more fun to use than MacOS or Windows. 2) consisting of – squashing bugs on the system level – reducing papercuts from the interaction of DE and system – providing new convenience functionality (better default extensions in gnome like Solus or Pop, better small helper apps like Elementary or Mint) – applying a level of polish with theming (like Pop, Elementary) 3) Less bickering and internal fighting between projects which basically want the same thing.

submitted by /u/theologi
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