The GNOME 2 Desktop Environment

A look at the improvements and functionality of the GNOME 2 desktop.

The GNOME Foundation (gnome.org) released GNOME version 2.0 last summer and version 2.2 in January 2003. These releases mark a move toward a standardized desktop and a commitment to scheduled releases. GNOME has become an excellent choice for first-time and nontechnical users. “With the exception of some specialized applications, one can be fully productive in business with the GNOME desktop. That's something that has only occurred with free software in the last 12 to 18 months”, says Tim Ney, GNOME Foundation executive director. With the improvements made in GNOME 2, Linux's chances of increasing its market share rose significantly.

Changes to GNOME

The transition for GNOME 1.x users to GNOME 2 will involve a few minor annoyances that can be expected when upgrading a desktop. Going from one learning curve to another is common in Linux; however, in upgrading my personal computer to GNOME 2, I was surprised to realize GNOME 1.4 had given me a certain level of comfort I did not want disturbed.

The people at the GNOME Foundation told me they were looking to streamline the desktop and cut down on the multitude of choices—to make workstations simpler and reduce the learning curves for new users. As a result, many minor applications, especially redundant ones, have either been eliminated or moved to a submenu labeled Extras. GNOME 2 also provides a more consistent look and feel from one program to another, thanks to an improvement in themes and fonts. “We're trying to strike more of a balance—setting standards while at the same time keeping the flexibility of Linux”, says Havoc Pennington, GNOME developer and Foundation board member.

Despite how content some of us may be with Linux in the rough, nontechnical users don't always appreciate the struggle. To compete for larger markets, GNOME has simplified the desktop. Pennington says, “It's not about removing choices but giving you a default choice to get you started quickly and easily.” So, instead of offering the user five different browsers and three different word processors, there's one of each. If you don't like the ones picked out for you—which were designed with the new GNOME 2 libraries—you can always find the RPM on the Web and load it.

Figure 1. GNOME Desktop

Thanks to a usability study conducted by Seth Nickell of the GNOME Project, the program menus have been nicely reorganized. GNOME no longer buries utilities under several layers of submenus or within other programs. It also does not require the user to make command-line changes or to edit configuration scripts directly. Instead, GNOME 2 provides graphical interfaces for just about all system settings in easy-to-find places under main menus.

GNOME comes with many applications and utilities. Because I cannot cover all of them, I review a few key components from each section to help those new to GNOME get started. Some components are new to GNOME 2, and others have been included in GNOME for some time.

Panels

As is common with some desktop environments, GNOME provides users with panels for launching and managing programs, as well as for monitoring their systems. Panels can be placed at the top, bottom, left and right margins of the desktop. More than one panel per margin can be set up, and panels can be floating so that they can be placed anywhere on the desktop. They can be configured to remain open, to hide automatically, or they can resize themselves as needed depending on the number of running applications. A panel also can be set up with a button for extending and retracting the panel.

Initially, one panel is set up along the top margin with a menu for launching programs. Another panel is placed along the bottom margin with icons for launching each major component of OpenOffice, which is now the default office suite for GNOME 2. It also has links to the web browser, Mozilla, and the default e-mail client, Ximian's Evolution. All things considered, these are good choices for the average Linux user and especially for nontechnical users. If you don't like these choices, however, you easily can remove or add program launchers to the panels. Simply right-click on an icon and choose Remove from the panel to remove it. To add an item, right-click on an open section of the panel, select the Add to panel menu, and pick the application you want to add from one of the submenus.

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