System76 Is Poised to Cause a COSMIC Shift In the Linux Desktop Space

System76, maker of the popular Pop!_OS Linux distro, is poised to cause a massive shift in the Linux desktop space in the coming months....
System76 Is Poised to Cause a COSMIC Shift In the Linux Desktop Space
Written by Matt Milano
  • System76, maker of the popular Pop!_OS Linux distro, is poised to cause a massive shift in the Linux desktop space in the coming months.

    Pop!_OS (Pop or Pop OS from here on, because that spelling is horrible) is a popular distro based on Ubuntu and designed specifically for System76’s hardware. Like any distro, however, Pop can be installed on any computer compatible with Linux and used by countless people who have never owned a System76 laptop.

    What Sets Pop OS Apart

    What sets Pop apart from all the others in a world of Ubuntu derivatives and clones? In our Linux Distro Reviews series, Pop OS scored one of our highest scores thanks to several important features:

    • Being based on Ubuntu gives Pop the best-in-class compatibility that Ubuntu provides.
    • The distro is a semi-rolling release distro. While the core system and apps are based on Ubuntu, and therefore change little between major versions, the Linux kernel, Mesa graphics drivers, and select apps are updated regularly. This gives Pop OS an edge in performance and helps it be compatible with the most recent hardware.
    • System76 removes Ubuntu’s Snaps from Pop, including the more commonly used Flatpak.

    While those benefits are enough to make Pop OS stand out, the desktop experience is its true headliner feature.

    The Current COSMIC Desktop Environment

    Unlike other distros that use KDE Plasma, GNOME, Cinnamon, Xfce, or something else, Pop OS uses its own desktop environment (DE): COSMIC. To be clear, in its current incarnation, COSMIC is a heavily—with an emphasis on heavily—modified GNOME.

    GNOME is the most widely used DE on Linux, although it has nearly as many detractors as fans. While beautiful, modern, and relatively stable, the DE is minimalist, eliminating basic things like a taskbar or dock, maximizing and minimizing windows, desktop icons, and more. All of these can be added via extensions, but the extensions break with each new version of GNOME and generally can result in less stability.

    In contrast, while preserving much of GNOME’s modern look and feel, COSMIC maintains common desktop paradigms, making it easier for new users to adapt to. System76 achieves this through extensive use of extensions, modifying GNOME into something that can hardly be called GNOME anymore.

    Even more impressive, COSMIC is the only true tiling desktop available on Linux. Like a dedicated tiling window manager, COSMIC includes automatic tiling features that can be activated or deactivated by the user.

    Given the level of customization the Pop team has put into COSMIC, it’s easy to see why continuing to build on GNOME is not an ideal solution.

    The Next Version of COSMIC

    In late 2021, System76 devs shared their plans to create an all-new COSMIC, written entirely in Rust. This would give System76 the ability to be in full control of the DE’s development—rather than be dependent on GNOME—and continue evolving it ways that would otherwise not be possible.

    Over the last couple of years, System76 has continued to reveal details about its COSMIC development, with the company nearing an alpha release. While the original alpha was planned for the end of March, the company delayed it to late May in the interest of releasing a more complete experience. Originally, the COSMIC alpha would only have included the DE itself, still relying on GNOME apps. Because development has proceeded much faster than the team anticipated, the company is now shooting for late May with an alpha that will include the DE and all the basic apps one would expect, such as a text editor, file manager, and more.

    We won’t go into all the features that are included in the upcoming COSMIC, as there is already a plethora of articles and videos that cover COSMIC’s development. In addition, we will be doing a full, deep-dive review once it is available.

    COSMIC Window Stacks
    COSMIC Window Stacks

    The purpose of this article is to predict how the Linux desktop space will be impacted by yet another DE entering the market.

    Why COSMIC Is So Important

    As stated earlier, Gnome is the most popular Linux DE. Gnome benefits from being the default DE for Ubuntu, Fedora, SUSE, and many other distros.

    KDE Plasma comes in a close second, taking a diametrically opposite approach to Gnome. Plasma excels at being THE most powerful DE on any platform, offering a slew of customization options.

    Xfce is usually considered the third-place choice, with Cinnamon coming in fourth. After Cinnamon, there are a number of options, including Budgie, Deepen, Pantheon, LXQT, and others.

    COSMIC’s entry into the DE market represents a major shift in several ways:

    • COSMIC does not use GTK or Qt. KDE Plasma and LXQT both use the Qt UI toolkit, while Gnome and nearly every other DE uses GTK. In contrast, being Rust-based, COSMIC uses Iced. This makes COSMIC one of the only DEs that is not at the mercy of decisions made by GTK developers or Qt.
    • COSMIC does Gnome…but better. Gnome’s appeal is is its simplicity and reliability. Unfortunately, Gnome often takes its simplicity too far, eschewing basic desktop functionality that has been at the core of personal computing for decades, forcing users to install extensions to bring that functionality back.
    • COSMIC’s Rust underpinnings promise to bring a level of performance and security other DEs, especially JavaScript-based ones like Gnome, may struggle to compete with.
    • System76’s devs seem open to working with the larger community. In contrast, Gnome devs often have the reputation of being a bit prickly. There’s a reason that roughly half a dozen DEs that are all forked off of Gnome. Many projects like the benefits Gnome brings but want something that isn’t quite as limited.

    The Fun Part: Predicting What Happens Next

    If System76 is able to deliver on COSMIC’s promise, where does that leave the Linux DE space?

    I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that 2024 will see Gnome drop from its spot as the most popular Linux DE.

    To be fair, we don’t believe COSMIC will replace Gnome as the top DE. We do, however, believe that COSMIC will pull enough users away from Gnome to catapult KDE Plasma to the top spot. While COSMIC will likely take a fair amount of users away from Plasma as well, Plasma still offers a level of power and customization that COSMIC doesn’t provide…at least not yet.

    Some of the lesser-used DEs, such as Budgie, will likely experience a loss of users as well. Budgie is already very similar to Gnome. In fact, it is possible to largely replicate Budgie’s workflow within Gnome using extensions. Once COSMIC arrives, essentially providing everything that Budgie—and its parent Gnome—can while also providing much more, users may opt for the all-in-one option that still provides the same general aesthetic and better performance.

    As 2024 progresses, I believe the Linux DE rankings will look something like this:

    • KDE Plasma
    • Gnome
    • COSMIC
    • Xfce
    • Cinnamon

    Going into 2025, we believe it is entirely possible that COSMIC could eventually surpass Gnome and take the second spot, driven by wider adoption by distributions outside of Pop OS. For example, Fedora is already exploring launching a COSMIC Fedora Spin, and the DE is already on NixOS and Arch.

    Overall, COSMIC’s entry represents one of the most exciting developments in the Linux DE space in years. System76’s laser focus on delivering a fast, stable, beautiful, and customizable option could result in the Goldilocks of Linux DEs.

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