GNOME 2.30: Waiting for the Big Release

Tuesday Apr 6th 2010 by Bruce Byfield
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GNOME 2.30’s improvements in speed, inter-connectivity, and usability make the release worth having, even if it will become obsolete when the next release arrives in six months.

GNOME 2.30 was originally intended to coincide with GNOME 3.0 -- a massive cleanup and rethinking of the popular desktop. However, GNOME 3.0 is delayed for at least another release, which leaves GNOME 2.30 as most likely the last version in a series stretching back almost a decade.

You will find signs of what is coming, including 3.0 previews, but, for the most part, like its predecessors, GNOME 2.30 is a collection of generally unrelated improvements. Unlike recent KDE releases, a specific direction is hard to see, unless it is an emphasis on improved usability and, to a lesser extent, application inter-connectivity as part of the cleanup for the big release.

GNOME 2.30 should be available in the package repositories of most major releases over the next few weeks. Packages are already available for the upcoming Lucid Lynx release of Ubuntu. Although, as I write, GNOME Shell, the core of the 3.0 desktop is uninstallable because the libgjs0 library is missing. Distrowatch also reports that the first beta of the Mandriva Linux 2010.1 release includes GNOME 2.30. In addition, a GNOME Live Media edition with 2.30 should be shortly available.

Preparing for the Main Event

Part of the preparation for the 3.0 release is a massive cleanup of GNOME code. This cleanup includes the deprecation -- official discouragement -- and replacement of many longtime libraries, such as libbonobo, libgnome, and libgnome-print, GTK+ and GLib.

The cleanup is ongoing, and, unless you are a developer, largely invisible. However, unless my imagination is working over time, one result of the process appears to be an approximately ten percent increase in speed. Everything from the desktop to utilities like Nautilus and Tomboy appear to be opening and responding more quickly in 2.30 than in the last few GNOME releases.

Other anticipations of GNOME 3.0 are also part of 2.30, although they remain strangely unemphasized by the project and unnoticed by users. In theory, you should be able to use the command line to replace the standard desktop with GNOME Shell, although in practice that is not possible with the current Lucid Lynx packages.

By contrast, one part of GNOME 3.0 that you can view is the GNOME Activity Journal, formerly known as Zeitgeist. The Activity Journal is a list of accessed files, arranged on a calendar. It is being promoted as an alternative to a file manager, and seems useful largely as a super-charged list of recently opened files.

But it is a general user's tool, not an administrator's, and, even then, only for those who view their home directory as an unorganized hole in which to dump files. Although the Activity Journal is still in development, I suspect that those accustomed to thinking in terms of files and directories will find it only moderately useful.

A Grab Bag of Improvements

Despite the attention given to the GNOME Activity Journal in the discussion over the last year about the 3.0 release, 2.30 does not neglect GNOME's traditional utilities.

In particular, Nautilus, the GNOME file manager, takes two giant steps forward in usability. In 2.30, you can now open an additional pane from the View menu, which allows you to transfer files within a single window -- a simple improvement, yet one that is priceless if you have ever tried to copy or move files on a desktop crowded with windows.

Better still, you can now double-click a font file in Nautilus to open a window that includes not only a sample of the font and its file's information, but also a button to install the font. GNOME has needed a font-installer for years, so the final arrival of one should be welcome to many graphic-designers. True, you can still not arrange fonts in groups, but at least a start in functionality has been made.

Next Page: GNOME, 'End of the Line'

Another utility that has received small but telling improvements is the user-admin tool. The simplest of these is the ability to remove the home directory along with the account.

Now, when you type in a user's name when creating a user, the user management tool automatically suggests a short name for the account. Usually, the short name is simply the user's name in lowercase letters and with the spaces between names left out, but the tool also resolves name conflicts by removing letters from the end of the duplicate.

Even more usefully, you receive a warning if changing a password would break an encryption keyring or an encrypted directory.

Other small but welcome enhancements include unlimited scrollback of the command history in GNOME Terminal, and the ability of file-roller to add support for a compression type. Although, strictly speaking, neither is strictly needed, since an experienced user can easily work around them, both are the type of small convenience that make a desktop quicker and easier to use.

In desktop applications, the emphasis is also on usability, but, more specifically, on interconnectivity. You can now copy and paste HTML-formatted notes created in Tomboy into Evolution, OpenOffice.org, or any other application that can display HTML. Considering that what is written in notes often finds its way into other applications, this improvement is a logical step (No word yet, though, on when GNote, Tomboy's Mono-less clone, will have the same functionality).

Looking outward, the Empathy client is strengthened by its own small improvements. These include an information dialog when Empathy fails to connect, the ability to configure and use Facebook chat, and a text search in chat history. All these changes seem a continuation of Empathy's slow development over GNOME's releases from a minimalist chat tool into a more fully-featured one, although, even now, Empathy still falls short of applications like XChat.

End of the line

When everyone learned that 3.30 would not be synonymous with 3.0, I suspect that interest in it waned. With the 3.0 nearing, and the first rumblings pro and con about it being heard, the temptation might be to skip 3.30 altogether. After all, why bother with an incremental upgrade when an evolutionary one is around the corner?

Even some GNOME developers have had their version of these mixed feelings, debating six weeks ago whether their work should focus on stability or the cutting edge -- in other words, on whether the 2.30 release should be an end in itself or an anticipation of 3.0.

In the end, GNOME as a whole seems to have opted largely for stability. However, the 2.30 release is worth considering from both perspectives.

On the one hand, GNOME 2.30 is in many ways a preparation for GNOME 3.0. Besides its previews, the general overhaul of the code was undertaken specifically as a precaution before introducing the countless changes of GNOME 3.0. Without this motivation, this aspect might easily have been absent in 2.30.

On the other hand, 2.30 will probably be the final version of the 2.0 series. For those who were around for GNOME 2.0 back in 2000, the 2.30 release stands as evidence of how far GNOME in general and the free desktop in particular have come in the last decade in usability and design. If you do a search for images of early GNOME releases and compare the results with 2.30, you can have no doubt that, although GNOME sometimes tends to over-simplify, its improvements over the last decade remain unmistakable.

Moreover, 2.30 is the closest to a focused release that the desktop has had for years. Paradoxically, in preparing the way for 3.0, the 2.30 release has more direction than any GNOME release in several years. Its improvements in speed, inter-connectivity, and usability make the release worth having for its own sake, even if it will almost certainly become obsolete when the next release arrives in six months.

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