Linux developers aim for your desktop

The future of Linux on the desktop began to take shape at LinuxWorld Expo here last week, with developers of desktop environments for both Gnome and KDE lining up support and offering a peek at their visions of the future.

The Gnome desktop is garnering the strongest support, with both Eazel and Ximian demonstrating future Gnome desktop components that are familiar to Windows users in both approach and look, yet radical in their design.

Rethinking the Desktop

Eazel draws from the expertise of cofounders Michael Boich and Andrew Hertzfeld, both intimately involved in the design and marketing of Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh desktop. The startup is demonstrating the latest preview release of the Nautilus graphical shell.

Nautilus is a file manager and much more, intended to be an integral part of Gnome 1.4, which is scheduled for release this spring. But Nautilus focuses more on a user's projects, rather than the files existing on the system. For example, the icon for a text document displays the initial words of the document itself. The icon for an image file is a thumbnail representation of the entire image, and hovering over any sound file causes the contents of that file to pour out through the system's speakers.

In a major departure from any existing file manager, Nautilus lets you enlarge the icons of important files, attach graphical tags (such as "Important!") to any given project file, and otherwise organize projects in a logical manner, rather than being a slave to the system's file hierarchy.

"Nautilus lets the data itself shine though," Hertzfeld explains. It aims to "remove barriers" between users and their work by providing intuitive ways to take a quick look at any file on the system.

Combining Tools

Ximian, formerly known as Helix Code, is showing off several components of its Gnome desktop of the future. First up is Evolution, a Microsoft Outlook clone that combines mail management, address book functions, and calendar tools. Also on display is Red Carpet, an intuitive system update tool. Red Carpet offers a point-and-click system to update the Gnome desktop itself, core system components (no matter which distribution of Linux is running), and more.

Finally, Ximian's Setup Tools aim to provide the Linux user with a central means to configure and maintain the system, similar to the Windows Control Panel. (Most Linux distributions provide such tools already; Ximian's approach is designed to work on any distribution.) Red Carpet's initial release is expected any day now; Evolution 1.0 will be available this spring or summer; and Ximian's Setup Tools will be available with the release of Gnome 2.0 late this year.

Despite the many strides being made in the desktop interface for Linux, most of LinuxWorld Expo remains focused on enterprise and server-side uses. Nat Friedman, CEO of Ximian, isn't worried, however. He remains confident that Linux will continue to infiltrate the desktop via "creeping insinuation," one PC at a time. As the Linux desktop grows more intuitive, Unix users and, later, other desktop devotees will switch to Linux, Friedman says.

Still, Friedman says it may be another 18 months before Linux finally makes serious inroads on the desktop, and his sentiment is echoed by Eazel's Herzfeld. Only time will tell whether initiatives such as Nautilus and Evolution will spur Linux's adoption as a desktop operating system, but it can no longer be said that Linux's Open Source community is ignoring end users. Technology from Eazel and Ximian will be freely available, and will likely ship with future versions of the various Linux distributions.

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