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Rubber Turnip - Is GNOME Ready for the Desktop?

[Screen Shot] Last month, I wrote a piece on Galeon, in which I waxed lyrical about the release candidates status as the "perfect browser". One reason I stated for it's greatness was it's integration with the rest of the GNOME desktop environment. So, this month I've been considering whether GNOME as a whole is ready for "average Joe User" desktop usage.

I want to be clear about what I mean here, I'm not considering whether GNOME is ready to be deployed on everyone's desktop. Every computer user is different, and as such, their needs are all different. Some people will require applications for which there is no Linux equivalent, in which case it would be crazy to suggest that GNOME is appropriate for them at this time. All that said, the majority of desktop computer users use three application types: a Web Browser, an Email Client/PIM and a Word Processor. GNOME has an obvious candidate for each of those applications: Galeon, Evolution and AbiWord respectively.

The Desktop Itself

Of course, you can have the best applications in the world, but if the desktop environment itself is difficult to use, it's futile, people just won't go for it. In my opinion, GNOME could not be easier to use. The panel and menu are extremely intuitive. How many users of more widely deployed desktop systems spend ages trying to remember the name of the vendor of a certain piece of software that they want to use, because that is the basis upon which the menu is arranged by default. How nice it would be to have software arranged by function, Internet related applications together, graphics programs together, sound applications all arranged on the same submenu. That's what GNOME does, and it makes it so very easy to find applications quickly that the difference it makes to working with the system is noticeable.

No graphical desktop these days would be complete without a drag 'n' drop file manager, and GNOME has two of the beasts! Those with high-end machines can take advantage of the extreme eye-candy of Nautilus. This graphical shell was initially developed, under the GPL, by Eazel Inc with a number of the developers being people who had previously been responsible for the design of MacOS. Eazel have subsequently folded, but Nautilus has proven that Free Software transcends businesses and is thriving as a purely voluntary project undergoing constant development with regular releases. Nautilus does more than simple file management, it's also a well featured web browser, using the Mozilla rendering engine and a file viewer for a variety of file types. For example, if you have a directory that you keep your MP3 files in, you can set up Nautilus to view that directory as a playlist, and have it play the MP3s. Images can be shown in directory views as thumbnails of themselves, and so on. Users with less powerful machines, or more classic tastes can use the venerable GMC (GNOME Midnight Commander). This is more similar to Windows Explorer, but is much lighter on system resources.


Since my last article on Galeon, the browser has reached it's version 1.0 release, and is now at 1.0.1 a release which fixes a nasty bug in 1.0 which caused it to seg fault on exit. Everything I said in that article still applies really, it's the only browser I use and in my opinion cannot be beat at the moment.


Evolution is the GNOME Email client and PIM, and has recently also reached version 1.0. Licensed under the terms of the GPL, but with a proprietary plugin to allow full integration into Exchange based networks due for release next year, it's primarily developed by Ximian Inc.

It features three main components - a mail client, calendaring and addressbook access (either local or via LDAP). In addition there is a task list, and the Summary section, which can display headlines from news sites and local weather reports as well as information on appointments, tasks and mail. The three main components integrate well, you can of course access your addressbook and LDAP servers when adding recipients to emails, or add addresses to the addressbook from emails. The calendar can be used to schedule and accept meetings via email with people in your addressbook, and so on...

As with Galeon, it's integration with the rest of the GNOME desktop is what makes it so usable. It can be set up as your default mail client for other GNOME applications, and will use your GNOME settings for other appropriate URL based functions, such as web links. If someone emails you a URL, clicking on it in Evolution will open it in your default GNOME browser, in my case that means a new tab within Galeon.

Evolution is very deliberatly designed to look like Outlook, in order to make it more friendly for people migrating from Windows desktops. Ximian have really done their homework. For most people Outlook is one application that they claim they could never do without, Evolution is a big step towards proving that that is not really true, you can work just as well with a Linux desktop.


Another application people claim they could not do without is Word. AbiWord is the nearest thing there is to an official GNOME Word Processor, and takes much of it's styling from it's much heavier cousin from Redmond. Like Galeon and Evolution, AbiWord is licensed under the GPL and is available from free download. It is currently at version, and it's developers are working towards a 1.0 release.

Unfortunately, AbiWord is the weak link amongst these three applications, due to gaps in it's functionality. Currently, AbiWord is fantastic for basic word processing, but for anything more complex, most users would find it lacking. The biggest gap is it's lack of support for tables, which is planned for version 1.2 (which will be the next stable release after 1.0) and not before. The reason it is not planned for inclusion in 1.0 is that it will apparently require a wholesale rewrite of the display engine and file format specification that AbiWord uses.

That negative point aside, it is a fantastic program. It covers probably about 90% of my word processing requirements, and once the table support is in place (and the Word filters improved to match) it will be likely to take the remaining 10%. It starts incredibly quickly, from first click to having the window ready to type in takes under 20 seconds on my very busy machine. It's definately a program to watch for the future as it matures, but in the meantime, it's a good idea to keep a copy of StarOffice or OpenOffice handy for those pesky Word documents with tables.

Other applications

While those applications cover the three main desktop uses, there are a couple of other GNOME applications that deserve an honourary mention. First is Gnumeric, an Excel-like spreadsheet. It provides all the functionality most users will need, and can read files produced in commercial spreadsheet software. Secondly, is GnomeICU, an ICQ client for GNOME. Instant Messaging is huge these days, and GNOME has clients for all the major players, but ICQ seems to still be the big one. GnomeICU is fully featured, and includes a handy panel applet to conserve desktop space. Those wanting to use open standards will want to check out Gabber, which is the GNOME Jabber client.


So, is GNOME ready for mainstream desktop use? In my view the answer is not yet, but very nearly. The biggest sticking point is AbiWord's table support. The average user doesn't want to have to switch word processor according that the documents they get sent. I could have looked at OpenOffice instead for word processing, but there is something to be said for a consitent look across applications, which is why I wanted to stick to purely GNOME/GTK programs. Once AbiWord reaches 1.2, the answer may well be different, but for the time being, although it pains me to say it, we're not quite ready yet.


© 2001 James Ogley