One of the reoccurring ideas in revisions of the desktop is to tie it more closely to the Internet. The idea was last popular in the late 1990s, when one example of it was the use of KDE’s Konqueror for both web browsing and file management. Now, with the GNOME Online Desktop (GOD), the idea has been revived to reflect the rise of social networks and file sharing. The revisions to the standard GNOME desktop are easy to learn, but how you view them will probably depend on how much you participate in the phenomena they’re designed to accommodate.
Currently in alpha release, GOD is best tested in a distribution that uses GNOME 2.20, such as Fedora 8. In Fedora 8, it requires three packages: online-desktop, mugshot, and bigboard (the exact names may vary with your distribution). If these packages are unavailable in your distro, you can use the instructions at live.gnome.org to compile the programs for yourself.
Once these packages are installed, log out and select GOD for your session before you log back in. Then go to GNOME online to create an account for Mugshot in order to get the full experience.
When you start GOD, the first thing you will probably notice is Big Board, the side panel on the left. Even before you start investigating it, this panel immediately raises several questions. First, because the panel occupies about one-sixth of the screen — and is currently unmovable — is it worth using on a traditional monitor with a 4:3 ratio? Or, conversely, if you have a wide screen monitor, why is every every desktop from Windows Vista through to the KDE 4.0 beta and GOD intent on filling up the extra space for you? If you bought a wide screen monitor to have more space for running applications, then probably the first thing you might want to do is right-click and select Sidebar Preferences so you can minimize the panel until you need it.
Another question that the side panel raises is whether the traditional panel along the bottom of the desktop is still necessary. True, the bottom panel contains a notification tray and serves as a task bar for open application windows, but couldn’t a little ingenuity place these tasks on the side panel as well? Or, if the bottom panel stays, couldn’t it have the main menu by default, instead of requiring you to add it yourself? After all, the point of a desktop is to accommodate all sorts of user preferences — that’s why you have menus as well as keyboard shortcuts.
Looking more closely, the questions continue. At the top, you’ll see the present user account and a graphic for it in a pane entitled “My Desktop.” This section of the panel can be customized with a choice of graphic and additional links to your favorite sites. Whether you need this section seems debatable, although the Big Board design notes suggests that new users might be confused without it.
The light bulb to the right opens a small menu with items for Desktop and Sidebar Preferences, as well a Logout or Shutdown button. The Desktop Preferences dialog provides what some users have been waiting for in GNOME for years: A control center for administration and configuration setting similar to the one in KDE. Others, however, may prefer GNOME’s traditional Administration and Preferences menus.
The Sidebar Preferences dialog allows you to select what panes — or widgets, as the dialog puts it — you want below the top one. The top two are oriented towards traditional desktop use — they’re Files and Applications. Others choices are either oriented towards social networking and instant messaging or utilities such as a calendar or a search function.
What you think of the social networking widgets, of course, will likely depend on how important sites like Flickr and FaceBook are to your regular computing. However, the Files and Applications widgets are worth a closer look because most people will use them sooner or later. The Files widget is an alternative file manager for your home directory, apparently intended to replace Nautilus in your daily use, while the Applications widget replaces the main menu. In both cases, the panel displays only a limited number of items by default, and provides a search field for finding more, making each reminiscent of the default menu in recent versions of Windows.
Admittedly, apps like Big Board ensure that new users are not overwhelmed by complexity. However, more experienced users might appreciate easier access to the entire directory tree, not just their home directory. The same is also true of the menu — you could have an interesting debate over whether the advantage of making new users feel at ease is worth the price of making the exploration of installed programs harder. The question naturally arises of how users can know to search for a program if they don’t see it listed in the first place.
The same is true of the not seen, but apparently forthcoming email widget. When you have as mature an application as Evolution or Thunderbird, what are the advantages of discarding it in favor of a simple notification? And can the widget hope to handle the several hundred daily emails that are the norm for many people, even if they prefer instant messaging and IRC?
The final major feature of GOD is the Mugshot icon in the bottom panel’s notification tray. Clicking the icon opens your home page on GNOME Online for Mugshot, which can be loosely described as an index of social networking and file-sharing sites. Your Mugshot page allows you to list updates from all your interactive sites, and to list both your activities and those of friends whom you invite to participate. Probably, the more you use interactive sites, the more you can appreciate Mugshot, but opinions are likely to vary about whether you need a notification icon to access it, as opposed to a bookmark in your conventional browser.
More generally, GOD renews questions that arise whenever changes to the desktop are proposed. These questions include: Is the desktop metaphor, for all its shortcomings, too entrenched for any meaningful changes or improvements? Do improvements mean simplifying the experience of new users, or should thought also be given to features for more advanced users?
And, for GNU/Linux in particular: Do improvements mean copying features like menu search fields introduced by Windows? Do such borrowings make the transition to GNOME easier for Windows users? And, if so, do they come at the expense of radical new features? The developer pages talk about getting ahead of Windows with GOD, yet the design itself continues to raise such issues.
I don’t pretend to have answers to any of these questions. Personally, I like the Control Panel, and question the need to make Internet activities so prominent on the desktop. But, then again, I hit middle age some years ago, and likely I’m not supposed to get it.
Anyway, the specific answers are less important than the fact that the questions are raised at all. Whether GNOME Online Desktop becomes popular is, in many ways, beside the point. On the practical side, it may introduce some new or alternative features to the desktop. And more abstractly, what matters about such projects is that they challenge us to rethink what most of us take for granted — and that’s something worth confronting, regardless of whether GOD is abandoned in a few years or becomes the norm for the GNU/Linux desktop.