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Feature: Desktop Software

Free software menus reinvented

By Bruce Byfield on February 21, 2008 (7:00:00 PM)

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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.

Windows-inspired

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.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for Linux.com.

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on Free software menus reinvented

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Free software menus reinvented

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 78.149.169.213] on February 21, 2008 07:28 PM
Why is that every time a menu with one main menu is made it's suddenly a "copy of Windows", "copy of Vista" or "inspired by Windows"? SLAB and Kickoff are nothing like Vista's menu, come on. Post the screenshots of all the menus and you'll see that.

The only thing they come close to agreeing on is: prioritization of favourites, and search bar in the menu. Both of which are a little obvious as the way forward these days. SLAB and Kickoff are similar in some ways, but they're hardly like Vista's menu.

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Free software menus reinvented

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.249.86.236] on February 21, 2008 07:34 PM
slab menu and others are not vista based. For one, slab has been around longer than vista.

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Re: Free software menus reinvented

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 193.120.116.180] on February 26, 2008 02:27 AM
Sir/Madam,
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My e-mail address is: zahiduljhon@yahoo.ie

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Free software menus reinvented

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 213.188.232.59] on February 21, 2008 07:48 PM
For KDE4, two more menus are being created: Raptor and Lancelot. Probably there are even more approaches to come.

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No screenshots

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 69.111.72.48] on February 22, 2008 01:14 AM
A cropped screenshot for showing each menu would be worth 1,000 words in this case.

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Proper Cascading Menus Missing on GNU/Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 70.109.185.191] on February 22, 2008 01:33 AM
The Current DE's have yet, even up to today, to build properly working cascading menus. Menus/Toolbars such that have been an integral part of MS Windows since the Active Desktop in Windows 95 with Internet Explorer 4 and are still today available to Vista users. Missing is such basic functionality as right-click context menus and the ability to browse CD's and all other external media/places including your entire Network-Neighborhood, and users shared files. One menu can be setup to menu-browse the entire computer and Network. All these work smoothly and you can even play files on the Network without issue. KDE (which purports to be Windows user friendly) has, and never has had, any of these functions working properly. You can't menu-browse to to external media because they exist in the non-existent media: or network: directories which can't be linked to. KDE, instead of copying this functionality and improving on it by fixing the obvious flaws they have now gone on this wacky widget tangent. This simple defect keeps many people from adopting GNU/Linux as their default desktop environment. So, stop complaining about the things you have little or no control over like that hardware vendors don't support Linux well enough. There is enough that are available now to get the job done. What isn't ready though, that you do, in fact, have total control over, is the Desktop Environment. The Windows core work-flow concepts and tools are longstanding and have become second nature to a HUGE number of computer users who have no intention learning whatever mindless brainchild you DE developers are trying to foist upon them. Failing to give people what they want and expect from their desktop will relegate the GNU/Linux desktop market-share struggle to a long road to hoe. The very fact that Vista was such a piece of crap and there wasn't a mass exodus to GNU/Linux should give you people pause to consider that you're screwing up somewhere. Bad! What should be particularly troubling to you is that people a ripping GNU/Linux off of pre loaded OEM computers like the EEEpc and the OLPC and putting Windows on them. To them, your offering sucks bad enough to go though the effort to get rid of you. I'd say you've missed your mark by a wide margin. You don't have to blow everybody's hair back with innovative concepts to succeed on the end users desktop. Just keep it simple and familiar. In that, you are failing miserably.Imitate, first, then innovate.

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Free software menus reinvented

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 64.106.83.36] on February 22, 2008 05:07 AM
Hasn't Linux Mint had something like this for over a year now?

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Free software menus reinvented

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 193.238.164.245] on February 22, 2008 12:53 PM
I don't see the point of reinventing these menus, personally. The approach by Gimmie and others appears to be to categorise applications into various categories. However, what's so difficult about organising the existing menu into categories? I mean, it isn't difficult to sort your menu into different categories. The existing Windows 9x "tiny" menu approach is slated as "application centric" but it works beautifully for me. I use XP at work and pressing Windows | P | right cursor | N gives me Notepad in about 1 second. How can I gain anything by bundling all the application launchers into another application?

