Linux desktop innovations to look forward to
14th Mar 2010 | 12:00
2010 is shaping up to be a perfect year for the Linux desktop
These are testing times: if you want to experience the latest advances on the Linux desktop, you have to be prepared to test things and accept that stability is a secondary feature.
The continued development of KDE 4 is the perfect example. Many of its users have felt like guinea pigs over the last couple of years, while its developers have filled in the missing blanks on the path to a fully operational desktop.
But for many of us, this is how we like it. Messing around with applications, tools and utilities from the cutting edge is the reason why many of us got into Linux in the first place. It's almost expected, and it's always something of a surprise to discover that Linux has come so far that most people use precisely for its sobriety and stability.
But for the tinkerers and testers, 2010 is shaping up to be a perfect year. Almost every desktop and application we can think of is going to have a major release, and while release dates and roadmaps always have to be taken with a pinch of salt, many of these projects have built technology and enhancements you can play with now.
The taste of tomorrow
We've selected the few we think are worth keeping an eye on and that can be installed easily from your distribution's package manager, but Linux is littered with applications that are evolving all the time, so we've also tried to guess what the next big things might be. Take a trip with us on a voyage of discovery to find out exactly what's happening and how the Linux desktop experience is likely to evolve over the next 12 months.
KDE's Gnome Do equivalent is trying hard to catch up
KRunner has been part of KDE for long time. It's the tool you see when you press Alt+F2, and is commonly used to run applications quickly by typing their names rather than resorting to the launch menu.
In the face of stiff competition from the likes of Gnome Do though, KRunner has had to up its game recently, and there are several neat enhancements for the KDE 4.4 release.
The most obvious change is that the KRunner dialog itself is now at the top of the screen rather than in the middle. This makes more sense, because it's now less likely to tread over some important application information or Slashdot story. You can also close the window again by pressing Alt+F2.
Now that KDE 4.4 has a working search engine, the first new thing you can do with KRunner is search your desktop. Results are listed in the panel below. Everything else more or less looks the same until you click on the small spanner icon.
KRun to the hills
The window that appears has always hidden the extra features hidden behind KRunner's austere GUI. It lists the type of items that are going to be probed and returned as results in the main window.
This version for KDE 4.4 has four new additions. You can now terminate applications by typing kill followed by the name of the application. After you've typed kill, the applications that match the following text will be listed in the results panel.
You can change the keyword by reconfiguring the Terminate Applications plugin. You can also list all removable devices on your system by typing solid, and you should be able to manage virtual desktops by typing window. We couldn't get this to work, despite the plugin being listed in the configuration window.
There's still tons over other functionality you can get out of KRunner by using the older plugins, but what we'd really like to see is cross-compatibility with Gnome Do's plugins.
To build the future we must first understand the past
How do you come up with a revolutionary new desktop while your users are wedded to the old familiar input ideas, tried and tested in the two decades since we all started using a keyboard and mouse?
If Linux were run by Apple, the developers would work in secret for years before announcing the availability of their new desktop metaphor. But the open source community doesn't work in the same way. Innovation has to be hammered out on online forums, in developer channels and through software releases. It's trial by committee, and many things can and do go wrong with the process.
Compositing effects are a good example. Almost as soon as David Reveman had finished his initial work on Compiz, patches could be integrated into almost any Linux desktop with no major changes. Users could install Compiz and start rotating their desktops within minutes.
But the task of turning these patches into a homogeneous part of the desktop experience has taken considerably longer, and it's an ongoing process four years after the initial release. This is because the path to acceptance for Compiz has been slowed down by the community, with disagreement, forks, apathy and duplication all hindering its progress. And it's the same for many other projects.
If you want to change the way people use their desktops, you have to change the underlying technology behind that desktop. Most developers interpret this to mean that they need a new release, with an all-new API and plenty of new technology for application developers to take advantage of. This is the theory behind KDE 4's glut of new libraries and frameworks, for example, but it also means that it takes time for developers to catch up, if they even feel so inclined.
