Future GNOME releases might have seamless integration with online services and store their configuration on the web - Novell and parts of the community seem to agree with Red Hats proposalDuring his opening speech at the GNOME Developers conference GUADEC Jono Bacon, community manager for the Ubuntu distribution, called for a common vision inside the project, an area in which the project as a whole is currently lacking. Only a few hours later Red Hat developers Havoc Pennington and Bryan Clark presented their own proposal for a reinvention of the Open Source desktop: The GNOME Online Desktop.
An idea which results from a few very obvious observations: For one the whole industry is moving in the direction of online applications, something which can't be ignored. Besides that more and more - especially young - users spend a lot of time with Web services like Flickr or MySpace. The goal of the Online Desktop is to provide the ultimate environment for such a use by deeply integrating GNOME with said services.
Another feature of the Online Desktop: Most of the user preferences will be stored online, which opens up a few interesting possibilities, as Pennington points out: Thanks to this, it would be possible to start directly from a Live-CD and still get ones own - fully configured - desktop after logging into the online service. Another possible target group for such a system could be people who use more than just one device for their online activities. With the Online Desktop they could - for instance - use the same configuration for their local Linux computer and an Internet Tablet like Nokias N800.
Pennington is aware of the fact, that others are have already been thinking in the same direction. Just recently Bill Gates stated in an interview, that future versions of Windows should have such a "user-centric desktop" (as he puts it). But according to the Red Hat developer open source has a major advantage here: While Microsoft will focus on getting everyone on their Live services, the online desktop will connect to each and every service that someone wants supported. Instead of being forced into Microsofts own online world, the users just can continue to use their favorite services.
The development of the necessary software is still in an early phase, nonetheless the Red Hat developers presented some first results of their work at GUADEC. The central piece is BigBoard, a newly developed panel, which aggregates all sorts of information from a users online services. Also there is a small applet which notifies the users about new stuff, that is going on in their own web community.
For storing ones configuration the Online Desktop will also rely on a server counter-part. At the moment Red Hats own Mugshot fulfills this role, but the developers intend to change this to a more lightweight solution in the future. In regards to this Pennington was also asking the GNOME Foundation for their support. It would be the best for everyone, if such a service would run on the official gnome.org servers, he said.
All together quite an ambitious plan which can't be realized by just one single Linux vendor, as Pennington pointed out to the hundreds of developers attending his talk. A call to arms which doesn't seem to have gone unnoticed. One of those that were openly supportive of the Online Desktop idea was Nat Friedman: "My personal opinion is that each and every Linux company should contribute their developers to this project", Novells Chief Technology and Strategy Officer for Open Source openly shared his own enthusiasm for the GNOME Online Desktop in a statement to derStandard.at.
The community should be aware of the significance of this decision: "We either get on board with this or face total irrelevance", Friedman went on. Also supportive was Jeff Waugh from the GNOME Foundation: "What's really great about this is, that it gives us a common vision", something the project has been missing lately. He also stated his support for the idea to get the server side running on gnome.org.
But there were also a bunch of comments, that were less impressed by the Online Desktop idea, most of them concerned about privacy and security issues in regards to getting all your private stuff online. Some developers also pointed out, that it will actually be quite problematic for companies to put their own data on the server of someone else.
A notion which Pennington acknowledges, but he also points out that the Online Desktop users won't be forced to use certain services, they will still be able to opt for another service provider, if they don't trust a certain company, or even disable the whole thing. In regards to company use of the Online Desktop, he envisions other possibilities for solving such problems, like using solutions like Google Apps for your domain, an environment the Online Desktop would be perfectly suited to.
A formal decision in favor or against the GNOME Online Desktop is not to be expected at this GUADEC, the decision-making process just got rolling with the recent presentation. Should the project opt to proceed with this idea, Pennington foresees a bright future for the Linux desktop: Open Source could be leading the next round of desktop innovation. (Andreas Proschofsky reporting from Birmingham)
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