One of the Gnome desktop's biggest weaknesses is the lack of a serious CD burning application. Yes, there is a rudimentary-yet-elegant burning function built right into Nautilus, the Gnome file manager: simply open up the CD Creator system folder, dump into it whatever files and folders you want to burn, select File, Write to Disc, and soon you have a brand spankin' new data CD. But if you want to burn a bunch of MP3 files to an audio disc, or duplicate an existing data or audio CD, you're out of luck.
To be fair, Microsoft Windows can't do these things out of the box, either: you pretty much need a third-party utility to get the job done. But in the Windows world, that third-party utility is going to cost you some cash. Things don't work that way in the land of Free Software.
For a good long while, Linux users have had only one option when it comes to a GUI-based CD burning tool: K3b, which is built for the KDE desktop. Now, there's nothing wrong with running a KDE app if you're a Gnome user. It'll start right up and behave just fine. But you may have to wait a bit before its window pops up, as the system has to initialise all sorts of KDE system components first.
Further, have you been around long enough to remember how Windows 3.x apps looked and behaved a little oddly when you ran them on your new copy of Windows 95? KDE apps may similarly look a bit out of place on your Gnome desktop, especially if your distribution doesn't have a visual theme shared by both the Gnome and KDE desktops.
So, though K3b gets the job done, I've been waiting for a native Gnome app to handle all my burning needs. One candidate, the Coaster project (www.coaster-burn.org), has been in the works for a long time, and recently made its first few public releases. I played around with version 0.1.3 while working on this column, and I'm here to report that it's far too early to tell whether Coaster is the tool I've been waiting for. At this stage, the interface is nice and clean, but support for burning audio discs has yet to be implemented. My fingers are crossed in the hope that Coaster's pace of development will pick up from here on out (it can be seen here).
There's reason to think that will be the case: competition. I assume that Graveman (www.nongnu.org/graveman), a new offering from a hacker in France, has nothing to do with burial or the undead, but rather takes its name from the French verb for burning a disc, graver. In any event, when I downloaded version 0.1, I was surprised to see an elegant interface offering me the choice of burning a music disc, burning a data disc, or performing a straightforward disc-to-disc copy (see screen shot).
If Coaster doesn't kick into high gear in 2005, I fully expect to see Graveman showing up on new Linux distributions to fill Gnome's CD burning gap, because the sucker just works. And that's what we want, right?
At long last: painless wireless?
It's been more than a year since I chronicled my travail in getting Wi-Fi to work on my trusty Thinkpad, and not much has changed. If I am at home, the machine connects quickly and effortlessly to my home network, whose parameters (network name, WEP encryption key) are stored in the wireless configuration for Mandrakelinux 10.1, which I'm now running.
But when I'm elsewhere, trying to connect to an open wireless network, the Gnome desktop falls short. I have to open a terminal window, disassociate from any existing network with iwconfig ath0 essid any, turn off WEP with iwconfig ath0 key off, scan for the public network with iwlist scan, and finally connect to the network and grab an IP address with iwconfig ath0 essid networkname and dhclient ath0. That's hardly the epitome of user friendliness. I don't need a computer that holds my hand every step of the way, but I also have no desire to mess around with the command line for something as simple (from an end-user perspective, anyway) as connecting to a wireless network. I'm guessing you feel the same way.
So when Novell was here at PC World HQ several weeks ago, showing off Novell Linux Desktop 9, I was intrigued by an applet running in the demo machine's Gnome panel. A right-click on this applet showed all available wireless networks and their signal strengths. Selecting any listed network made the machine connect to that network (see here). Simple! Elegant! Something that Just Works! I was salivating. I wanted that applet right away. I asked the Novell reps where it came from. They told me that it was a custom bit of work by the coders at Novell, and that, in due time, the code would flow back to the wider Gnome project.
That applet is called Netapplet (http://primates.ximian.com/~rml/netapplet/), and according to one of the readers who wrote in to tell me about it, it may only work on SuSE and Novell Linuxes. (I intend to find out soon.) But when I first scoured the Web for the applet I saw in the Novell demo, I thought I'd found it when I turned up NetworkManager (see http://ftp.gnome.org/pub/GNOME/sources/NetworkManager/0.3), which is actually a clever bit of work spearheaded by a coder at Red Hat.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter where the applet comes from as long as I can run it, right? Aye, but there's the rub: I can't get NetworkManager running on my Mandrake 10.1-laden Thinkpad. The reason why may be an eye opener for potential Linux converts, or those who've recently made the switch.
FETCH, BEAGLE, FETCH!
It's gratifying to see the Free Software community produce a tool as promising as Beagle, the forthcoming desktop search tool for the Gnome desktop. I have not been able to get the current version to run - more dependency hell - but have played enough with an earlier version to know that Beagle isn't vapourware. It's very real, and if screen shots are any way to judge (you can see one here) the app's current capabilities, Beagle can fetch with the very best of 'em.
Enter a search term, and Beagle combs through your e-mail, your documents, your instant message history, your media library, and more, looking for related information. I wish I had Beagle running on my machine today, and perhaps I'll give compiling it another shot before long, but I smile to note that I am likely to see Beagle ship as part of my Linux distribution of choice long before my friends running Windows see any analogous tool built-in to their own operating system.
Catching up? In some respects, yes. But in other respects, my Gnome desktop is every bit as cutting-edge as anything else I could install on my Thinkpad. And it's getting better all the time.