Linux may no longer have the largest share of the netbook market, the way it did a couple of years ago. But you could still say that if the community isn’t dominating in sales, it’s taking the lead in interface choices.
Recently, everybody seems focused on the netbook market. The communities that develop lightweight desktops like Xfce and LXDE or nimble distributions like Slax are promoting their work as ideal for netbooks. Debian has a project focused on tweaking the distribution for netbooks, while Mandriva offers Sugar and Moblin as netbook interfaces. The race is so competitive that some choices are already dropped out of the running, such as the HP Mi Edition, which a year ago was receiving rave reviews.
Who will win, place, or show in the netbook race is still anybody’s guess. Currently, however, there are four main competitors: the Plasma Netbook Interface, Easy Peasy, Chrome OS, and Moblin.
The first two are KDE and GNOME with new interfaces, and the last two are still in development, but these four are the ones that receiving the most attention right now. Each draws on different sources of inspiration. But, taken together, they illustrate the assumptions that are being made about how netbooks are being used — assumptions that I suspect may be misguided.
KDE’s Plasma Netbook Interface
Scheduled for official release at the end of this month, the Plasma Netbook Interface (PNI) is being developed concurrently with the standard KDE Desktop. However, it is already well-known, thanks to some stable beta releases.
PNI offers a somewhat different experience from the standard KDE desktop. However, there are some obvious analogies. The panel is little changed in PNI, and the button on the upper right is functionally similar to standard KDE’s desktop tool kit. Even the floating favorites and menu bars in the top middle of the screen are less of an innovation than they first appear, since they recall KRunner, the floating command center that many advanced KDE users prefer to the menu.
The main difference is that the panel’s task bar does not display running applications, but containments — workspaces with customized arrangements of widgets. In other words, PNI shares the same back-end as standard KDE, differing only in the details of the interface.
Like the other contenders, PNI is designed with the assumption that, given the relatively small size of a netbook’s screen, users will usually be using only one application at a time. However, besides the similarity to standard KDE, PNI’s strengths are an economical use of screen space, and the minimal number of clicks needed to switch from one application to another. These strengths make PNI a strong contender for both veteran KDE users and newcomers.
Easy Peasy: A Mobile Face on GNOME
Formerly known as Ubuntu Eee and the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, Easy Peasy is based on the GNOME desktop. However, you have to go into the Preferences or Administration menu to see this resemblance, because the changes from the GNOME desktop are far greater than PNI’s changes from standard KDE.
Essentially, Easy Peasy has taken the menus in the GNOME panel and expanded them to fill the default desktop. On the left is the list of applications, on the right a list of places on the hard drive, such as your home and download directories for documents, graphics, videos, and music. Also on the right, at the bottom, is an exit icon. In the middle is the currently selected sub-menu.
When you open an application, an icon opens in the taskbar and the application runs in a full-screen tab. To open another application, you click on its taskbar icon, while to return to the default view, you click the Easy Peasy button on the left side of the taskbar.
This workflow makes Easy Peasy seem more of an interface for a music player or phone than a desktop. This resemblance should help Easy Peasy live up to its name for many users. However, if you are more familiar with a desktop than mobile devices, you might question whether a menu should take over the entire screen or whether the icons for switching between applications should be so small.
Chrome OS: The Browser is the Desktop
Google’s new operating system is in heavy development, and many of its details might change before the final version. But if PNI is a light reworking of a workstation desktop and Easy Peasy a variation on mobile interfaces, then so far Chromium — popularly known as Chrome — appears to be the replacement of the desktop with the browser.
Much as in Easy Peasy, in Chrome, the desktop becomes a series of tabs. However, Chrome is probably easier to navigate for most people, because it is so heavily based on the browser. In Easy Peasy, it takes a moment to realize that you need to click on the taskbar icons to change applications, while, by contrast anyone who’s been online can figure out that you change applications in Chrome by clicking on the tab.
Otherwise, what you think of Chrome is likely to depend heavily on what you think of cloud computing. If cloud computing is already part of your work habits, you may accept Chrome easily. If it isn’t, then you may think that, in attempting to move beyond the desktop metaphor, Chrome has gone too far in replacing it with the browser and simply exchanged one set of limitations for another.
For example, while the current Chrome preview is not over-burdened with administrative tools, the ones provided for Internet connectivity are easy to miss on the far side of the panel.
So far, too, Chrome is light on customization. That may change, but, for now, the impression is that, since the desktop is not supposed to matter in the Chrome worldview, the idea that you might want to adjust it to your own preferences has been overlooked in the design.
Moblin: Taking It All to the Mobile
A project sponsored by the Linux Foundation, Moblin is described on its site as “an optimized Linux platform that provides a modern, engaging user experience for mobile devices.” With this orientation, Moblin is as remote from the ordinary desktop as Chrome, but in a different way. While the other three contenders all borrow the high resolution colors and detailed icons of the desktop, Moblin offers a starker, simpler look that has more in common with the Sugar interface on the One Laptop per Child machines, or the mobile interfaces of two or three years ago.
In fact, sometimes, its look is so simple that at first you may have trouble deciphering what its icons represent. At first, you might think it resembles a high-contrast interface for people with visual limitations.
Still, if you can get past the first impression, you will find that Moblin is stark only at the top level. Open the application tab, for instance, and the icons are as detailed as in any of the other three. Admittedly, the contrast with the top-level interface is a little jarring, though.
For another thing, Moblin is noticeably faster than the other three netbook desktops. Unlike Easy Peasy or Chrome, Moblin doesn’t give you the foreboding that it is going to hang at a blank desktop when you switch views.
You might also appreciate the calendar and to-do list in the default view — a touch borrowed directly from any number of phones.
None of these four interfaces strikes me as completely satisfactory. The fact that PNI comes closest probably says as much about my computing background and habits as anything about the design.
However, despite obvious differences, what strikes me about all these choices is what they have in common. All of them draw inspiration from an existing source, and all of them assume that the work done on a netbook will be relatively simple, and usually done one application at a time.
What none of them seems to have done is to consider a netbook as a use-case in its own right. Each assumes that work done on a netbook will be less involved than that done on a workstation, but my impression is that the designers have all lumped netbooks in with phones and assumed that very little productive work will be done on them. In some cases, the designers even seem to be assuming that users will not want to personalize the interfaces very much.
Yet, from what I have seen and read, I wonder if this is what people actually want from netbooks. People are using netbooks for productivity, especially when traveling. In this sense, I suspect netbooks are closer to workstations than any of the designers have assumed, and used far more heavily and seriously than phones or other mobile devices
If that is so, then the challenge for netbook interfaces is how to deliver a productive interface on a much smaller screen than a workstation’s. And it is this challenge that none of these choices addresses, although PNI comes closest.
Still, interfaces for netbooks have to start somewhere, and these four give a well-rounded set of alternatives. If nothing else, they mean that you can choose your netbook interface by the inspirations with which you are most comfortable. The desktop-oriented can chose PNI, the cloud computing users Chrome, and the mobile users Easy Peasy or Moblin.
But the real development of netbook interfaces, I suspect, is not going to happen until the next generation, when the survivors of the great race indicate exactly what users want in a netbook interface.
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