Online Desktop

This was written April 3, 2007

The Mugshot team has been off learning what we can about all kinds of not-traditionally-open-source technologies and audiences, but recently we've started thinking about how to roll the knowledge back into the Linux desktop. Here's an update (all heavily biased by my personal point of view).

Tuning for an Audience

From an interview with Dave Neary:

Neary says he thinks GNOME will either grow into different projects -- such as a One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) GNOME, a Home and Small Office GNOME, and Enterprise GNOME -- or the project will shrink to the GNOME development platform, "which will then be re-used by third parties to build the interfaces they're interested in on top of it.

"We have already started to see this trend. Distributors cherry-pick the applications they are interested in for their own desktop projects, which are then themed and targeted for their core audience. The variety of platforms and human interfaces being built upon the GNOME platform is dazzling. These go from small-form-factor interfaces like the Nokia N800 and the Maemo application framework and OpenMoko and GPE through to innovative interfaces like Sugar from OLPC, which is totally unfamiliar to someone used to the GNOME desktop, but which is undeniably GNOME-based."

It isn't just the embedded or odd form-factor devices that are customizing GNOME, says Neary. "Even the major distributions have modified the GNOME interface to suit their needs. The openSUSE, Red Hat Enterprise, and Ubuntu desktops all behave in different ways, and have different target audiences."

Several of these specializations of GNOME technology for particular audiences are happening at Red Hat; we're working on One Laptop Per Child and of course the desktop for Enterprise Linux which focuses on admins and programmers in part, and enterprise deployments of various kinds (tech workstation, thin client, etc.) in part.

We've been thinking about another flavor, which we might call GNOME Online Desktop (purely for the acronym, of course).

Online Desktop

Many people now live online and use the computer largely as an Internet frontend, with few or no "offline" applications. Webmail is by far the most common mail application, for example. But think also of Flickr, IM, MySpace, YouTube, Google Docs & Spreadsheets, and so on. I count myself in this group; without an Internet connection I don't even bother to turn on my laptop.

Meanwhile, my desktop is crammed with relics of stuff I don't use. The clock applet only speaks Evolution calendar, instead of supporting online calendars such as Google Calendar. The Recent Documents menu has junk I don't care about in it, instead of my actual documents (at Google Docs & Spreadsheets). My panel launchers are for apps I don't use instead of shortcuts to the web apps I do use.

Target Audience

What if we started a desktop specialization aimed at a subset of current Linux users who:

  • Are individuals who own their own computer (not using Linux as part of an enterprise or organizational deployment).
  • Use Linux as a desktop, for things like web browsing and listening to music (not using Linux purely as a server or purely for workstation-type productivity).
  • Use lots of online services, such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, GMail, Flickr, IM, Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Google Calendar, and so forth.

I expect this audience would include a fair number of college students, and also some people like me.

As important, what if this desktop specialization explicitly does NOT care about:

  • Enterprise deployments including thin client, fixed function, technical workstation.
  • People who use Linux primarily as a server.
  • People who avoid using online applications for whatever reason (strong tendency to work offline, flaky net connection, enterprise security, or whatever).

I say "current Linux users" for the target audience because we can get them to try out Online Desktop first. But if we're successful, we could then extend the target audience to include people who aren't using Linux already, whether individuals or even small businesses. At that point we'd have to start worrying about things like migration path, marketing to these new audiences, and so forth.


If we make these assumptions about the audience, what kinds of changes could we make in the desktop?


A number of services maintain online contact lists ("people I know"), including AIM, Google Talk, GMail, Facebook, MySpace and Mugshot. Ideally, we would somehow collect "people I know" from these places and have the desktop be smart about who I know and who I can interact with in various contexts - sharing a file, writing a document, sending an IM, or whatever it is.

In technical terms, we'll want to drop the Evolution contact database stuff and instead have a more free-form/aggregation-oriented/stored-online idea of who your contacts are.


Yesterday I mentioned Mugshot applications, where we're building a social concept of the "universe of applications."

Ideally, this effectively replaces /usr/share/applications. /usr/share/applications becomes purely the launch instructions (we're using it for the Exec= line).

In technical terms, this means replacing application launching (panel menus, launchers, etc.) with a new interface, and replacing the "package tool" with Install buttons contextually available as you browse the universe of applications.

Our "universe of applications" should also include web apps as first-class.


Documents are ideally kept online; this can take several forms. For documents belonging to Google Docs & Spreadsheets, they are online inherently. For more "native" documents, we might have online folders that backend to something like S3 and are available in the file manager. We might also look at the AbiWord Collaboration work that people have been doing.