Gnome development is more pragmatic. Version 2 was released at about the same time as KDE 3 in 2002, and broadly, it's still a version of this release that's the current version of Gnome. There have been no dramatic redesigns, API changes, feature overhauls or debugging marathons.
Instead, there's been the steady march of progress, and while Gnome may be missing some of the more experimental aspects of KDE, the latest release, 2.28, is still very different to the 2.0 release.
This is partly because Gnome is more of a platform for applications than KDE. The user doesn't need to know that the F-Spot photo manager is written in Mono and uses C#, for example; the only important thing is that each Gnome application presents a standardised front-end by following Gnome's user interface guidelines.
It's for this reason that Gnome has been going from strength to strength, even on other platforms and operating systems, and this kind of idea doesn't need to be updated when a new version is released.
Gnome 3.0 is scheduled for release in September of this year, but like all version 2.x releases up to this point, it's unlikely to be a KDE 4-like revolution. Initially, there were plans for dramatic changes to be made, all falling under an umbrella term for Gnome 3.0 – ToPaZ (Three Point Zero).
If you look at some of the plans touted for Topaz, especially the results from some of the original brainstorming sessions, you'll see that most of the ideas remain in the current plan.
With the KDE 4 release, most of the development cycle for the revolutionary features that were supposed to make KDE 4 more attractive than version 3 actually occurred after the initial release. If KDE 4 were to be released now it would be hailed as a great success, rather than the stream of bugfixes and updates we've endured since 4.0 hit the mirrors in January 2008.
But at the same time, developers have to balance expectation. Would many people still be using the KDE desktop if they had to stick to KDE 3-era applications?
Fortunately, with the release of KDE 4.4, most of those criticisms and usability problems have been ironed out, and we finally have a KDE desktop that can replace KDE 3.5.
For the first time in a long time, Linux might actually get easier to use
Both Gnome and KDE are putting a great deal of emphasis on something they call 'activities'. These are really an extension of the virtual desktop idea, but rather than each desktop being a disconnected extension to your screen's real estate, activities become associated with a certain task.
You might want to create a documentation activity, for example, and for that you'd need a desktop that provided quick access to a text or HTML editor, online resources and perhaps a dictionary or thesaurus. Like most other tasks, setting up this kind of environment would normally require the user to mess around with a launch menu as well as understand a certain amount about your computer's filesystem.
Most developers recognise that this process isn't ideal and that desktops of the future shouldn't require filesystem knowledge, or even an idea of how applications are organised and stored. The process of working with your data should be as intuitive as possible, and both major Linux desktops are trying their best to tackle this issue in their own special ways.
With Gnome, for example, one of the key aims of the upgrade to version 3.0 has been to streamline the user experience. And the central user-facing technology that's going to help this happen is called Gnome Shell. This is an application that has seen rapid development over the last 18 months after Gnome's Vincent Untz posted some observations from discussions at a recent hackfest in late 2008.
These observations mentioned that tasks such as finding a window was more difficult than it should be, that workspaces were powerful but not intuitive enough and that launching applications was too hard. Gnome Shell has been developed to address these problems, as well as take advantage of some of the latest Linux technology.
Like Moblin, Gnome Shell uses Clutter, a graphical library that can build smooth transitions and eye candy out of even the most humble graphics hardware.
The KDE team have been working on similar concepts throughout the entire KDE 4 development process. But it's fair to say that many of ideas touted before the first release were judged too ambitious and too difficult to implement within the first few revisions.
KDE 4.4 is designed to redress some of these issues by re-awakening the Nepomuk semantic desktop and by making desktop activities usable.
The Nepomuk semantic desktop, as we've written before, is designed to bridge the gap between online content and content in your hardware. Many components of the web can already be found in KDE applications like Dolphin, where you can add comments, tags and ratings to your own files, but until now there hasn't been a good reason to go to all this effort.
