On the Desktop
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Eazel releases Nautilus 1.0 and adds Text Tools, a text view search service. Andy Hertzfeld, Software Wizard and Founder of Eazel, sees the desktop as a graphical shell, something as powerful as the command line loved by hackers but with a graphical front end that made it accessible to the end user. Since the founding of his new company, Eazel, his vision has been to make that graphical interface for end users of Linux and other Unix-styled operating systems. Nautilus 1.0 is the realization of that vision.
This week Eazel introduced Nautilus 1.0, the first public release of the well publicized software that implements Hertzfeld's ideas. In preparation for that release, Eazel's Director of Product Management, Tom Goguen, called me to talk about Nautilus and Eazel's backend service business. Tom is an ex-product marketing henchman for Sun Microsystems who has been at Eazel for the past three months.
Tom opened up his discussion on Nautilus with words of praise for the developer community that helped reach this first stable public release. "We want to thank everyone who's been involved with it. This project involved over 100 engineers - fully 2/3 were from the developer community at large". That's a big project to manage and I asked Tom how dealing with a conglomeration of developers, most of whom are not under direct control of Eazel, changes the way development is done in a business.
"The only issue you run into is when [developers] arrive at the last minute with bug fixes and they discover that it's a few weeks to delivery and they try to get all their fixes in at once. It's a bit challenging managing that and the expectations associated with that". So the development process actually changes from traditional top down management. And it definitely changed Tom's view of that process.
"It changed my experience as a product marketing guy", he laughed, "partly because as a marketing person you never believe the times you get from the engineers, you always build in a little padding. With a 1.0 open source release there is always a little more variability as to when the product will show up. In a funny way it requires a little different approach from a marketing perspective. You don't make one big giant announcement to the world. You come out and talk to the community when it's ready and then tell the world shortly thereafter". Essentially you check to see how badly the developers revolt and if their response is "that wasn't too bad", then tell the world.
The infinitely growing shell - Nautilus.
As Goguen puts it, "Nautilus is infinitely extensible". Built around the popular GTK graphical toolkit, its interface is easily customizable by the end user, but configuration goes far beyond its look. Nautilus is also extensible on the back end, where services can be linked to specific file types. Developers can add services that expose file views to Internet services in a contextual way: text files can be exposed to text services, music files to music services, graphics files to graphics services. And that's where the use of the name Nautilus arose. The Nautilus is a shelled sea creature with an ever increasing number of chambers that give the shell its unique appearance. "Because the software is infinitely extensible graphical shell", says Gogue, "the Nautilus itself made a great symbol for us".
In this 1.0 release, Eazel is introducing a new feature called Text Tools, a backend service for doing Internet-based searches on text files. While you have already been able to view a text file inline from within earlier releases of Nautilus, in 1.0 you can now highlight any word within that file and do searches in dictionaries or through Google or other search engines or perhaps even have the highlighted word translated. Eazel feels this feature will interest developers and application service providers.
"This gives an example of how you can now deliver services directly to the desktop and expose them to the media people are using. You can imagine doing this in the music view or the image view. You could add a 'Print At...' that would allow an image view to be printed at an Internet connected service bureau (a printer for high end graphic prints). It's pretty powerful and pretty cool. We think it will be interesting over the next few month in terms of how developers begin exposing their online services through the interface".
Eazel demonstrated some beta versions of Text Tools at LinuxWorld but really hadn't talked about it outside of that till now. Right now, the feature is just implemented with text files, not across other media formats. "It is just implemented in text files right now because the services are specific to the media type", said the Eazel director. This means that other services are expected to be added later for other file types. Notes Goguen on the text views support, "What's interesting to me is that every word in every text document is a potential hyperlink now, driven by the user instead of the author".
"We anticipate people taking, say, the music view and adding services such as burning CDs or pulling information about artists or songs or whatever". With the current implementation, Eazel has used Google as the backend search engine for the Text Tools services. But users can modify the XML configuration file to use different search engines. "We expect developers to establish initial settings for their services, but users will be able to modify them as they see fit. It's a completely exposed interface for developing views for passing the information through GNOME VFS out to the Internet or a network file system".
While Eazel is releasing a full-fledged software distribution of Nautilus, they won't offer a packaged product. Their main source of income will come from those backend services similar to the Text Tools search engine. Their current set of services includes a software catalog, internet storage service and in the next few weeks they will have a software updating service online. The key to Eazel's success is getting Nautilus onto as many desktops as possible, so that, in the long term, access to these services will be not just desirable to end users, but readily available from their desktops.
