September 19, 2006

Alacarte: GNOME's long overdue menu editor

Author: Bruce Byfield

The Alacarte menu editor is one of the major additions in GNOME 2.16. Already previously available in Ubuntu and other distributions, Alacarte adds a degree of customization that has been generally lacking since GNOME dropped its previous menu editor more than five years ago during the early 2.x releases.

Running Alacarte through its paces using the Ubuntu 6.10 alpha release, I found it a welcome addition to the GNOME desktop, but it is weakened by inconsistent positioning of new menu items and several behavioral flaws.

Desktop menus are highly structured by definition. Because it mirrors them, so is Alacarte. On the left, the editing window displays a tree view of the Applications menu, and, in Ubuntu's case, the System menu of the GNOME panel. The Places menu, which is mostly for navigation, is not available for editing. Nor can users add top-level menus.

Within the Applications and System menus, though, users can add applications and menu separators, and nest menus however they wish. The middle of the editing window displays each item, with a check box beside to enable its display. From the right-click menu, you can edit the name and icon of each item, or, alternatively, delete it altogether or restore its default properties. For those who have been too rash with their customizations, the Revert button on the bottom restores all menus to their original state.

On the window's top right are tools for adding new items. Although everything else about Alacarte is simple enough that you can start using the application almost immediately, these tools are inconsistent in their behavior. New menus are added to the top of the middle pane, new items to the bottom, and separators below the currently highlighted item. Fortunately, new items can be dragged and dropped into other positions, or repositioned with the Move Up and Move Down buttons, but consistency is still needed; perhaps all new items could be added above or below the highlighted one, or at the top or bottom if none is currently selected.

Alacarte also shows a few other rough spots. At times, performance is sluggish enough that users can easily add two new items in their impatience for a response. Similarly, clicking the Revert button occasionally has no effect, or duplicates a highlighted item. More seriously, items that are hidden by default can be neither displayed nor deleted, although whether this is a fault of the application or a decision made by Ubuntu's developers is uncertain.

In addition, I am surprised that Alacarte has no provision for editing menus for all users. Not that controlling users' menus is needed for security -- that would only be useful for the discredited idea of security by obscurity. Rather, such a feature would be a relief to sysadmins who have to set up mass desktops.

However, that is probably too much to ask of an application that has just reached maturity. Despite its shortcomings, Alacarte is still vastly preferable to either of the two extremes of the last five years: A fully loaded menu like the Debian ones, which creates a labyrinth in which users can wander lost for days, or a minimalist one, which risks users never discovering most of the applications installed on their computer. With Alacarte, GNOME menus are finally back in the hands of the users, which is where they belong.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, and IT Manager's Journal.

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