a few weeks ago of the preliminary plans for GNOME 3.0 catapulted the GNOME Shell and GNOME Zeitgeist into the
spotlight. Previously little-known, these programs are now identified as
the basis of a new user experience in GNOME 3.0. Meanwhile, both are in
their early stages, and few have tried them, with the result that they are
surrounded by question marks.
What exactly are these programs? What vision do they share in common?
Most importantly of all, are they capable of bearing the expectations
placed upon them? Any answers to these questions must be tentative, because
both projects are in rapid development, and certain to change dramatically
by the time GNOME 3.0 is released. All the same, those in search of
preliminary answers can find them with a bit of quick compiling.
The GNOME Shell
The GNOME Shell is now intended as the replacement for the current
panel, window manager, and desktop. The project site gives detailed instructions
for building the latest version of the application. These are relatively
straightforward, although you might need to add ~/bin to your path
to complete the compile. You should also know that the instructions
apparently assume that you are using Metacity, the current version of
GNOME's default window manager, since they do not work with any other.
After compiling, you can install Xephyr, a nested X server, to run the
GNOME Shell in a window on your current desktop. Alternatively, you can
temporarily replace Metacity with the GNOME Shell, following the
instructions provided by the project. In my experience, using Xephyr is
more likely to be successful.
However you start GNOME Shell, its differences from the GNOME 2 series
of releases is immediately obvious. Not only the layout but the logic with
which you use it is radically different from any GNOME desktop you have
Across the top is a simplified panel, with the time and user on the
right and a button marked "Activities" on the left. It contains no applets,
menu, or system notification, and the taskbar is on a separate panel on the
The Activities button is the key to the GNOME Shell. As in KDE 4, in
the GNOME Shell, "activities" refers to virtual workspaces, and that term
was selected to indicate how to use them. In fact, when you start the
GNOME Shell, you are looking at a full-screen workspace with the
applications xeyes, xlogo, and xterm on it. Click the Activities button,
and the workspace shrinks to reveal the complete desktop.
That desktop is as simple as the panel. On the left is a list of
recently used applications that can be expanded by clicking the link marked
"More". Recent documents have a similar arrangement below. Each expands into
a complete list in a second column of menu items if necessary, with
To the right are large thumbnails of available workspaces. These
thumbnails change size as their number increases or decreases, or a menu
expands into a second column. When you select an application or document,
it opens full-screen. Click the Activities button, and it repositions
itself as a thumbnail on the current activity, sized and arranged so as not
to overlap with anything else on the activity. If you want to use a
thumbnailed application, you either click on it or on its taskbar listing to
run it full-sized. In effect, workspaces are launchpads for applications,
rather than places that you actually work upon.
As a desktop, the GNOME Shell is extremely economical with space, and
well-suited for giving the currently active application a maximum amount of
space. However, if monitor space is not your concern, then the GNOME Shell
can quickly become irritating. You are continually clicking to expose one
item and hide another. Nor is the user experience helped by the fact that
you currently have to make frequently wide sweeps with the mouse up to the
Activities button, although no doubt keybindings will eventually remove
Nor is there any easy way to work with two items side by side (although
you can do so from the taskbar), nor to track the activity that an
application is performing without making it active, nor to jump to a
particular activity in a single click. These limitations may be reduced or
eliminated later, but, for now, they give the GNOME Shell the appearance of
an interface intended for mobile devices, where such features are less
The GNOME Shell may put the desktop into a strong position for the
future by providing a common interface for all the platforms it might be
installed upon. Given the rapid growth of mobile devices, having them as
the main basis for interface design may be an inevitable
evolution. However, it risks short-changing workstation users, whose
computing can be more demanding than that of mobile users.
GNOME Zeitgeist is reminiscent of Nemo, in that both replace standard
file managers based on the directory tree and the desktop with ones based
upon a calendar and other criteria. Both seem to assume that users do not
want to know where their files are, or to hunt for them visually — they
just want their files when they need them. What you think of GNOME
Zeitgeist will probably depend on how much you agree with that assumption.
