I'm writing this column on my trusty IBM Thinkpad, which has been running the newly released Gnome 2.12 for a few weeks now. This is thanks to Ubuntu Linux, which has gotten so much praise in my recent columns, a colleague suggested I should change the name to "Here's How: Ubuntu". Ahem. Version 5.10, the Breezy Badger (could I make this up?), is now out of pre-release and available for download from www.ubuntulinux.org, or off our cover disc.
Not so long ago, I wrote that when the next Ubuntu release came out, upgrading to it should be "as painless as feeding new repositories to Apt and then typing sudo apt-get dist-upgrade in a terminal window. The system will then upgrade itself over the Internet. I can't wait." So, when I decided that it was time to replace Hoary with Breezy on the old Thinkpad, I crossed my fingers and hoped that I hadn't been too naive.
The magical apt-get incantation did its trick; I kept one eye on the machine for several hours as updated package after updated package was downloaded and installed. A new kernel, a new Gnome, a new OpenOffice.org - it all flowed down through PC World's fat pipe from the rest of the Net. And when the flow came to a stop, I rebooted and held my breath.
All was not well: I'd somehow lost the video settings that enable the X Window System to start. X, as us Linux types often refer to it, is the part of the OS that drives the point-and-click interface of your choice (usually Gnome or KDE). So all I had at my disposal was a command line. That's a below-average boot, to be sure; but luckily the Linux command line has the power to fix just about anything. A quick search of ubuntuforums.org later, and I had the answer: sudo dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg spawned a short question-and-answer session that brought X back up to speed. I had a GUI again.
What I didn't have was connectivity. The Wi-Fi card that I normally depend on refused to come to life, no matter what I did. To eliminate the possibility of hardware failure, I rebooted into Windows. The Wi-Fi card worked, of course.
I wish I could say that I acted like a fine upstanding Linux geek and plunged into the bowels of the system to figure out what had gone wrong, but I didn't. Rather, I decided to wait for an updated package. As luck would have it, that package was updated the very next day, so when I told the system to go fetch Breezy updates (via the Ethernet cable I'd plugged in), down came the fix. After a reboot, all was well.
The Gnewest Gnome
Since I follow the action on planet.gnome.org, I know that Gnome 2.12 represents a lot of work "under the hood." The release notes, however, demonstrate what I found in practice: there's less to report with regard to actual changes in the interface.
One very welcome improvement is the addition of "spring-loaded" folders in Nautilus, the Gnome file manager - see FIGURE 1. If you choose a List View, as opposed to an Icon View, folders get little triangular widgets next to them. Click one, or hover over one during a drag operation, and the folder springs open to display its contents there in that same window. If you're a Macintosh veteran, you probably recognise what I'm describing so poorly, because you've been seeing this behaviour in your OS since before it turned X. If you can't envision what I'm talking about, well, that's why we invented screen shots.
Gnome 2.12 also tries to address a common complaint: in Gnome 2.8 and 2.10, there is no way for users to alter the contents of their Applications menu (the Gnome equivalent to the Windows Start menu). Gnome 2.12 adds an "Edit Menus" command that calls up a dialogue box remarkable for its lack of functionality: you can't rename any Applications menu items or the folders they reside in; you can't move an item into a different folder; you can't create your own folders; and finally, you can't create a new item from scratch. All you can do is hide and unhide items - see FIGURE 2. For example, let's say that you just downloaded and compiled the latest edition of StreamTuner and you want to add it to your Applications menu. Sorry, bub, not with Edit Menus, you don't.
So perhaps when you click "Add Applications," found at the top level of the Applications menu, you get what you're looking for? Sadly, no. What you get is a dialogue box listing common (and not-so-common) applications. If you spot an uninstalled app that you want, you check its box and click Apply. Your package manager leaps into action, downloads the package. and installs it. This is pretty handy, and very newbie-friendly, but it doesn't address the original complaint: if I install an application manually - outside of the purview of the package manager - there's no way to add that app to the Applications menu. That's a shame. It's also a shame that there is still no way to reorganise the menu in whatever way works best for me. Here's hoping that Gnome 2.14 will do a better job at addressing the flexibility of this basic element. In the meantime, if these are features you crave, check out Alacarte (www.realistanew.com/projects/alacarte). It's one of the best solutions out there at the moment.
I had harboured fervent hopes that the Breezy Badger would have better support for wireless networking. I've been complaining in this space for ages about the lack of an easy, point-and-click interface for Wi-Fi network selection on the Gnome desktop.
When I'm someplace where the Internet is flowing freely through the air - be it a trade show, a coffee shop, or my own living room - I should be able to peruse a list of available networks, clicking to select one to glom on to. This sort of functionality, which has been standard in Windows and the Mac OS for some time now, remains elusive in Ubuntu Linux.
There's a solution out there called NetworkManager that brings exactly the functionality I'm looking for to the Gnome Desktop; it's included in Fedora Core 4, and perhaps other distros I haven't checked on in a while. But no working NetworkManager package yet exists for Breezy. Compiling and installing NetworkManager by hand may be possible, but right now I don't have a free Sunday to devote to that sort of trial. So I limp along with what's available in Ubuntu, a little network selector called Netapplet that becomes completely befuddled when it encounters a wireless network it hasn't seen before. I hope the next version of Ubuntu (Mangy Muskrat? Drunken Duckling? Ornery Otter?) includes NetworkManager or some similar solution.
In the meantime, it's the season of Linux distribution updates. At LinuxWorld Expo, Novell announced its openSUSE project, which opens the development of SUSE to a wider community (as Fedora Core does for Red Hat) and makes the distribution freely downloadable for the first time. SUSE Linux 10.0 is nearing completion, and pre-release downloads are already available. Also, earlier this year, Mandrake Linux bought Conectiva Linux and became Mandriva Linux. I maintain that "Mandriva" sounds like a car I never want to own, but the forthcoming Mandriva Linux 2006 will definitely be worth a spin around the block - you can download it from www.mandrivalinux.org.