I'm sure they have many benefits for new users if they can't find an application to do a certain thing, but when the user has moved on from being a new user, they'll probably find it really really really slow to launch an app. They'll hopefully learn to assign keyboard shortcuts to open applications rather than poking around the menu. eg. Ctrl-Alt-5 will launch a word processor. It doesn't happen that often, but miracles might happen...
But in any case, once you've used a computer for a while, surely you'll remember what the app is called and learn the things it does? When going to work in the morning, do I think "Travel | Modes of Transport | 4 wheels | car" or do I think "car"? I think "car" because I have learned (very quickly) that a car allows me to do a certain thing and has certain properties. The same will surely be true when using applications.

All this dumbing down of menu interfaces and rethinks of the interface may be good for some to a certain extent, but it is infuriating if the designers think that:
1. everyone likes getting pain in the wrist using a mouse to launch anything
2. everyone loves using a giant screen-hogging blob to show types of applications (Vista menu anyone?)
and do not realise that:
3. long-time users work very quickly with the existing system
4. if it isn't broken, don't fix it.

Remind me again, how exactly is the existing system broken for anyone who has never used a computer for less than 1 week? And what is the default Vista menu anyway? From using it at work, it appears to want to be:
1. a menu system
2. a search tool
3. a "run command" box
4. a button panel
What's wrong with it being just a menu?

Rich

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Free software menus reinvented

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 193.238.164.245] on February 22, 2008 12:54 PM
Hmmmm.... this commenting system appears to hate line breaks, thereby rendering any comment as unreadable white noise. Rich

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Free software menus reinvented

Posted by: galeon on February 22, 2008 02:29 PM
i want to recieve a linux software for free,, that its possible? im student on college

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Re: Free software menus reinvented

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 202.92.44.173] on February 23, 2008 12:13 AM
Free Linux Download, 100% legit
http://www.ubuntu.com/getubuntu/download

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Free software menus reinvented

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 193.166.94.185] on February 23, 2008 02:06 AM
I kind of like TastyMenu for KDE3, I've used it in Debian to replace the default K-menu. TastyMenu collapses the multi-level "Debian menu" into one long paragraph that you can just scroll up and down. Still, TastyMenu keeps the menu items under their proper sections. I find this long list that I can scroll up and down much simpler to use than the default K-menu that can hide the menu items under its multi-level embedded maze. Hopefully TastyMenu gets ported to KDE4, because I find the SUSE-made default menu in KDE4 hideous, even worse than the K-menu in KDE3.

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KDE4 menu

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 129.241.137.237] on February 23, 2008 11:08 AM
You say that KDE4 should make the "applications" tab the default. Thing is: I hardly evere use the applications tab. I use the "favorites" tab, or the "Alt+F2". The KDE4 menu is based on the principal that a user only uses veary few of his apps in daily work.
Downside with using the favorites tab, is you do not "get to know" the applications menu (I do, because KDE4 settings breakes once in a while, and I have to "rm -R .kde4/share/config/plasma*") and every time u need an app not in your favorits, you have too look for it.

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Free software menus reinvented

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 204.198.76.234] on February 23, 2008 05:40 PM
I finally figured out what it is I don't like about these "new" style of menus! All of your comments helped me to finally figure it out. As a linux user (and not a developer) I *love* the fact that I can download all kinds of free apps to do the function I want. With that in mind I don't use just a minimal few apps all the time. I use a bunch. Therefore I don;'t want my apps hidden from me by a series of scroll out menus that are clunky to use -and at best only give you a partial picture of what is on your system.

I want to see ALL the apps I have in a simple snapshot fold out menu style. I don't want them organized by "favorites" etc... I like the basic KDE menu and hate the new KDE4 Menu. (I use the basic in KDE4).

Now, I would like to see a "prettier" KDE basic menu. Maybe the same fold out menu with nice mini icons (4 most used apps) along the top of the pop-up menu.

Thanks for letting me vent!

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Free software menus reinvented

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.172.105.162] on February 24, 2008 02:32 PM
To me, the menu button is something you use once or twice a week or maybe month. Every app I use regularly (maybe 5 or 10) I put in a button on the task bar. The 2 or 3 apps I use the most get a button on the task bar. Same with the folders I go to most often, another button, with 5 to 10 links to folders.

How you get to your apps and info is the most custom thing about really using your computer, why would you use a generic menu that they design to meet general usability of everyone.

The new menu interfaces are nice, but you can do better, because you know how you use your computer.

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Free software menus reinvented

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 150.101.11.18] on February 26, 2008 05:30 AM
Eh, I far prefer the standard simple gnome or xfce menu to these.

A menu should be just that, a menu - all the rest of the things that get added in these new menu's just get in the way.

I just want to be able to click the menu, choose a category then chose a program to run - anything else really belongs elsewhere.

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