EasyPeasy and the Challenges of Linux Netbook Design

The EasyPeasy 1.6 RC Linux netbook OS comes bundled with proprietary software and assumes you want only limited functionality from your netbook.
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Netbook desktops in free and open source software (FOSS) are in a state of rapid development. Should a netbook be treated as more as a mobile device than as a laptop? Should developers assume that netbooks are used for light computing such as social networking, rather than for productivity? These are just two of the questions whose answers affect the design of any netbook desktop.

However, you would have to search long and hard to find any distribution that answers such questions as openly as the EasyPeasy distribution does in its 1.6 release candidate (RC).

An Ubuntu-based distribution begun as a collection of scripts called Ubuntu Eee in December 2007, EasyPeasy makes its design philosophy clear right from its name. If you miss the pun of "EasyPeasy" / "Easy PC," its logo is a lemon slice, visually completing the slang expression "easypeasy, lemon squeezy" for something that is very easy to do.

Moreover, if you go to the project's home page, and the first words you read are, "Your netbook is not a typical laptop,so why should you use a traditional operating system? Get EasyPeasy, the new netbook OS that makes surfing the web fast, fun and easy!" And, immediately after, the home page states, "Open source netbook OS' should not be limited to open source applications."

You may disagree with these design principals, but no one can complain that EasyPeasy is exactly what it claims to be: a simple interface that differs from the standard GNOME desktop it is based upon, intended for light use, and including several pieces of proprietary software for convenience.

EasyPeasy 1.6 RC is available as a Live DVD of 878 megabytes that, to judge from its features, appears to be based on GNOME 2.30 and Ubuntu's upcoming Lucid Lynx release. Its installer is the standard seven step one that you might know from installing Ubuntu. Installation takes about ten minutes, and boot-up time is minimized by the use of Plymouth and the remove of the HAL daemon, which recent configuration features in the Linux kernel has made redundant.

EasyPeasy interface for the Linux netbook

The EasyPeasy interface for the Linux netbook

Taking another step towards simplifying the Linux desktop

Like most netbook desktop interfaces I have seen, EasyPeasy moves the menu to the desktop itself. On the left side of the desktop, the top level menu items --ranging from Favorites and Files to software categories such as Accessories, Games, and Office -- occupy about a quarter of the desktop.

When you select a top level menu item, its background briefly transforms into an arrow, neatly drawing your attention to the rest of the desktop, which serves as the second level menu. This second level menu has a scroll bar when needed, but you can also drag it up and down with the mouse's scroll wheel if you prefer. Although the sub-menu icons are already on the larger size, they become larger yet when the cursor passes over them.

Above the desktop is an unmovable panel dominated by a taskbar of icons for switching between open applications, a button to return to the menu, a clock and calendar, and indicators for connectivity, battery charge, and configuration for chat, mail, and what EasyPeasy and Ubuntu call "Broadcast" tools, meaning sites like Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter where users publish content.

The largest change from early versions is that EasyPeasy 1.6 no longer followers GNOME's lead by filling the already limited space on the netbook desktop with a Places menu. Instead, the Place menu is replaced by Files in the main menu. The result is more space on the desktop, but at the trade off of having to rely on the taskbar icons for moving between applications, since many open full-screen.

This arrangement works precisely to the extent that you are familiar with each application's icons -- or, perhaps, that your vision can distinguish the icons on the narrow panel. But perhaps the assumption is that you are unlikely to have more than a couple of applications open at the same time due to the limited RAM that netbooks have had until recently.

By contrast, GNOME's lead is still followed by placing the Administration and Preferences menus in the System menu. This arrangement not only has the disadvantage of requiring much more scrolling than any other menu, but of hiding the Preferences so well that at a quick glance, you can easily make the mistake of assuming that no customization options are available.

Next Page: Lingering questions

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