The "recent documents" list should include online documents, for sure.


We can just stick photos online by default, in Picasa or Flickr. For example, if you plug in a camera, the default action is to upload the photos, not copy to a local folder. We could also for example maintain a local cache with F-Spot set up to stay in sync with the online app. I think F-Spot already has some Flickr integration even (?).


We'd just use sites like Google Calendar as a calendar, integrating it into the desktop clock/calendar applet or wherever, as appropriate. There should be desktop notifications of upcoming events.


We already have a simple way to store key-value pairs on and a Python script that syncs gconf to the server dynamically, this approach means that people's settings follow them around instead of staying on a single computer. It needs to be productized, but this is pretty simple to get going.


Search should be nicely configured by default to include all my online information (calendar, documents, etc.) in addition to local files.

Easy Sharing, Local or Internet

For some reason nobody has solved the problem of easily sharing a file with someone else; email attachments remain the usual approach. But it should be possible to simply drag a file onto someone's photo, whether that person is sitting next to you at a conference or half a world away.


Right now, there's quite a bit of work if a desktop application wants to integrate with online services. Typically, the app has to write a bunch of code to talk to the service; and the app has to require the user to configure some often-arcane parameters.

Instead, we could make this desktop-wide. Think of a simplified and online-backed contacts API for example, so any app could easily support getting a list of people to interact with and opening a connection to one of them. Appropriate gvfs backends might be another example of desktop API taking advantage of online services.

Another API goal is "pluggable services," for example to support multiple calendar sites, we might build an abstraction API across them.

Live CD

One way to think about an "online desktop" is that you could put in a Live CD, log in, and automatically get all your stuff and all your preferences. I don't really see a live CD as the primary use-case, but it's a useful way to think about the design.

More Ideas

It's easy to think of more new features to implement:

  • Integration of blogging; the Flock browser has many ideas to build on for good blogging support, and a blog program could be on the panel by default.
  • Mail notification for GMail and other web mail programs.
  • Make it easy to automatically chat with anyone using the protocol you have in common with them.
  • Keep browser state such as bookmarks in or online in other ways.
  • ...

In short suddenly the desktop goes from "solved problem" to "whole universe of useful new stuff we could do."

Getting Started: How to Proceed?

Putting everything immediately upstream into core GNOME has problems; because the Online Desktop makes assumptions suitable for its target audience but not for many GNOME users, maintainers would frequently bounce the patches. More importantly, it isn't clear yet what Online Desktop should look like or how it should work. We need to prototype.

At the same time we should keep a low barrier to entry, so people can easily try out Online Desktop.

Our thought, modeled on the Compiz approach, is to replace just one component of the desktop - the panel. This way we can ship one codebase, and to try it out you just run the new panel app.

In the short term we need not even replace the whole panel, we can do a sidebar similar to the Yahoo!/Google/Vista sidebars on Windows. The sidebar works fine with your existing panels.

Colin, Bryan, and I (mostly Colin and Bryan) have been working on such a thing for a couple weeks, the code name is Big Board and you can find more information here.

Big Board uses Mugshot to "fill in gaps." That is, Mugshot is not intended to replace services you already use (whether Flickr or Facebook or whatever); but if we need to do something that no existing service provides, we can stuff it in Mugshot. For example, Mugshot has the applications browser I mentioned, and it has prototype-quality storage for shared files and for preferences. Mugshot in this context is an open source server codebase that we can extend as we need to.

Mugshot also aggregates information on all the accounts and addresses you and your friends have, so that information is available to the desktop. In Big Board there's a "slideshow" feature that cycles through thumbnails from your friends' Flickr, Picasa, and YouTube. Mugshot means this works with zero configuration, while the traditional alternative would be to manually type in all the friends' accounts you wanted to include.

Big Board doesn't talk directly to the server, though; it instead uses D-Bus APIs exported by the local Mugshot client. Other apps could use these APIs as well.

Big Board is very much a prototype right now (for example, the search box is just the GNOME deskbar applet, and embedding an applet in a non-gnome-panel doesn't quite work). The hope of course is that we'll evolve from prototype to something more robust as it makes sense.

We also see the goal as "online desktop" rather than only "panel/sidebar gizmo," but as I mentioned Big Board is somewhere to start.

Check out Big Board so far including early design notes. To discuss feel free to use the Mugshot list or GNOME desktop-devel-list.