GNOME Online Desktop: Touching the Face of GOD

The GNOME online desktop reflects the the ever-increasing popularity of social networking and file sharing.
Posted November 20, 2007

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

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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.

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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.

Continued: Is the desktop metaphor too entrenched for any meaningful changes?

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