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Shell and Zeitgeist

ho: How will GNOME Shell and GNOME Zeitgeist - both scheduled for inclusion in GNOME 3.0 - change the way users work with their desktops?

VU: GNOME Shell itself is a big change from the GNOME 2 desktop. Being the shell of the desktop, it forms the basis of the user interface. This is what you use to start an activity or switch between activities, for example.

The GNOME Shell with integrated Zeitgeist.
Zoom The GNOME Shell with integrated Zeitgeist.
At the first look, a desktop using GNOME Shell will be slightly different, with a top panel containing status icons, a clock, information about the currently focused application and an Activities button. This button starts an overview mode: this is where you can choose an application to start, a place to visit, or a document to open – what we call an activity. The Activities overview is therefore a way to reach a goal: it helps you achieve what you want to achieve. The Shell remembers your past usage to make it easier for you to start again a specific activity, but it also features a search box to help you start a new activity faster.

This overview mode contains a live view of your windows and of your workspaces. It can be used to reorganize windows and workspaces, but also to start applications in a specific workspace, or to open a document in a new workspace. Workspaces are quite useful to organize windows by context, but are currently difficult to apprehend for new users. We hope that by making the addition and removal of workspaces more dynamic and more accessible, this feature will be more discoverable and intuitive to use.

Another major change is that GNOME Shell is application-based, as opposed to the current window-based system we have: the benefits of this change might not all appear with 3.0, but the basic idea is that the Shell will be able to avoid opening an application twice, but also to present the user with the content of the applications: being able to easily switch between documents opened in one specific application, for example.

Finally, there are plans to make notifications less intrusive, so that you don't get too much distracted from your current activity, but also to make it easier to react to them (by offering to reply to a chat message directly in the notification, for example).

As for the Zeitgeist, the motivation behind the project is that finding documents is too hard as of today: if the document is a file on the file system, then you have to remember its path, while it would be easier to look for it via tags, via the date you last saved it or last opened it, or via a contextual relationship with another document ("I was working on this spreadsheet at the same time as I was listening to this podcast").

Zeitgeist is still being worked on, and the hardest thing is to find a reasonable way to present the information, or a way to request documents. There's a nice working prototype, and some people are working on integrating the features in GNOME Shell.

ho: GNOME is often criticised for its apparent lack of customisation options. Will it become easier to change the desktop configuration in the future or do we still have to resort to gconftool and gconf-editor?

The GNOME Configuration Editor.
Zoom The GNOME Configuration Editor.
VU: I guess it's probably worth explaining our philosophy here: it's definitely not that we don't care about users or what they need, quite the contrary, actually. We want GNOME applications to have the best user interface, and it turns out that having too many preferences or rarely-used preferences exposed in the user interface is in direct conflict with this goal.

That's why we don't always add all the preferences, at least in the user interface. And indeed, we have some settings in gconf that let people change some more advanced settings and that are not accessible in the user interface.

Our philosophy hasn't changed on this topic. However, it doesn't mean those settings have to stay hidden forever. There's definitely a niche here for some "tweak" tool that would let the user change some of those hidden settings. It should be relatively easy to write such a tool, and I'm pretty sure people would get excited by it!

Next: Usability and accessibility

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