February 21, 2008

Free software menus reinvented

Author: Bruce Byfield

Free software programmers are fond of saying that they'd prefer not to reinvent the wheel. Apparently that attitude no longer applies to desktop menus, considering all the new options springing up.

A few years ago, just about the only menu choices on the main desktop environments were the ones that shipped with them, or the exhaustive Debian ones. For five years, GNOME didn't even have a menu editor. However, recent years have seen an outbreak of experimentation, ranging from Windows-inspired menus such as openSUSE's default Slab, the Vista Menu for GNOME Panel (which seems to have taken up where the apparently defunct USlab port to Ubuntu stopped), and the menu in the newly released KDE 4, to menus whose goal is to integrate social networking into the desktop, such as BigBoard and Gimmie. Apparently, the old style accordion menu is no longer functional or fashionable enough.


Recent versions of Windows have moved away from old-style menus in favor of a default menu that is more compact. In Vista, the menu shows icons for Web browsing and email at the top, a list of recently used programs, and a search field for locating other programs. Along the right of the menu are locations in the current user account, common configuration options, and buttons for shutting down the computer and locking the display.

Slab, which replaces the traditional GNOME menu in openSUSE, has a design that differs from the Vista menu only in details of the design; it offers the same feature list. If anything, it is even more compact than the Vista menu, with three separate views for applications, documents, and places. Like the Vista menu, Slab includes a button for viewing all applications but, instead of opening a traditional menu, it opens a list that is far more compete, but still falls short of everything on the computer.

As its name implies, the Vista Menu for GNOME Panel is also an adaptation of what's happening in Windows. Its main distinction is its high degree of customization, including options for installing both general and icon themes, and for altering the commands started by its buttons.

Although just as obviously based on Vista as are Slab and Vista Menu for GNOME panel, KDE 4.0's panel is more innovative than either. It includes four tab views -- Favorites, Applications, Computer, Applications, and Leave -- neatly hiding away what you don't currently need. In the Applications view, the menu is equally concerned with saving space, with each submenu occupying the menu window as it opens, instead of cascading across the desktop. If you could only make the Applications tab the default view, and if the submenus would include some navigational bread crumbs to keep users from getting lost as they move up and down the menu tree, the new KDE menu would easily be best of class in this school of menu innovation.

And what happens if you don't like the design of these menus? Mercifully, in each case, you can install an old-style menu as a panel applet. OpenSUSE, unfortunately, replaces the Main Menu applet with Slab, but you can still use the three-item Menu Bar (with Application, Places, and System as the top menus) to regain the functionality you prefer.

Making room for social networking

The second main direction in menu design is to include easy access to IRC addresses and social networking sites like Flickr and Facebook.

Gimmie takes the form of a color-coded application launcher with separate colors for Applications, Documents, People, and Computer. These launchers open additional windows as submenus from which you can choose the application or action to start, or -- in the case of People -- the person you want to contact.

BigBoard is even more strongly oriented to adding social networking to the menu. Part of the GNOME Online Desktop, a project dedicated to providing an alternative version of GNOME, BigBoard is designed to work with Mugshot, an online community designed to do for social sites what del.icio.us does for bookmarks -- that is, to centralize and organize them. A side panel that sits on the left of your desktop, BigBoard has the usual spaces for applications and configuration at the top, but most of the widgets that make up its length are for social networking or related sites. The main drawback to BigBoard is that it assumes you'll need only a few items on each pane -- add half a dozen in three or four categories, and Bigboard quickly becomes even more unwieldy than the traditional menus it is designed to replace.

Needed innovations, or dead-ends?

Few GUI users are likely to deny the problems that these menu experiments are supposed to solve. A complete menu like the Debian one can be overwhelming to new users, while a resemblance to Windows can be reassuring to new users. Cascading menus can often be a nuisance, and social networking probably is an interest of many casual users.

Yet whether these experiments are the best solutions possible seems questionable. The trouble with restricting a menu's default displays to recently used programs and a search field is that new users can hardly discover a new program if they never see any mention of it. And, while social networking is a popular phenomenon, do desktops really need new tools to accommodate it? Traditional menus or even icons might do just as well as Gimmie or BigBoard to configure a desktop for social networking.

Still, anything that extends the ability of free desktops to satisfy different categories of users is probably worth trying. And even if none of these menu replacements becomes widely used, the fact that something as basic to computing as the design of a menu can still be experimented upon is an indication of just how healthy the free software community continues to be.


  • Desktop Software
Click Here!