Yet despite Eazel's focus on services, packaged versions of Nautilus are in the works. "Nautilus is going out with Red Hat, both 6.2 and 7.0, and we also did a joint agreement that includes backend services which include update services. Red Hat and Eazel are collaborating on the infrastructure for that", said Goguen.
"Out the door we're supporting RH 6.2 and 7.0. We're working on Mandrake next, followed by SuSE and others. We have it running on Solaris in the office". While Ximian showed GNOME on HP at LinuxWorld, Eazel hasn't started work on that platform yet. "If the Ximian guys are going to support that with 1.4, then we'll eventually support it. Nautilus will be in 1.4. One of our guys is actually co-release manager of GNOME 1.4".
So who exactly is supposed to use Nautilus? Says Goguen, "If you're an end user managing lots of data, lots of files, lots of digital media then this is going to be a killer tool for you. It has lots of features that help you do this: zoomable interfaces, thumbnailing of documents and images, ability to preview documents, images and music. All of these combine to make Nautiuls incredibly powerful. Of course, tied to that are the online services. It's intuitive to tie into our services, and even third party services, by tying those services directly to the media". But is it ready for the secretarial world? "Let's be frank, there aren't a lot of them with Linux on their desktops yet, but Nautilus will make it easier to put them there".
"Nautilus is redefining the user experience. It's no longer a question of finding an application to edit a file. Nautilus has flipped this view on end. It's a question of managing my data from my data", explains Goguen. "Nautilus will tell me what tools I can use to view or edit the document using MIME types. Instead of thinking of a desktop with a bunch of tools, Nautilus makes the desktop more like a dashboard where you look at your information and examine it with the services you have".
Desktop file thumbnails and previews for image files appear to be handled by thumbnailing the image initially and then scaling the thumbnail. The first time the file is encountered, the thumbnailing can take a while if the files are very large, but, after that, performance is better because processing is handled through the thumbnail and not the original image. I didn't ask but one wonders what methods are used to keep the thumbnail synchronized to changes made to the larger image file.
Transparency and alpha-blending are built into Nautilus, thus there is no need for the recent updates to XFRee86 from Keith Packard to clean up the X interface. There are couple of people who are key contributors to the FreeType project working at Eazel, and Eazel has taken advantage of their skills to help tidy up the display. According to Goguen, there is an option in Nautilus to let Nautilus render the desktop to make it look cleaner.
Eazel's Software Catalog also gets an update.
Eazel's Software catalog is also getting a new look this week, making it easier to use with the introduction of software suites. "In Nautilus, you'll see, for example, a music suite on the software catalog which will help you find everything you need to RIP and play MP3 files", says Goguen. Today, their software checks dependencies to make sure you have what you need and won't have any conflicts. In the future, what you'll see with suites like the Music suite is an ability to get several applications that can work together. For example, in an MP3 environment you'll find applications for playing, ripping and moving files. Goguen adds, "We'll have a browser suite which will provide a browser and all of the plug-ins that go with it. This gets us much closer to what a casual user would enjoy using".
The software catalog is accessible both through the web and with the Nautilus software, but to do the easy software installs, you need to be running Nautilus. The top right hand side of the Nautilus window has a button that takes you to Eazel's services. When asked about issues related to low-bandwidth connections, they replied "Nothing more than the issues you normally encounter with large files. Right up front, when the software catalog does its checking, it decides what packages you need and tells you the sizes of the collective download before you start it". One of the things they're working on is providing downloads of file differences, essentially a form of rsync that will reduce the actual amount of data downloaded in order to get packages to users.
Goguen closed our discussion with something he's been telling Windows fans who have been saying Windows XP will have similar similar features at its release. Quotes the Eazel exec, "Linux has Nautilus now".
You can download Nautilus 1.0 from Eazel's website at http://www.eazel.com/download
Kernel Cousin KDE launches. The first issue of Kernel Cousin KDE, a news site covering KDE development, has hit the web. Topics in the inaugural issue include the KDE printing system, the 2.1 release schedule, and more.
GNUStep weekly update, March 11, 2001. The GNUStep weekly development update has been posted.
Section Editor: Michael J. Hammel
March 15, 2001