Unlike the case with the GNOME shell, the Zeitgeist project offers
little assistance to downloaders. Fortunately, all you need to do is install
Bazaar Version Control, and run the command bzr branch
lp:gnome-zeitgeist while having an Internet connection to download.
Once downloaded, there is no need to compile. Instead, just go
to the download directory and enter sh ./zeitgeist-daemon.sh to
start the service (probably in a separate window
or in the background),
followed by sh ./zeitgeist-journal.sh to run
the main graphical interface.
GNOME Zeitgeist opens on a three day calendar, showing yesterday,
today, and tomorrow, and a list of files accessed on each day. This is the
view offered when you click the "Recent" icon in the toolbar. You can also
click the "Older" or "Newer" icons to change the dates in the three-pane
display, or the "Calendar" to change to the view to one appropriate for a
Other ways of viewing files include Bookmarks, Tags, and Filters for
file types, all of which are available in at least one existing file
manager, although not with the same ease of use as in GNOME Zeitgeist.
If you return to the download directory, you will also find two
additional pieces of GNOME Zeitgeist that have yet to be integrated into
the main interface: zeitgeist-timeline.sh, which looks as though it
presents a longer, alternative view of files created each day, and
zeitgeist-project.sh, which presumably groups related files together. Other
criteria for finding files, such as by location, are due to be added later.
As a collection of features in a traditional file manager, Zeitgeist
would be a welcome enhancement. However, having Zeitgeist as a default file
manager raises numerous questions. Is its assumption of the average users'
preferences correct? Or will it create another barrier between desktop
users and the command line by promoting a different concept of how files
are accessed? Would users be better off if they were encouraged to organize
their files, instead of just dumping them in their home directories?
From one perspective, GNOME Zeitgeist might be seen as the equivalent
of a word processor that favors manual formatting over the creation of
styles — as an application that encourages sloppy computer habits. Others,
however, might argue that such programs are simply being realistic about
users' work habits.
Pain or paradise?
Neither the GNOME Shell nor GNOME Zeitgeist should be judged on speed
or looks yet. Both projects are still at the stage of adding
functionality. However, enough functionality exists in both that a few
preliminary comments are possible.
First, even together, the GNOME Shell and GNOME Zeitgeist seem slight
to build an entire new desktop around. Although each is an interesting
innovation, are the two enough to "revamp" the user experience, as the
announcement of GNOME 3.0 promises? So far, it is uncertain that they are.
Moreover, each is primarily a change at the interface level. To what extent
either will require other GNOME applications to be rewritten, and to what
extent GNOME's back end libraries will need to be overhauled is still being
determined. So far, the news about GNOME 3.0 plans suggests that the
rewriting of the backend may be fairly minimal.
Just as importantly, whether the two will create a common experience is
still up in the air. So far, the two application seem to be proceeding
along different lines of thought about usability. In particular, while the
GNOME Shell is all about economical use of desktop space, GNOME Zeitgeist
works best in a large window.
And while the GNOME Shell radically changes how users interact with the
desktop, GNOME Zeitgeist's interface is much more like the applications to
which they are accustomed.
At some point, there will probably have to be an agreement on
standard designs if the two are going to integrate well.
Finally, while few would claim that the user experience on any computer
desktop is perfected, will users accept such radical rethinking? Both
projects are attempting to make the user experience easier, but both depart
strongly from everything that users have become accustomed to over the last
two decades. Considering that KDE 4.0 was roughly received, despite the
fact that it was an evolution of the existing desktop, not a complete
departure, GNOME 3.0 may run the risk of provoking its own user revolt.
Of course, these are early days, and the validity or absurdity of such
concerns will become clearer as both projects progress. How GNOME 3.0 is
marketed and documented will also affect its reception. But, so far, the
GNOME Shell and GNOME Zeitgeist arouse as much apprehension for GNOME 3.0
as hope. We'll have to wait to see which was more justified.
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