The desktop of just about every Windows PC I’ve ever used has ended up being a mess. It gets cluttered with files I’d meant to save temporarily, but which are usually still there for months or years, shortcuts to applications I’d installed but rarely use, and other litter.

I don’t think about it much, because I usually launch the software I use most often from shortcuts pinned to the Windows taskbar or start menu. But a messy desktop is kind of a mirror of my real-world messy desk, and it’s an almost comforting presence that’s been around for the decades that I’ve been using Windows computers.

Desktop icons aren’t just a Windows phenomenon. I’m sure if I used Ubuntu or another Linux distribution more often, I’d have a messy desktop in that operating system as well. But a recent move by developers of the GNOME desktop environment to remove desktop icons altogether has me wondering if I’d really miss them if they were gone.

Desktop icons in popular GNU/Linux desktop environments

First, a little background. GNOME is a popular desktop environment that’s available for a large number of GNU/Linux-based operating systems. For the past few years it’s actually shipped with desktop icon support disabled by default, but you could always turn it back on if you wanted to. In fact, when Canonical decided to start using GNOME again as the default desktop environment for Ubuntu, the company enabled desktop icons out of the box.

But GNOME developers have decided that they’re going to remove support for desktop icons altogether with the upcoming release of GNOME 3.28. Well, sort of.

GNOME 3 ships with a file manager called Nautilus which also powers the desktop. But it hasn’t really been kept up to date, and developers say rather than offering a half-assed user experience, it makes sense to just disable it altogether.

Linux being Linux though, folks who still want to use desktop icons can do that by simply installing different software. Fore example, there’s a fork of Nautilus called Nemo which has a somewhat better desktop experience, and it’s something you’ll be able to install on a system running GNOME 3.28.

Or you can switch desktop environments altogether. While GNOME is eliminating out-of-the-box support for desktop icons, KDE plans to continue supporting them in the KDE Plasma desktop environment.

Meanwhile, Ubuntu users don’t need to make any hasty decisions: Canonical has decided that while Ubuntu 18.04 LTS will ship this April with most GNOME components upgraded to version 3.28, the popular Linux distribution will continue to use Nautilus version 3.26 with support for desktop icons in order to provide a more familiar experience for long-time users.

Who needs ’em?

But back to my original question… how important are desktop icons anyway? For the most part they just duplicate features that are available elsewhere.

You can easily launch applications by pinning them to start menus or taskbars, or by firing up an app launcher and typing their names. Documents, audio, video, and other files can be stored (and organized) more effectively in different folders that are tucked away without adding so much visual clutter to the desktop.

Chromebooks, meanwhile, have been shipping without support for desktop icons since day one, and Chrome OS seems to be doing just fine.

I suspect I’d be just fine without desktop icons, and if I started using a computer that didn’t support them as my primary machine, I’d get used to the change in a matter of seconds. But if you’ll excuse me, now I need to go delete a few text files saved to my desktop in 2016 when I was taking notes during a web conference.

What about you?


via OMG Ubuntu and Phoronix

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30 replies on “Do desktop operating systems need desktop icons?”

  1. At least give users the choice to use desktop icons or not. Microsoft took that choice away with Windows 8 Metro Tiles, which was an even bigger failure than Vista! Just ask Steve Ballmer and Steve Sinofsky about that one.

  2. Yes they do. I had a tough time making gnome 3 allow me to add icons to the desktop. I simply cannot understand why you would want (almost) the entire screen occupied by a picture, and nothing else. It seems like a waste to me.

  3. I’m using a Mac OSX now and Apple doesn’t want you to use Desktop Icons, and rely solely on the Taskbar/Dock. Now the problem with that is Apple’s navigation system is half-finished and not very intuitive. On top of that, having everything on the Dock means it gets cluttered quickly and it gets even more cluttered than Windows because it has a smaller area to use.

    Windows 7’s UX is much better for their “Superdock” implementation.
    So to emulate that, I removed as much clutter from the Dock as possible, sans a few favourites.
    And I made one desktop icon, and it was a shortcut to the Apple Document folder.
    Within this “My Documents” shortcut, I put two folder labelled “Files” and use that to store miscellaneous things and another folder labelled “Work” where I keep actual work documents. That folder sits alongside shortcuts to other Apple folders namely; Applications, Downloads, Music, and Pictures.

    So it goes 1 folder = into 6 options. Easy navigation.

    PS, the dock occupies too much space and is in a bad location so I resized to a Smallish-Medium section and shifted it all the way to the left monitor side. This means less annoyances when scrolling and less space wasted overall.

    1. Chrome OS has much the same philosophy, but takes it a step further: it doesn’t let you place *any* icons on the desktop at all (except for on the “shelf” (taskbar)). You can specify the appearance of the background, but that’s it. Suits me well enough 🙂

  4. I don’t use desktop icons in Ubuntu. I launch common programs from the taskbar, and less common ones by typing their name in the dash.

