GUADEC 2007 - Free Desktop

I got to attend the GNOME conference, GUADEC, this summer as part of my UK travels and conferencing following State of the Map. I'm a long-time linux user and advocate, since second-year of college in 1998. However, after about 3 years of running it as my desktop, I moved to Mac OS X since it gave me the power and configurability I wanted, but without the constant administrative overhead and 'recompiling my kernel' to play some new video or check email. Since then I have used Linux servers, but not for my actual desktop.

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However, the Free Desktop has come a long way to improving the user experience and configuration. GNOME and KDE have been developed to be more stable and the Ubuntu distribution has really done a lot to make a simple to install and use Linux desktop, especially on Laptop devices - known for their difficulty to setup with specific hardware pieces.

The GUADEC conference brings together the 'superstars' and names of GNOME and Linux in general. Doc Searls, Robert Love, Jono Bacon, Havoc Pennington, and the entire GNOME Foundation gave keynotes or talks. Other talks are focused around the various toolkits and applications that have released new versions or are just new and want to introduce themselves to the community.

Being the Free Desktop, applications are definitely offline focused, with some online connectivity. Many apps are media-centric, photos, videos, music, chatting. Personally, my desktop has moved primarily to a window or cache for my online tools and I now do mostly web-development.

Design


There were many discussions around design and usability - and generally the lack of both in open-source development. There is definitely a disconnect between the programming and design communities. And it is difficult for one to engage the other - as they tend to speak different 'languages' (figuratively).

So in playing around with some of the newer or updated open-source tools, such as OpenOffice Impress, you definitely notice that for lack of a designer, programmers just copied existing applications (such as Microsoft's PowerPoint). Jono Bacon, in his keynote, verbalized my thoughts exactly. "rethink your applications instead of just copying them" These developers have the possibility to reinvent and discover new interfaces for users - and also make their development easier (powerpoint has a lot of odd functionality)

Now, to be fair, open-source developers are also faced with trying to convince users to switch to their application, and offering a foreign interface could discourage usage. However, by not offering anything innovative they give reduced impetus for someone to try your application and actually find it more useful than the alternative. Within a large corporation applications are essentially 'free-of-cost' anyways, so the 'free' is less compelling than if it makes you more productive and is fun to use (see why Apple's Keynote is so popular).

Online/Offline


The GNOME organization is apparently worried about possible stagnation of the project and lack of focus forward. So it was intriguing when Havoc Pennington and Bryan Clark gave their keynote that offered a possible re-invigoration and focus for the project.

Their vision is to enable better integration between the GNOME desktop and online applications. They demoed "Big Board", which is a sidebar that users login to and it connects to their online persona to pull in their friends, calendar, mail, etc. He also advocated tying into and using web applications like GoogleDocs, Flickr, etc.

In addition, since your persona is stored on a remote server, it's easy to then log into your account and pull down your information locally to any computer you use - whether it's a public computer, another machine in your organization, a friend's computer, your mobile, or even just a new installation of your computer. When editing your documents, they are stored and backed-up on the server.

However, I think he didn't make his case very well. Their concept is excellent, however in that crowd he made too much focused of integrating with Google (which he mentioned more than 10 times, including using the GData protocol exclusively), or Flickr, and saying "privacy doesn't really matter".

He could have made a better argument, and this was picked up and mentioned by Jeff of Planet, that the concept would be better received if he encouraged development of a GNOME server that offered these services, and perhaps using something like the Atom Publishing Protocol (APP).

Imagine taking .Mac syncing, Google Office, MugShot (social networking integration), and offering it as a single, integrated system. Opening your word processor you see in your "recent documents" both online and offline docs. Editing these or creating them would keep a local copy for when you're offline - but also store online for backup, access via the web/other computers, and collaboration.

Using this system, you never have to worry about 'leaving' a file on another computer - or making backups and having to move them offsite (if you keep your backup disks in the same building as your primary computer you're not doing a good job) - or having to 'send' a file to someone and worry about synchronization.

The concept is great - not just for GNOME, but for desktops in general. It's not a new idea either, but one that is possible now that bandwidth is high, online applications rival desktop applications, and open protocols exist that everyone can commonly use for intercommunication.

Linux Mobile


One of the biggest themes around the conference was Linux Mobile. Hildon, Hiker, OpenMoko, Maemo, G(PE)2 /GreenPhone, OLPC all gave talks, demos, and many T-Shirts. The N800 is a great demo platform for showing what a mobile Linux device is capable of.

And obviously, our talk on GeoClue and its ability to easy enable location-based applications by giving a D-Bus service to location-provider agnostic location, is squarely targeted at this emerging market and use-case.

Big C


Some things that were surprising. The first was how corporate Linux has become. I imagine 1/3 or more attendees worked for Nokia, Novell, Red Hat, IBM, Sun, or some other large company that uses open-source and employs developers that are open-source centric. However, what this means is that the overall feel of the conference and development changes to a somewhat more cautious and large organization assumption.

There is then a disconnect between these developers and the 'hackers' that work at home, in their spare time, or freelance. The corporate discussion is around how to develop better UI spec documents for working between designers and programmers - whereas most developers can't even find a designer to help them out, let alone make better documentation.

Overall the conference was very enlightening. Some really good ideas came out and I hope the GNOME community embraces them and uses them as a focus point moving forward. This is quite a long post, so I'll end it here. But I'll continue on with some of the themes in more depth in the future.

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About the Author

Andrew Turner is an advocate of open standards and open data. He is actively involved in many organizations developing and supporting open standards, including OpenStreetMap, Open Geospatial Consortium, Open Web Foundation, OSGeo, and the World Wide Web Consortium. He co-founded CrisisCommons, a community of volunteers that, in coordination with government agencies and disaster response groups, build technology tools to help people in need during and after a crisis such as an earthquake, tsunami, tornado, hurricane, flood, or wildfire.