Endless 3.9.0 Beta 1 Trip Report

Back in April I wrote a Trip Report of the last major Endless OS Beta release. It was fun! I use Endless OS every day and have a very soft spot for it after Product Managing it for a couple of rewarding yet high stress years. Now the team has released their first beta of the 3.9 release series. If I was still there this is the sort of thing the team would get in a blizzard of Google Docs and Phabricator tickets. Sadly for them open source means they don’t get to escape my opinions that easily.

I’m going to mention again, because I’ve recently had to sit through a couple of excruciating update experiences in macOS, Windows and Manjaro that image based update experiences like those used by Endless, Fedora Silverblue and Chrome OS are just plain better. Aside from that the most important thing to note is that this comes with the new 3.38 GNOME release so it inherits all the improvements from that, although many of the app improvements will have already come through to users directly through Flathub. Now GNOME is released software, but an operating system isn’t just GNOME, it’s a whole thing so you should really remember that this is a beta, which means that the team doesn’t think this is finished yet. I’m sure they’re aware of some or all of the comments I’m making below - this is intended to be helpful, to let them know what people find useful, or would like them to prioritise improving.

Over the past few releases Endless have been reducing the number of patches and changes they have on top of GNOME but this release contains a massive rearchitecture; moving the Endless desktop from patches to GNOME extensions. This means if you install the Extensions app from the App Center you can actually turn this all off and get a pretty pure GNOME! This only works because of years of investment in adding select Endless capabilities to upstream GNOME and removing differentiations that didn’t, at the end of the day, differentiate. This also results in Hack migrating to Extensions and apps which is a big change for that group as well. The user benefits from this change will be felt in future cycles as the Endless team don’t have to spend as much time rebasing the same work again and again but can work on delivering solutions their users need.

User facing, this is the biggest deal on the desktop, Endless is now using the same applications page as GNOME. This does mean fewer icons per page (but larger targets) and the pager has moved from a vertical orientation to horizontal. I suspect this is because drag and drop page changes don’t work as well vertically as they do horizontally with the bottom bar but it could also be to seem closer in experience to the Android and iOS experiences that Endless' target users know so well.

This also means Endless inherits the newer upstream folder overlay behaviour as well, which should have more contrast and better focus for users. A big change is that all applications on the system are now visible and can’t be hidden from the desktop, only available in Search. This leads to some annoyance with the “get” apps and other links like YouTube which are now obnoxious and difficult to get rid of. Like Apple users before me I have been forced to create a “Trash” folder. My recommendation is that these advertising apps should become proper apps which would allow them to be uninstalled and treated the same as anything else. Years back there was some early concepting around an ‘app launch’ portal which would open a software store if not installed that would allow cross app one way intents - you could of course just do this with URIs, although it may need a bit more thinking through than a blog post. It’s really important for Endless to keep the capability to highlight to customers in a shop that a range of software is available without having to put everything in the box.

This also highlights some other long standing issues with apps that can’t be found in the App Center when you press the “Show Details” button. It’s just not a great experience and feels very disconnected, whilst the copy in the error message you see when you press the button isn’t great the truth is that you just shouldn’t ever see it. Also apps from the read only OS partition like Eye Of GNOME seem to direct to the Flathub version rather than picking the “native” version. I’d always be in favour of a slimmer base image and layering the apps on top but at the moment it feels like we’re a little bit stuck in the middle. None of these issues are unfixable but it’s the nature of moving in the right direction that you end up exposing the hacks that have previously been hidden.

There’s a bunch of issues with drag and drop on the apps pane. This certainly feels in progress so I suspect we’ll see changes here in future betas. App reorder to a different screen works, but there’s not much indication as to what will actually happen and you need to get right over to the very edge of the screen to move the pane. If you miss the target it’s very unhelpful as well with the icon vanishing and little spatial understanding of where its gone. It’s particularly hard to move something to the first place in the grid as the push aside animation doesn’t appear to operate in that case. Less important but you can’t drag from one folder to another, although the highlight state suggests that it should work. Also an edge case but there’s no ability to ‘compress’ panes to fill up the empty space so it feels like things are a bit strung out which can make it pretty annoying to create folders. I’m aware that I’m up in the top percentile of apps installed, although the visibility changes mentioned earlier will increase the number of users who experience these sort of issues. Despite all of that animations are snappy and the process feels solid which is a real improvement from the previous experience. There’s a big step forward for moving between panes as two finger trackpad gestures work really well.

System search with the new bigger targets is great as well, however symbolic icons like ‘suspend’ don’t get the full size treatment which looks a little odd in the pane next to lovely large app icons. There’s also still a few legacy 64x64 app icons that should really be removed in 2020, even though Endless' target resolution is still 1080p.

The Discovery Feed has been removed - sad times but it didn’t get the app support needed and it never really found a natural place in the desktop for actually discovering the content inside. I still feel that it’s a strong concept (it’s not a million miles away from the Google Android homescreen, or projects I’ve worked on in the past like Lumi) but it’ll need another iteration and a clearer route to app adoption to be successful. This was a good choice, the desktop is clearer and more focused without it.

This is a faster, more streamlined Endless experience with tons more polish. There’s the expected level of bugs from a beta but this is very promising.