Open Source

Gnome: We've overtaken Windows, bring on Apple

The Linux/Unix desktop has traditionally appealed to technical people who love to tinker but version 2.8 is expected to work for "mere mortals."
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By Brendon Chase, Builder AU Special to ZDNet

An upgraded Gnome desktop environment for Linux and Unix is due for release Wednesday, with its authors pitching enhanced features for end-users and a commitment to make hardware "just work".

Popular Linux and Unix desktop environments such as Gnome and KDE have traditionally appealed to technical people with time to spend on tweaking new hardware configurations and knowledge of Unix commands. However, with the upcoming release of Gnome version 2.8, the project is expected to increase its usability for mere mortals in the computing industry.

Jeff Waugh, head beekeeper of the Gnome project, was enthusiastic about the new features in the upcoming release. "The major things we’ve worked on for this release is integration of our collaboration tools and integration with the underlying operating system so hardware just works," Waugh told Builder AU.

Included in the new release will be the Evolution 2 groupware suite developed by Novell’s Ximian, with enhanced calendar features and a new easier-to-use interface.

The Vino package provides a Virtual Network Computing server that integrates with Gnome, allowing users to export their running desktop to another computer for remote use or diagnosis.

One of the key features in the upcoming release--hardware support--seeks to deal with one of the most significant problems facing Linux and Unix desktop environments. Waugh is keen to promote new hardware integration tools which make it easier for users to plug in new devices.

"One of the coolest features is volume management for the way you plug in devices like USB keys, CD-ROMs, DVDs and digital cameras," Waugh said. "If you plug in a digital camera, for example, the photo management application starts up."

"This makes it really easy for new users who don't know how to do crazy mounting things like the old Unix way. We do away with that and just make it work."

It is believed this technology is still evolving and the next step is to increase printer support without users having to load drivers.

Asked whether Gnome was just a clone of Windows, Waugh said Gnome 2.6 had achieved parity with the features of Microsoft's operating system. The new release, he claimed, was moving past Windows and was now targeting Apple's OS X operating system.

"With six month release cycles with Gnome and enhancements like Evolution we can deliver visible end-user improvements much faster and integrate these types of things much faster than Microsoft can," Waugh claimed.

"In terms of feature parity with the basic Windows desktop we've done it and we’re already there. When it comes to enterprise management we need to do some work there and when you compare Gnome to features like in OS X we're almost there," he added.

Gnome project leaders have beefed up security for the latest release after an incident when the distribution of version 2.6 was stalled by a cracker.

"We have shifted our server hosting facility for better support, upgraded to the latest version of Linux, modified protocols for giving users accounts and started a shift towards encrypted links to the code repository," Waugh told Builder AU.

While a move to Gnome 3.0 might seem a logical next step for the project, no plans have yet been made. It is believed the group wants to move to a higher level programming language such as Mono or an open-source version of Java.

"There will be a 2.10 release and I don't see foresee within the next two or three releases a Gnome 3.0," Waugh said. "With the language discussion, there has been talk of using Mono or Java, concentrating on the free derivative of Java that already compiles the Eclipse IDE. Because Sun hasn’t open sourced Java itself--real Java--it becomes impossible for Gnome to use it because we've made a commitment to free software." However, so far there has been no decision.

Waugh conceded that the decision to move to a higher level programming language is partly a political one. Two major corporate backers of the Gnome project have competing technologies--Novell with the Mono project and Sun Microsystems with Java.

"In the meantime a lot of software has been written in Python," he said. "But, as yet we have not written anything in the official Gnome release in a language other than C. We have included bindings for Java, so you can use the Gnome libraries directly from Java which means you don't have to use that awful Swing. We also have C++, Perl and Python bindings. All are supported we just haven't committed to any of them yet for core Gnome modules."