  5. Windows 8 tried to hide the desktop and get rid of icons. That was a total failure. Android and iOS have icons on a desktop. That;s why non-windows mobile devices have more market share than WinTel PCs.

  6. I mostly use Linux with a tiling window manager. So I almost never see the “desktop”. The only tool displayed is my “one line” status bar with: virtual screens state, windows titles, audio state & control, top 1 process with CPU usage, date and time.

    I have keyboard shortcuts for my most commonly launched programs, otherwise I use a shortcut to temporary open a command line in the status bar (with completion and everything).

    My mess of files, scripts and notes are in my homedir. So not shown on the desktop, but hidden under the carpet.

  7. Shoot, I always kept my desktop clear of icons anyway. 🙂 Playing with widgets with plasma was fun, though too half baked back when I did it to really work. Granted that was shortly after 4.0 was released.

    My Downloads folder is an absolute mess, though, so I can’t claim to be good at organizing…. just good at shoving everything into drawers. <_<

  8. Why have desktop at all, then? What is it’s purpose w/o icons? Why not just leave taskbar area + stretched app launcher? For me, desktop is my documents folder replacement. Most of the files on my system are on my desktop. No app icons, though (because win + start typing rules, for apps at least).

    1. While I don’t use my desktop for much of anything anymore, I think this is a good question to be asking. I think the idea of covering the desktop with widgets turned out to not be that popular and just making it useless wallpaper feels like a waste to me. At the very least, it’s the place to put your recycle bin on Windows, but what other purpose it could have I’m greatly interested in.

  9. When I have to fix my family members’ computers, their desktops are a mess of icons, but mine has always been empty, with a few pinned taskbar apps and a pruned Classic Shell menu sufficing for me.

  10. And desktop icons are only [links][shadows] to the EXE files.
    I rename many to have a different prefix letter, then focus on the desktop and
    ALT+1, or ALT+2, or cycle through ALT+B, ALT+B for other series.
    Alt+1 (1-Notepad) Alt+1 (1-Wordpad), etc.

    I don’t even look up.

  11. I’ve used Windows desktop icons/folders since Day 1 well over 30 years ago – never gave it a second thought… not going to start now. I do prune them from time to time but I certainly never found desktop icons/folders to otherwise hamper my productivity.

  12. Why don’t we just get rid of the desktop altogether? We can just be 100% menu driven over to of a blank screen and what is behind the menus and windows can now be referred to as the void…

    I love the desktop. I use what you refer to as “desktop icons” a lot but that term is rather inadequate. Desktop icons sounds like you are referring to shortcuts to programs or links. I often store files I will be accessing all of the time on my desktop. When I take a screenshot for work, it sits on the desktop till it’s posted and then immediately deleted. Seeing it reminds me that it still needs to be dealt with. My scratch note file resides on my desktop because I use it all the time and am frequently copying from, pasting to, and deleting things out of it. My keepass database sits on my desktop, which is probably not the most secure practice but it only holds Facebook and other inconsequential passwords I have a separate database for important passwords. Call it a honey pot of sorts… Give them inconsequential low hanging fruit and maybe they’ll be satisfied instead of finding the one I DON’T want them to have. If I’m transferring files from multiple location to another drive, they often end up in a temporary folder on my desktop so I can just move that one folder to the new drive. The number of links or program shortcuts I have is miniscule compared to things I actually use the desktop and the desktop folder to actually store, mostly for temporary reasons. The temporary stuff gets deleted almost immediately and my desktop remains pretty clean.

    As far as the task bar nonsense everybody keeps going on about, There often isn’t enough room in my taskbar to show all of the windows I currently have open and still show more than an icon. Why would I want to clutter THAT up? I have my clock and web browser launcher pinned to my taskbar. That’s it and if never want anything else taking up valuable space there.

    Yes, people who misuse any feature end up with undesired consequences, like in this case, a cluttered desktop. Hell, maybe there is a person or two or three that couldn’t care less that their cluttered desktop looks messy. Maybe they are intimately aware of every icon and it’s location, valuing function over appearance. That’s not me but still, I know people who can reach into the jumble on the top of a real desk and pull out any item on command without even looking. Regardless, just because people misuse a feature or use it in a way that might make you uncomfortable when you look at it doesn’t mean it should go away. If you don’t have the self-control to delete those temporary items but don’t want your desktop cluttered, don’t put them there in the first place. That doesn’t mean you should make it so that others can do so on their own.

    1. “Why don’t we just get rid of the desktop altogether? We can just be 100% menu driven over to of a blank screen and what is behind the menus and windows can now be referred to as the void…”

      Chrome OS doesn’t allow icons of any kind on the desktop (except on the “shelf” (taskbar)), so you can only specify the background’s appearance. I wonder if that may be the way that GUIs are ultimately going…

  13. Different Windows programs use different file-selectors with different feature sets. So while I can pin a folder using the “Pinned folders” feature and save a file there in one program, I cannot open that folder easily in another program with a more lo-fi open file selector. Most file selectors support a shortcut to desktop though, so it can be easier to save on the desktop temporarily than to navigate to the correct folder.

