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Improving The Linux Desktop? Why, It’s Elementary

The Linux desktop has come a long way, but are there still improvements to be made? At least one group of dedicated hackers thinks so, and is working with Ubuntu to improve it.

Linux has come a long way in the last five to ten years, now being a lot easier to use and certainly much more friendly. It’s also starting to gain acceptance in the main stream and things are looking pretty good.

Current favorite Ubuntu has played a large role in the rise in popularity of Linux, thanks to its efforts making traditionally harder tasks easier. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea however, and as we discovered recently Ubuntu is no democracy. Decisions are not up for discussion. Which is fine because after all, it’s Linux right? If you don’t like it, change it.

Right. And that’s exactly what a small group of Linux loving hackers are doing. Meet, elementary.

Purpose driven

The motivation for elementary started long before project leader Daniel Foré had ever even heard of Linux. Back in those early days he was a Windows user (like many of us), who got caught up in the idea of making Windows look like OS X.

Later on (I’m proud to say) he discovered Kororaa Linux and was amazed at the power and flexibility of the Linux desktop. This sparked an underlying passion for great computing and a desire to create the most amazing desktop possible. Through these experiences he began his first project, making a Crystal style icon set for GNOME, and shortly thereafter The elementary Project was born.

There are now many parts to elementary and the project is currently working on several ideas at once. Still prevalent is the ever popular elementary icon set and GTK theme (called eGTK for short), but searching wider than that we find efforts to improve Midori (the lightweight GTK Webkit based web browser) and even Nautilus, GNOME’s built-in file manager. There’s even an elementary Theme Addon for Firefox. The goal for elementary is to improve many individual aspects of the Linux desktop and feed them upstream, while at the same time pulling it all together into a new and exciting desktop experience. Many of their modifications to Nautilus for example came from rejected Bugzilla patches and those that weren’t, have been sent upstream. If their work to-date is anything to go by, this is definitely one project to keep an eye on.

It’s not like elementary is new to all this. The Humanity icons that Ubuntu uses are in fact a derived work of Foré’s elementary icons and the project actually has close ties with the popular distro. There is an elementary group on Launchpad (Ubuntu’s development framework) which currently has 19 active members. That’s right, elementary has actually been behind the scenes, helping to improve the Linux desktop for a while already. Now, they are branching out and getting a little more ambitious.

So why not just improve Ubuntu? Well that’s definitely on the table, but Ubuntu is not a democracy, remember? Users have no say in the distribution’s direction and although Foré is a developer looking after the icons, he has no authority to venture into other areas. That’s not to say that the improvements aren’t being looked at, but the best elementary can do is make the improvements and submit them – whether or not they will be adopted is up to the developers. While Ubuntu must be a little more rigid, the elementary team could do whatever they liked with their own operating system. They could take chances, break the rules and be bleeding edge. It would give them a chance to be free and to get their ideas out there and wouldn’t you know it, elementary OS is on the way.

Even so, elementary hopes to work even more closely with Ubuntu in the future, as Foré told Linux Magazine:

“Ubuntu is currently using the Humanity icon set, which is a branch of elementary icons. There is a large push, and we would love it, for Ubuntu to ship our Nautilus. And in fact, I’ve been talking to John Lea to make sure it meets their criteria for something they would want to ship. So especially with Ubuntu, we are not in competition. We would like the collaboration to run very deep with Ubuntu.”

You see, for Foré and the elementary team it’s all about bringing the best that free software has to offer, improving it, and making it available to all. However as previously mentioned, not all of elementary’s ideas will be merged upstream nor even added to specific distributions. So when it comes to elementary OS, it’s not as much about being “better” than other distributions, but rather getting something new and exciting out into the world for users to enjoy. Hopefully, this will then help facilitate the adoption of these features down the track. Foré had the following to say:

“I really don’t think it’s about trying to outshine other operating systems, especially our neighbors like Ubuntu and Fedora. I have a vision of a world where operating systems are like cars. Some people need a big diesel truck that can haul a lot of heavy things. Some people need a van to bus their kids around. Some people need a hybrid because they commute. And some people ride bikes.

To use another analogy, Ubuntu is the big fast food chain that uses Heinz Ketchup and Kraft Mayonnaise. They do this so that their customers see those brands and feel more at home with Ubuntu. We are the little burger shop that uses buns from the bakery down the street, produce from the local farmer’s market. We have different ideas of what being the best burger is all about, but if Ubuntu wants to start using the same buns as we do then that’s great!

So, to rephrase the question and say how will elementary be different? Well we’re going to be the rebel hippy distro that isn’t afraid to use no-name software as long as it’s in line with our philosophy. And I think that’s a big strength.”

That’s exactly the way many great free software projects start, and become successful – scratching an itch (or two). The elementary Project has certainly found some itches after using Linux on the desktop and is setting out to scratch them. This is a wonderful thing and is exactly what free software is all about. Hopefully with time these improvements will become mainstream for all of us to enjoy!

Piecing it together

All of elementary’s current offerings, combined with several external projects, come together to create one neat looking desktop. These include their icon set, eGTK theme and Nautilus improvements, as well as an interesting project called Gloobus Preview (a GNOME plugin based on Apple’s Quick Look) and Docky.

Thanks to Ubuntu’s Personal Package Archive, installing components (or the entire elementary desktop) is a snap with the end result looking something like this.

elementary Desktop on Ubuntu 10.04
elementary Desktop on Ubuntu 10.04

While this might be what’s currently available, the improvements aren’t going to stop there. Foré told us that going into the future they intend to continue working closely with the Midori developers and extend their ideas for Nautilus even further:

“We’re going to take our work with Nautilus even farther and really start to deviate away from vanilla. We’re going to continue with usability improvements, working with the Zeitgeist team to get some really cool features in, and we’re going to put some emphasis on speed. I hope our bond with the Midori web browser will only continue to grow and that we can help shape that web experience as well. We’re working really hard on building a solid OS experience and we’re hoping to make an alpha release very soon. There’s a couple of little experimental and just starting projects that I’m very excited about but I can’t talk much about, so just keep an eye out.”

To achieve everything that it desires, The elementary Project needs your help. If their philosophy and goals matche your own desires and you’re keen to work on bleeding edge ideas, why not take a closer look and maybe even get involved? Anyone can contribute and it’s a great way to give back and help to improve the very desktop you use!

Looking ahead

Do we really need yet another distribution? Surely everything anyone could ever want to do is already available, right?

Well, people thought exactly the same thing before Ubuntu came along. Obviously, there isn’t a Linux distribution out there that does everything that everyone wants, because people like those involved in elementary are busy creating new things and bringing fresh ideas into reality! Besides, elementary OS is to be a showcase of what’s possible, with all their improvements available for anyone else to use.

Long term, can elementary make a difference? Certainly, they already have. Free software is all about collaboration, sharing ideas and improving existing software. The elementary Project is embracing that very philosophy and is sure to continue doing great things. Could they re-define what it means to use a Linux Desktop? Could elementary be to Linux, what OS X is to BSD? That is to say, a highly optimised, finely tuned desktop experience for the average user? We’ll have to wait and see, but they’re certainly on their way.

What might the Linux look like in the next five to ten years? Maybe something elementary.

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