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23 July 2008, 15:32

Gnome conference - breaking new ground, starting from Istanbul

Keywan Najafi Tonekaboni

The ninth European GAUDEC conference in Istanbul not only set the direction for Gnome 3.0, the next major release of the Unix and Linux desktop, there was also plenty of action on the Gnome Mobile front.

The ninth Gnome GUADEC conference took place from 7th to 12th July at Bahçesehir University in Istanbul. The twice yearly GUADEC (Gnome Users' And Developers' European Conference) is the largest meeting of the European Gnome community. The 400 developers and other interested parties didn't allow themselves to be distracted by the noisy, chaotic and enchanting metropolis on the Bosphorus and tackled a wide-ranging schedule of talks.

Gnome 3.0, the next major release of the Unix and Linux desktop, was one of the conference's main topics. There have been intense discussions whether Gnome is stagnating in recent weeks – the twice yearly updates to the current 2.x series deliver steady, but rarely spectacular, new features and improvements.

Gnome 3.0

It was nice timing that the Gtk+ development team announced that version 3.0 of the GUI library on which Gnome is based will be released next year. Because a number of outdated components will be removed, Gtk+ 3.0 will break backwards compatibility – all Gtk+ applications will have to be updated. The intention is to make the switch as simple as possible for developers – there will be a test environment and explicit incompatibility warnings, and it will be possible to run both old and new libraries in parallel.

The Gnome release team used the announcement of Gtk+ 3.0 to call for the development of Gnome 3.0. One possible release date would be spring 2010. Gnome 2.30, which is planned for this date (the current version is 2.22), could instead become Gnome 3.0. Most of the developers present welcomed this suggestion. Vincent Untz, a member of the release team, considered it essential that developers are enthusiastic. According to Untz, Gnome 3.0 means that the desktop once again has a specific vision.

The Gnome Foundation, which coordinates development of the Gnome platform, will for the first time have an executive director in the form of Stormy Peters. Whilst working for Hewlett-Packard, Peters was responsible for creating the Open Source Office team and her last job was as Community Manager at OpenLogic. She intends to help coordinate and specify plans and projects such as Gnome Mobile. She was greeted with thunderous applause by the Gnome community members present at the conference.

Gnome Mobile

A glance at the talks and meetings held shows that Gnome has long been about more than just the traditional desktop. On the one hand, Gnome is being used on mobile devices such as smartphones and PDAs, on the other, developers are working on interlinking web-based social networks and the conventional desktop.

In early July, Garmin released the source code for its Nüvi 800 and 5000 series navigation systems, which use the Gnome Mobile platform. Following on from TomTom, this means that a second major GPS manufacturer is now using Linux as the operating system for its navigation systems. Garmin also uses GeoClue, also open source, to determine position using a range of information sources. In addition to GPS, GeoClue also uses data from GSM transmitters, WLAN hotspots and IP addresses to determine a user's location – the precision of which depends on the data source. No Garmin representatives were spotted at GUADEC, however.

By contrast, mobile phone manufacturer Nokia sent along its open source marketing manager Quim Gil. Despite buying Qt vendor Trolltech, the company plans to stick with Hildon, a Gnome based interface, for its Internet Tablets for the time being. Initially the Gtk+ and Qt GUI libraries will be deployed in parallel, with Qt coming to the fore in 2010. Quim Gil was, however, unable to provide further details.

Freerunner, the Linux smartphone from OpenMoko, will also use Qt in future. To the disappointment of the audience, OpenMoko developer Ole Tange's talk didn't even mention this, limiting itself to potential applications for the integrated GPS chip.

But it's not just for smaller devices that development is marching forward. Red Hat is currently working on an experimental online desktop, which will centrally store login data for services such as Flickr, Twitter and Facebook and show new content directly on the desktop. They have developed a sidebar called Bigboard, which is an addition to traditional panels and can be customised by both users and developers. In addition, settings for local programs can be saved on the online desktop server. Workstations, home PCs and laptops can all access these settings and utilise them locally.

Classic desktop

Gnome co-founder Frederico Mena-Quintero concentrated on the traditional document-centred desktop. Whilst users have no problems with emails, chat or music, they often have trouble finding their documents. Rather than a folder view, he espouses a journal, which shows documents sorted chronologically. According to Mena-Quintero, the idea is nothing new, but with a sensible GUI and in tandem with functions such as tags, it could offer significant improvements for users. This was followed by a lively discussion on options for implementation – the first volunteers have already stepped forward.

This kind of approach would also surely be welcomed by Leisa Reichelt. In her keynote speech, she espoused the idea that development should be based around user experience (user experience design). In her opinion, the user's everyday world should be empirically studied at an early stage, so that the software developed is genuinely useful. In a further keynote speech, Mark Webb called for a modular approach with the memorable suggestion to leave the "cable hanging out of the technology." Hardware and software should be customisable for both developers and users.

Travis Reitter of Collabora presented Soylent, a "browser for people". Soylent integrates various contact options into a single GUI. The user selects the required contact and then decides whether they wish to contact them by email, IM or VoIP. Soylent brings together details such as different IM networks, social networking accounts and email addresses for each person. The Peoples framework takes a similar approach. It provides developers with an interface for displaying contact details, from mobile phone directory to Facebook friends, in their applications in an integrated fashion. The two projects intend to look into working together in future.

Chris Blizzard from the Mozilla Foundation tried to impress spectators with the progress being made with Firefox and future Firefox-related developments. He opined that it's not about market share, but about influence and about putting pressure on Apple and Microsoft – in short about being more innovative. Mozilla has been a member of the Gnome Foundation advisory board since the spring.

On the other hand, the Webkit browser engine, an offshoot of the KHTML KDE engine which has been adapted by Apple for Safari, is finding its way into an increasing number of Gnome projects, such as the browser Epiphany, the email suit Evolution and help viewer Yelp. So it was no surprise that the following day Webkit developer Alp Toker presented the advantages of his browser engine. Toker, who works on Webkit-Gtk, emphasises Webkit's better conformity with standards and better performance compared to Mozilla's Gecko. In response to a sceptic's question of whether Apple can be trusted, Alp reassured the audience that they have copies of the source code and are ready to go their own way at any time. Currently, however, he attested that the collaboration with Apple was excellent.

The next GUADEC will take place together with its KDE equivalent aKademy in July 2009 in Gran Canaria.


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