  14. I used Ubuntu and Mint for 7 years, some of the time with Gnome as my desktop. I went iconless. When I switched back to Windows I hid my icons and use the Windows key to summon what I need. For me it’s cleaner and more focused. I hate that it’s not easy to do this in Android or iOS. IMHO icons, once you have more than a few are hard to find, choose and navigate. Users get accustomed to the clutter and live with it because they often don’t know better

  15. The desktop has always been a place where I place things temporarily (icons for programs I am testing out / flight information, etc.). I am very good about removing things from the desktop when they are no longer useful.

  16. You can reduce resources usage (marginal) on Windows by disabling desktop icons via right click option.

  17. After reading the comment section, once again it proves comment section of any site doesn’t reflect the real world. As the IT guy I see tons of people dump their everything in the Desktop, some people even store all their important files in Desktop because they afraid that they will forget where they saved their precious files. So I guess Desktop icons are still very relevant.

    1. > After reading the comment section, once again it proves comment section of any site doesn’t reflect the real world.

      Well said. It’s such an important aspect of my workflow – a todo list for notes and varying docs. It’s the same reason I have my browser load up the 3-4 tabs I had running when I closed it – so I can pick up where I left off. It’s so easy to get distracted.

      Bottom line… for those that want a clean Desktop, these people will manage to keep it clean. Gnome’s decision does not effect them. For those that depend on a Desktop being a Desktop – Gnome has decided to take that away. Ubuntu, once again, embracing another anti-Desktop stance.

  18. on a windows machine…taskbar is all i use. on my linux boxes i’ll put up custom desktop icons on occasion…they will be for just the basic apps (home…chrome…vlc).

  19. Back when I used Windows, I had the same problem of a desktop cluttered with icons. Don’t assume it would be the same with Linux. Running Linux Mint with Cinnamon, I have a nice, clean desktop. I do like having the option of using icons for a few favorite programs. Everything else I get via the menu and typing the program name.

  20. for me, desktop icons should be only for shortcuts to files or documents frequently used. once you don´t need them anymore (at least frequently) you should erase them. as you have said, the desktop is a mirror of your real desk. don´t blame the tool, blame the user.

  21. I couldn’t understand the lack of desktop icons on my Macbook (first Apple product), but I found that I don’t really use them at all. I don’t use desktop icons on my work machine (Ubuntu) either. Long gone are Windows XP day, at least for me.

  22. My desktop is clean since I don’t use icons because they are useless when primarily using keyboard shortcuts to launch and use apps.
    Why having desktop icons when you can add your favorite apps in a dock/task bar and your most used files and locations in your file explorer (if it is usable enough)?
    I barely see my wallpaper anyway since the apps are most of the time maximized.
    I also use a tiling window manager (i3wm) on my laptop to improve my productivity.

  23. Historically I don’t use them. I do have a few right now – links to files I wanted ready access to. I could just put them in a folder though. And like your 2016 files in truth there are a couple there which I wanted ready access to a few months ago but now don’t need. However there they still sit.
    All that said, what is a desktop for if you can’t put anything on it?
    I only used Gnome a little bit in recent times. A test drive a couple years ago. Perhaps a week long. They seemed a little heavy handed in regard to enforcing their own aesthetic sensibility. Or at least it seemed so to me at the time.
    I landed on Xfce at the end of that test period and have been using it since. Switching at that time away from KDE.
    Time to update in a few months to the new LTS. I’ll be staying with Xfce. Simple. Light. Flexible. So easy to customize. The dock setup and usage is a thing of beauty. Does 99% of what I want readily. I do wish you could customize the window chrome more easily.
    Long story short – Xubuntu 18.04 is on my radar, and Gnome can do whatever makes Gnome happy.

  24. As far as I know, Chrome OS has never had the option of desktop icons (unless you count the “shelf”), and I’ve never missed the facility on my Chromebook. A nice tidy desktop view…

    Mind you, I have always tried not to place *any* objects on the desktop, whether it be a Mac, a Windows PC or whatever. It looks messy to me, and I can’t usually access the items because there are application windows covering them. (Yes, I know the Mac Finder and Windows Explorer have a “Desktop” location in their windows, but then, why not put your files somewhere else?)

  25. It really depends on the user. My own desktop is bare, I might save to it a file I don’t want to forget about once in a great while. My elderly parents’ desktop is not only full of icons, but of LiveTiles, I’ve switched their desktop PC to Tablet mode and they love it.

    For the average non-pro user, my recommendation would be: Widgets > Bare > Icons. A desktop full of icons becomes messy in the not so long run. Incidentally, that puts iOS at the bottom of the totem pole, what a mess that UI is…

  26. Taskbar icons have largely replaced my desktop icons. My desktop icons consist of four system shortcuts (e.g. Control Panel and Bluetooth) which exist only due to concerns about Windows 10 sometime not having a functioning Start and Action Center, a sleep and shutdown shortcut (again due to Windows 10 design), and two seldom used apps which I just want to remember that I have!

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