Recent GNOME panel apps
The basic set of GNOME panel apps ranges from the practical, such as clocks and system monitors, to the mildly amusing, but apparently too traditional to dispense with, such as Fish. However, in the last few years, an increasing number of GNOME applications are being designed to fit into the panel. Since many of these recent apps are interesting but too minor to rate a full-length review, here's a roundup of some that have caught my attention. Although all of them are in early release, each hints at new functionality and levels of customization that might soon be available on the desktop.
Alltray lets you dock applications into the notification area of the panel (AKA the system tray). When you open AllTray, you can capture an open application and dock it. Later, if you click the application's close button, it's minimized back to the notification area. Unfortunately, the contents of the notification area isn't preserved between logins in the current version. I suppose, too, that as the name implies, the notification area isn't, strictly speaking, intended for this use. Still, if you compulsively work with a dozen or so windows open and prefer not to use different work spaces, AllTray is a more convenient alternative than the panel's Window List. In addition to GNOME, AllTray also works with KDE, recent versions of XFCE, and window managers such as Fluxbox and WindowMaker.
Gimmie is essentially a way to make recently-used lists more accessible. In its basic form, it takes the form of a bar with separate lists for applications, documents, chat sessions ("people") and workplaces and basic system information and settings ("computer"). In the most recent version, each of these lists can be minimized on the panel. You can drag and drop open windows to a list, and the window for each list includes a simplified menu of items that you might want to use with the list.
In its current version, Gimmie strikes me as an interesting but idiosyncratic idea. I am not sure that arranging applications in windows rather than menus is any particular improvement. And wouldn't a panel tray would work just as well for a simplified menu, or maybe a set of icons on the desktop? Moreover, while I hesitate to judge an app on its eye-candy, Gimmie's pastels clash badly with default GNOME settings, to say nothing of my own color preferences.
Still, I have a soft spot for any application that represents an effort to rethink the desktop (or any other aspect of computing, for that matter). That alone puts Gimmie on my list of panel apps to watch. The app is only at version 0.2.3, so there is a lot of time for additions, as the project's to-do list makes clear.
At version 0.35, Sussen is another early stage app. It checks for security problems on your system, checking your current configuration settings against operating system and distribution-specific definitions of potential problems written in the Open Vulnerability and Assessment Language. You can read the results in a web browser.
You can also run scans from the command line, and create your own definitions and tests, assuming you have the expertise.
To be completely effective, Sussen needs two things: an active community willing to write definitions and keep them up to date, and an educational component like Bastille's to explain the nature of any problems found and how to correct them. Without either, Sussen is unlikely to catch on, and that would be a pity. Any program that puts security on the desktop -- the environment in which security is frequently relaxed these days in the name of convenience (as if there were any necessary conflict) -- deserves encouragement and success.
Of all the apps mentioned here, Tomboy strikes me as the one most suitable for inclusion on the panel. An alternative to the Sticky Notes found in GNOME's default apps, and far more convenient than starting Evolution to write a note, Tomboy is rapidly shaping into the center for random ideas on the desktop. You can lightly format notes, link to related notes or emails, and either search for notes or locate them through the Tomboy Table of Contents.
Support is also in the works for linking to Evolution task and to-do lists and to appointment calendars, as well as file and image previews. By the time Tomboy reaches its full release, it may very well become an essential bridge between GNOME applications.
Looking at these applications, a couple of questions occur to me.
First, while some panel apps are written in languages like Python, a growing number use Mono. In fact, while Mono is being integrated into GNOME, at times its main purpose seems to be to serve as a scripting language for panel apps. Yet I have to wonder whether panel apps -- which by definition are small and have limited functionality -- really need a language of their own. Moreover, the use of Mono makes backwards compatibility to earlier versions of GNOME unnecessarily full of dependencies.
Second, a growing number of GNOME-specific programs seem to be conceived as panel apps these days. Often, this choice makes sense, as with a small program like AllTray or one that links programs on the desktop, such as Tomcat. Yet others, such as Sussen, raise the question of whether they belong on the panel at all. After all, how often are security checks going to be run? Or, in the case of Debian and Ubuntu's Update Manager, why should non-root users be disturbed by the frequent messages from the Update Manager? No matter how worthwhile a program might be in itself, some common-sense guidelines may need to be applied about when a program needs to be a panel app. If a program isn't a basic utility or a customization of the panel, then probably it shouldn't be there. I wonder if the main reason for panel app proliferation isn't that the choice is the fastest way to ensure integration in the default GNOME configuration.
Still, these points aside, GNOME panel apps continue to fascinate me. Although often small in scope, they hint at new work-flows and concepts of the desktop that, even when you decide not to use them, implicitly challenge the conventions of GUI computing. For this reason alone, I hope that the current burst of creativity in panel apps continues for years to come.
Note: Obviously, I've hardly touched the subject of panel apps. If you have a favorite GNOME or KDE panel app, let me know. If I get enough suggestions, I'll write a followup or two.
Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for the Linux Journal and NewsForge and Linux.com websites.