EasyPeasy and the Challenges of Linux Netbook Design

Tuesday Apr 27th 2010 by Bruce Byfield
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The EasyPeasy 1.6 RC Linux netbook OS comes bundled with proprietary software and assumes you want only limited functionality from your netbook.

Netbook desktops in free and open source software (FOSS) are in a state of rapid development. Should a netbook be treated as more as a mobile device than as a laptop? Should developers assume that netbooks are used for light computing such as social networking, rather than for productivity? These are just two of the questions whose answers affect the design of any netbook desktop.

However, you would have to search long and hard to find any distribution that answers such questions as openly as the EasyPeasy distribution does in its 1.6 release candidate (RC).

An Ubuntu-based distribution begun as a collection of scripts called Ubuntu Eee in December 2007, EasyPeasy makes its design philosophy clear right from its name. If you miss the pun of "EasyPeasy" / "Easy PC," its logo is a lemon slice, visually completing the slang expression "easypeasy, lemon squeezy" for something that is very easy to do.

Moreover, if you go to the project's home page, and the first words you read are, "Your netbook is not a typical laptop,so why should you use a traditional operating system? Get EasyPeasy, the new netbook OS that makes surfing the web fast, fun and easy!" And, immediately after, the home page states, "Open source netbook OS' should not be limited to open source applications."

You may disagree with these design principals, but no one can complain that EasyPeasy is exactly what it claims to be: a simple interface that differs from the standard GNOME desktop it is based upon, intended for light use, and including several pieces of proprietary software for convenience.

EasyPeasy 1.6 RC is available as a Live DVD of 878 megabytes that, to judge from its features, appears to be based on GNOME 2.30 and Ubuntu's upcoming Lucid Lynx release. Its installer is the standard seven step one that you might know from installing Ubuntu. Installation takes about ten minutes, and boot-up time is minimized by the use of Plymouth and the remove of the HAL daemon, which recent configuration features in the Linux kernel has made redundant.

EasyPeasy interface for the Linux netbook

The EasyPeasy interface for the Linux netbook

Taking another step towards simplifying the Linux desktop

Like most netbook desktop interfaces I have seen, EasyPeasy moves the menu to the desktop itself. On the left side of the desktop, the top level menu items --ranging from Favorites and Files to software categories such as Accessories, Games, and Office -- occupy about a quarter of the desktop.

When you select a top level menu item, its background briefly transforms into an arrow, neatly drawing your attention to the rest of the desktop, which serves as the second level menu. This second level menu has a scroll bar when needed, but you can also drag it up and down with the mouse's scroll wheel if you prefer. Although the sub-menu icons are already on the larger size, they become larger yet when the cursor passes over them.

Above the desktop is an unmovable panel dominated by a taskbar of icons for switching between open applications, a button to return to the menu, a clock and calendar, and indicators for connectivity, battery charge, and configuration for chat, mail, and what EasyPeasy and Ubuntu call "Broadcast" tools, meaning sites like Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter where users publish content.

The largest change from early versions is that EasyPeasy 1.6 no longer followers GNOME's lead by filling the already limited space on the netbook desktop with a Places menu. Instead, the Place menu is replaced by Files in the main menu. The result is more space on the desktop, but at the trade off of having to rely on the taskbar icons for moving between applications, since many open full-screen.

This arrangement works precisely to the extent that you are familiar with each application's icons -- or, perhaps, that your vision can distinguish the icons on the narrow panel. But perhaps the assumption is that you are unlikely to have more than a couple of applications open at the same time due to the limited RAM that netbooks have had until recently.

By contrast, GNOME's lead is still followed by placing the Administration and Preferences menus in the System menu. This arrangement not only has the disadvantage of requiring much more scrolling than any other menu, but of hiding the Preferences so well that at a quick glance, you can easily make the mistake of assuming that no customization options are available.

Next Page: Lingering questions

In fact, EasyPeasy has much the same options as a standard GNOME desktop. With its menu editor, you even have the equivalent of adding new icons to the desktop, since EasyPeasy does not distinguish between sub-menus and desktop icons.

With this interface, EasyPeasy generally lives up to its name and design assumptions. Its desktop requires little orientation and works well if you use a netbook only for light computing, and do not have half a dozen or more applications open at a time, as you might do on a laptop or workstation. However, if you do use a netbook like any other computer, you might conclude that EasyPeasy requires too many mouse clicks and changes of display to be a successful desktop.

The Same Old Same Old Software (Mostly)

EasyPeasy's software has few surprises for anyone familiar with Ubuntu's. Generally, it consists of GNOME components such as Evolution, or Ubuntu parts such as Computer Janitor or Software Sources. In fact, you do not have to look far to see uncustomized pieces such as an icon for Ubuntu Software Centre or Ubuntu One.

Nor does EasyPeasy avoid proprietary software such as Skype or Flash -- no doubt in the name of user convenience. Like Ubuntu, it also includes a number of Mono applications, such as Tomboy and Banshee. Since EasyPeasy openly declares its willingness to make such choices, you cannot be very surprised that it walks the walk as well as talks the talk.

EasyPeasy also follows Ubuntu's lead by prominently displaying tools for chat and social networking in the panel. This decision gives you the convenience of central managing these tools, but might frustrate those who use these tools lightly by making them both prominent and -- at least in the build I tried -- impossible to remove, despite the grayed-out right-click menu item for doing so. As with so many aspects of EasyPeasy, what you think of this arrangement is apt to depend heavily on how closely your netbook computing habits match those that EasyPeasy assumes.

Lingering Questions

EasyPeasy deserves to be commended for the clarity in which it states its design principles, and the thoroughness with which it carries them out. Yet I suspect that these principles may limit its users. Unlike a workstation's or laptop's desktop, EasyPeasy may lack the flexibility to appeal to a broad spectrum of users.

The possibility also exists that EasyPeasy's assumptions, which seemed reasonable when netbooks were just being introduced, are less valid than they were -- or perhaps even no longer valid at all.

Moreover, with many netbooks having two or more gigabytes of RAM today, and being carried by travelers because they are more convenient than a laptop, the assumption that they are used only for light or social computing may no longer be valid, either. In fact, to judge from what I've noticed in airports over the last month, netbooks seem to be used increasingly for normal productivity.

Then there is the question of how to solve the problem of limited screen size without requiring users to make endless mouse-clicks or learn a whole set of keyboard shortcuts. Can the trade off be avoided, or is it inevitable?

I don't pretend to have the answer to such questions, or to know how to design a netbook interface. However, at this stage in the history of netbooks, I am not sure that anybody does. That is what makes the various attempts to find answers or designs so fascinating.

Depending on your work habits or expectations, EasyPeasy may not succeed. Yet, even if you judge that it doesn't, its new releases can be fascinating because each is an effort to answer one of the major design challenges of this era in computing.

ALSO SEE: Is Ubuntu the Barack Obama of Linux?

AND: The GNU/Linux Desktop: Nine Myths

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