With the release of KDE 4.4, you can finally use these fields of rich information to search your content, just as you would search the internet through Google. Another important aspect to user experience on the KDE desktop is the use of activities.
Like Gnome Shell, this the ability to meta-manage the arrangement of virtual desktops and applications according to what you want to work on. It's a feature that has been part of the KDE 4 desktop for a while, but with version 4.4, activities also become first-class citizens on the KDE desktop, perhaps in an attempt to steal some of Gnome's thunder from the wonderful Gnome Shell.
But it's not quite as simple or as straightforward to use. Rather than attempting to replace the launch menu and file management duties of the desktop, KDE's activities are better at managing complex environments. It doesn't replace the panel or the launch menu, for example, it just lets you fire up a working environment in the same way that you click on a browser's bookmark. That's not a bad thing, it's just different.
The best thing about Gnome Shell is that you can play with it today. And we'd suggest you give it a go, because it might just change the way you think about Gnome.
Gnome Shell should be straightforward to install through your distribution's package manager. To run it though, you will probably need to open the command line and type gnomeshell --replace. If you've ever manually started Compiz, this command will feel familiar, as the replace argument is used to replace the currently used window manage with both projects.
When Gnome Shell is running (depending on the version you've installed), you'll won't see any new windows on your desktop; the only indication that something has changed is the different style of window decoration, and if it's a recent version of Gnome Shell, a quick-launch dock attached to the top-left of your main window.
To see Gnome Shell in action, just move your mouse to the top-right of your screen. You should then see the current view zoom away into the middle distance, and the freed-up screen space used to display other virtual desktops to the right and a minimal launch menu on the right.
This launch menu contains applications and files, and you can either click on one to load the corresponding application into the current desktop or drag the icon on to the desktop on which you wish the application to appear. But it's also much cleverer than first glance might suggest.
If you drag a text file on to a new desktop, for example, Gnome Shell will automatically load that file into the default application for that file type. Each window on the virtual desktop will update to reflect any changing contents, and you can enlarge any window in the frame by using the mouse wheel while the pointer hovers over the window you want to enlarge.
Here's what we've got look forward to in the following 12 months
There's no doubt that both Gnome and KDE are stealing the limelight when it comes to feature upgrades for 2010. The other more common Linux desktops don't have any such big upgrades planned, and this is their strength, as they often like to capitalise on their ability to remain stable and relatively lightweight.
Xfce is the best example of this: changes from one version to the next are generally small and lack the paradigm shifting-hype of other desktop environments. Xfce 4.8 only entered the planning stage in August last year, and as a result, the feature list is best described as nebulous.
It's hoped that the new version will include an enhanced menu system, icon routines and keyboard handling, but there aren't any ambitious plans to add masses of new features. The new menu system is hopefully going to make it much easier for users to edit the launch menu, a task that currently generates plenty of complaints, according to Xfce developers.
Xfce should also been able to jump on to the on-screen notification bandwagon, with Xfce developer Jérôme Guelfucci showing off patches that bring Gnome's notification system to the Xfce desktop. It looks really good too.
The new file manager, Thunar, is also likely to become more powerful, although one of its great strengths is that it's super quick and not hampered by the cruft that plagues other file managers. The final version of 4.8 is due to be released on 12 April 2010.
The most comprehensive open source office suite is likely to go through something of a transformation this year, now that its principal sponsor, Sun Microsystems, is being taken over by Oracle. At the time of writing, the first release candidate of version 3.2 has just made it on to the mirrors.
It promises faster startup times, almost halving the boot time for Writer from just over 11 seconds in version 3 to under six seconds in version 3.2, and should bring much better file compatibility with both the new ODF 1.2 specification as well as proprietary formats and the ability to save password-protected Microsoft Office documents.
Version 3.3, which should be available by the end of the year, will be the first release to include the fruit from project Renaissance. This is a noble attempt by OpenOffice.org to overhaul the user interface of the various applications in the suite, hopefully pulling its appearance into the 21st century.
