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Mate - An Accessible Alternative To GNOME 3

Posted by Sebastian Humenda at 16.07.2014, 10:45

I am generally no friend of continuing "dead" technology, as GNOME 2 was termed. I payed little attention to the rumors that Mate, a GNOME 2 fork, was under active development. Since in recent Debian Unstable, the GNOME Shell accessibility experience is very poor and GNOME-shell seems to have a lot of bugs, I've tried out Mate and I will present some (quick) notes about what works. This article is of course about accessibility, but also covers some aspects of GNOME-shell and Mate in general.

Currently there is GNOME-shell 3.8 in Debian unstable, but other components are already at 3.12 (just for the Arch users ;)). I had a couple of issues:

  1. Even though I activated accessibility features as described in the Debian wiki I got no good user experience at all. I activated all possible GNOME-shell extensions to get a nautilus-managed desktop and so on, but the main applications panel (Alt+F1) remained unusable. Other GUI elements were however greatly accessible.
  2. When switching to the Linux console and back to the GUI session, the keyboard always switched to US-American layout which I found quite disturbing. I thought this to be a bug in my X configuration, but see below.
  3. The GNOME terminal ignored the space and return keys, as long as I didn't pressed "shift" at the same time. Typing was a pain.
  4. The start up of GNOME 3 is very slow compared with GNOME 2.

Every now and then there were little issues which bothered me while using GNOME 3, but I admit that the shift to GNOME 3 was not easy from an accessibility point of view.

Due to a recent article about Mate I thought I would give Mate a quick try and I went with apt-get install mate and inserted the following into my .xinitrc

exec mate-session

To enable accessibility by hand, one starts the session using startx and switches back to the console. Then the following command enables accessibility features upon the next mate-session:

DISPLAY=:0 gsettings set org.mate.interface accessibility true

After a restart of X, I got a traditional GNOME-2-alike desktop. As I said, I don't like the idea of another desktop environment which also continues some of the old technology used in GNOME, but recent Mate releases dropped also obsolete packages and renewed their infrastructure. And the result was amazing:

  1. The full panel, desktop and all icons are accessible.
    • The old menu with three entry points is back and is a great thing to use the computer efficient.
    • One can "easily" switch off the computer.
  2. The mate-terminal works again.
  3. The annoying keyboard-layout-switch when switching to a console and back is gone.
  4. It is QUICK! No numbers here, but it was really faster when starting the session and at least with a screen reader, it doesn't feel that sluggish when navigating.
  5. There are also minor issues: when selecting an item, Orca says "not selected", even though the current element is selected.
  6. I soon discovered that Firefox and Iceweasel were not accessible, this is due to a bug. There is a temporary hack, namely:

    sudo su
    cd /usr/lib
    ln -s i386-linux-gnu/gtk-2.0 .

Conclusion: For the fairness it has to be said that a lot of accessibility work done in GNOME will directly benefit Mate without that their developers do much development and I am thankful for the GNOME project having an open ear for such issues. I don't think that I will fully abandon GNOME 3, but for a while I think that Mate will become my stable work environment and I'll see how GNOME 3 develops in the mean time.

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© Sebastian Humenda, last modified 16/07/2014