What started out as a theme and set of icons for Ubuntu has snowballed into a full-fledged Linux distribution called Elementary OS. The project, kicked off by Daniel Fore, has pushed out the beta of its first release, code-named Jupiter. Based on Ubuntu 10.10, Jupiter is not perfect, but it does show promise and hints at better things to come.
Elementary is taking its release names from ancient mythologies, hence "Jupiter," for the first release. Jupiter, as many geeks will already remember, was the Roman analog to Zeus — the ruler of the gods. An ambitious codename for the first release of a new OS, no doubt.
Ubuntu-based distributions are not exactly rare. What makes Elementary different is the project's effort to create its own application stack in addition to the distribution. Whereas Canonical has largely been content to package applications developed by third parties, the Elementary team is creating its own mail client (Postler), contact manager (Dexter), and dictionary application and thesaurus (Lingo) in the first release — and is working additional applications and a desktop environment for future releases.
However, Elementary OS is not terribly far removed from Ubuntu 10.10. It's using the same installer and draws on Ubuntu's package repos for the most part — though it also uses a few Elementary project Personal Package Archives (PPAs). The Elementary folks are using Launchpad for their development and coordination.
Once Elementary OS is installed, there's a distinct resemblance to Mac OS X. Elementary uses Docky for the desktop dock and application launcher, though it also has the standard top GNOME Panel with the Applications, Places, and System menus. Unlike Unity for Ubuntu 11.04, there's no effort (currently) to emulate Mac OS X's menu placement — where the File, Edit, and assorted other menus are located in the top panel rather than the application windows themselves.
Though Elementary is using GNOME 2.32, it's a bit different than you'd find on Ubuntu 10.10 or Linux Mint. For example, the actual desktop — where one would usually find folders and the trash icon, etc., is totally bare. There is a Desktop directory, but nothing placed there will display on the desktop itself. You can't right-click on the desktop to change wallpaper or anything like that, either.
The GNOME Panel is locked down, so that right-clicking on the panel only provides the Help and About Panels options. You can't move the menus or system tray, or add any apps to the panel. Docky, likewise, is locked down so that the Docky icon does not display and its configuration options are not readily visible. The FAQ does provide a link to a customization guide (PDF) with instructions to use gconf-editor to unlock the panel and so on. You can also use gconf-editor to set Nautilus to allow managing the desktop.
Nautilus has been reworked or re-themed for Elementary OS. It's not radically different, but it does look like the Elementary gang is trying hard to replicate the Mac OS X look and feel. The menu for Nautilus is hidden by default, so all that's available is are the navigation icons, the search icon, and the path indicator which shows the present working directory with buttons for each parent directory.
The default application set is much different than you'll find with Ubuntu 10.10. In addition to the aforementioned custom applications, Elementary includes AbiWord and Gnumeric rather than shipping the OpenOffice.org or LibreOffice office suites. Currently there's no presentation application offered by default.
Elementary uses the Midori Web browser, which is based on WebKit and GTK+. Like Ubuntu, Elementary ships with Shotwell for photo management, and Empathy for instant messaging.
That leaves a few things missing, such as a music player and IRC client. Cassidy James, of the Elementary OS team, says that the effort is to aim for the "typical" computer user, which explains the absence of the IRC client. What about the music player? James says that the project is developing its own music player and didn't want to ship an existing player for the Jupiter release and a different player for the next one.
Elementary OS is a good first effort for the project. After using Jupiter for a few days, with the default applications, I ran into a few frustrations and areas where the default applications don't seem quite ready for prime time — but it's not bad.
Postler, for example, is a nice and simple mail client. It is probably very well suited for users who have a low volume of email — though it has some rough edges and it's certainly not going to make power users very happy. It's very limited in its feature set. It offers no filtering features, for example, and doesn't handle poorly formed reply-to addresses at all well. It does, however, have a full complement of keyboard shortcuts for standard actions (reply, forward, and so on).
I didn't make much use of Dexter while using Elementary OS — but I did note that it's currently not well-integrated with Postler. Again, it bears a striking resemblance to an Address Book application from a certain company in Cupertino.
It is important to remember, though, that this is a beta release. I expect a few of the rough edges that I encountered will be smoothed over before it's an official and final release. Also, what may stand out to one user (me) as annoyances or non-standard are not necessarily going to be deal-breakers or even noticeable to the stated target audience of the "average" user. A free OS that looks and feels much like the Mac might appeal quite a bit to a segment of the desktop market that isn't quite looking to invest in Mac hardware but would like to move away from Windows, for example.
And Jupiter is merely a stepping stone to what James suggested would be more ambitious releases in the future.
Why go to all this effort? James says that the team is trying to provide "the best, simplest, and most polished open computing experience possible. We've obviously made some decisions to simplify and streamline the interface through our apps and entire computing experience..." Indeed, the attempts to simplify even the GNOME interface are apparent. In a short interview after the introduction of Postler the lead designer (Dan Rabbit) said that he was consciously trying to avoid "needless clutter and useless features that plague most of the current crop of desktop-based e-mail clients to give users "what they really want: an e-mail client that does e-mail."
While it's quite likely that the average LWN reader would disagree that many of these features are "needless," most LWN readers don't qualify as "typical" users either.
The Elementary OS site is still under heavy development, and there's not a lot online to indicate where the project is going or when the next release will be coming down the pike.
James says that the Jupiter+1 release (J+1) will be based on Ubuntu 11.04, but after that it may not track Ubuntu releases. "It's important to note that elementary does not, however, intend to always be an 'Ubuntu spin.'" He says that a number of applications and a full desktop environment are in the works for future releases.
Most of the work is being done on Launchpad, and there's little to see on the project pages, but this includes elements of the new desktop environment called Pantheon, a new control center called Switchboard, and a music player called Beatbox. Some of the apps in progress are little more than mockups or plans at this point, however — so one might be justified in being a little skeptical until these things show up in a release.
If you like what you see and want to get involved, James suggests checking into the #elementary IRC channel on Freenode, which does seem to be fairly active. At this time, there's little on the Elementary Web site for developers or contributors looking to become involved and no mailing lists to join.
The project is also taking donations and users can order CDs to support the project as well. Where's the money going? James says that "money primarily pays for the creation and distribution of CDs, along with the recurring costs of our web servers. Any additional money goes into a private fund set aside for elementary. Our council votes on all major issues, including both monetary and non-monetary decisions." Who's the council? Elementary founder Fore, and "some lead developers and team members." James says that the site could do with more information on the project's governance, and is passing that on to the Web team to "see what we can do."
Though information is sparse, the Elementary OS looks so far like it has some momentum behind it. The first effort is not perfect, but it's not bad either. What's on the drawing board looks like it could be very interesting, so it might be worth keeping an eye on Elementary OS over the next few months. The lack of information about roadmaps, getting involved, and governance are worrisome, but if the project can solve those issues quickly it might do well in attracting contributors and new users.
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