This update is promised only for Impress, with the other applications getting the same treatment in later updates, but until we see a screenshot of the new design, we have yet to be convinced.
There's little doubt that the next 12 months are going to be particularly challenging for the Firefox web browser. Once the darling of the open source desktop, Firefox has suffered in the face of competition from Google's Chromium browser and its perceived lack of speed in the face of the growing dominance of WebKit-based browsing.
As a result, future development is likely to focus on speed improvements and consolidating the initial reasons for Firefox's success, rather than adding feature after feature on to a browser than many users feel is already bloated.
Version 3.7, available in the middle of the year should make further performance and include the latest version of the Gecko rendering engine.
After years languishing in the pool of applications known as 'loved and lost', Gimp looks like it may finely rise from the ashes of apathy and re-invent itself as the future of pixel editing on the free desktop.
Version 2.6, released in October 2009, was a step in the right direction, but it's going to be version 2.8 that hopefully heralds the dawn of a new era. This is mainly because a brand-new, revised and re-imagined GUI is planned, finally consigning its multiple tiny dialogs and windows to the rubbish bin.
Gimp 2.8 will include a single-window mode, just like its commercial competitor, and this should go a long way towards making it easier to use for most people. In the words of one of the main developers on the project, Martin Nordholts, Gimp's UI feels rather cluttered. This is mainly because it uses so many windows, and the single window should solve most of these problems.
But it's a big job. There are nine separate tasks required to make the modification work, with this feature alone taking up about 10% of the projected development time for the next release. Most people agree that it's going to be worth it.
The remainder of the development time is going to be spent adding lots of other cool features. You'll be able to type text directly into the image canvas, for example, rather than using a text entry window first. You will also be able to group layers, making larger and more complex images vastly more manageable.
But development on Gimp has always been dependent on its relatively small and dedicated team. In the past, this has meant there was a long gap between releases, and it's likely to be the same with 2.8. Martin Nordholts initially estimated that if they included all the features they wanted, 2.8 might not see the light of day until early 2012.
He suggested a compromise, pulling ideas like vector layers and unified and free transform tools from the feature plan, and pulling the release forward to before the end of 2010.
There's been a slight shift in recent years from open source project being built purely by the community that uses them, to applications that are developed and sponsored by a commercial endeavour. Google's Chrome browser falls into this category, and so does Nokia's development environment, Qt Creator.
The result is that we've never had a better selection of web browsers, and if you enjoy programming, there are now more Linux-compatible development environments that ever to choose from.
If you're a Qt/C++ developer, Qt Creator is going from strength to strength, and is likely to be the best choice if you're thinking of joining the throngs of developers writing applications for Nokia's various mobile phones.
In a related field, KDevelop 4 is finally due to be released some time in the first half of 2010. This is one of the final KDE 3-era applications to have made the transition to KDE 4, and we hope it will be good enough to last a few years before the developers decide to start from scratch again.
KDevelop 4 uses CMake for project management, and lets you have more than one project open at a time. There's also some sophisticated refactoring, argument matching and support for distributed version control systems such as Git. But KDevelop will no longer enjoy the wide language support of its predecessor, as it become increasingly adept at the C++/Qt combination – a space now defiantly occupied by Qt Creator.
For Gnome developers there are likely to be a couple of releases of the Anjuta IDE, the first of which will be version 2.29.2. MonoDevelop, the multilingual IDE that specialises in C#, is also going from strength to strength, with version 2.2 being released right at the end of the year.
There are currently no plans for version 2.4, but at the current rate of released, we'd expect another version before the end of the year.
First Published in Linux Format Issue 129
Liked this? Then check out
Sign up for TechRadar's free Weird Week in Tech newsletter
Get the oddest tech stories of the week, plus the most popular news and reviews delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up at http://www.techradar.com/register