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Ximian GNOME: Welcome to Your Desktop

by Daniel Solin

Long time, no see! At the end of July last year, I wrote Helix GNOME: Unix For Humans to help you get started with the Helix GNOME desktop. Since then, the HelixCode company has changed its name to Ximian and is now calling its product Ximian GNOME.

In the last article, we looked at what the Ximian GNOME desktop is and why you would want to use such a thing. But that article only took you through the installation process. In this article, we'll go through the different features of Ximian GNOME and teach you how to customize the desktop to suit your specific needs. We'll then review some of the applications that come with Ximian GNOME.

Getting to know Ximian GNOME

The last screenshot shown in the first article showed a standard Ximian GNOME desktop with the hints window running. For those of you coming from the Microsoft world, GNOME hints work just like the hints that are shown the first time you install Windows. And, just like Windows hints, the Ximian GNOME desktop will feed you useful tips and hints about using GNOME until you explicitly tell it to stop by unchecking the "display this dialog next time" checkbox. For now, we'll just close the window.

So, there you have it -- a nice, clean desktop. Now let's look under the hood and see if this beautiful shell has any useful features to offer.

Overview of Ximian GNOME components.
Figure 1: Overview of the Ximian GNOME components. (Click on the image for a full-size view.)

We'll go through the core utilities one by one to make sure we know how they work and what they're there for.

The GNOME Panel

Opened GNOME menu.
Figure 2: Click on the foot and the GNOME Menu pops up!

The GNOME Panel is usually found at the bottom of the screen. This is the "heart" of the Ximian GNOME Desktop. It contains the GNOME Menu (see an opened GNOME Menu in Figure 2), the Quick Launcher menu, the GNOME Tasklist, and the GNOME Deskguide, making the GNOME Panel an invaluable part of the desktop.

The GNOME Menu works just like the Start menu in Windows. You use it to launch your applications, and can add and remove items from the list as you install and deinstall software. However, if you're dealing with GNOME-compliant software, items will be added and removed from the GNOME Menu automatically!

The quick-launchers, usually found at the right side of the GNOME Menu, are a set of icons that give you easy access to your favorite applications and utilities. In contrast to the desktop icons, the quick-launchers located on the Panel are always accessible -- even if you have a large application running. Later, we'll learn how to add our own quick-launchers to the Panel.

At the right side of the quick-launchers you see the GNOME Tasklist. Well, "see" maybe isn't the right word, because it's more or less invisible. In Figure 1, the only trace you actually see of the GNOME Tasklist is the dragging bar, which is only there to let you drag the Tasklist around on the Panel. However, when you start applications, each one will get it its own icon on the Tasklist. By clicking on these icons, you can easily change the active window and yes, you're absolutely right, it works just like the Windows Taskbar.

If you take a look at the left side of the panel, you'll see the GNOME Deskguide. This is a neat utility that gives you a selection of virtual desktops. A virtual desktop is a desktop that exists in your computer's memory -- you need to click on the icon to see it. By default, the Deskguide is configured to create four virtual desktops. Try it out yourself: Start an application on the upper-left desktop (and wait until it appears onscreen), then click on the upper-right desktop. Voila! You have a whole new empty desktop to work with. If you click on the upper-left desktop again, you quickly get back to the application you just started. Believe me, this feature is useful!

The desktop icons

Like any other modern desktop, GNOME allows you to create custom icons on the desktop. This can be an icon for launching an application, for opening an Internet URL, or for opening a directory on your local hard drive. If you are migrating from Windows, you're probably used to desktop icons and will find this feature very useful.

The fast-access menus

At the top of your desktop, there is another panel. At the left side of this panel, you see the Fast Access menus. These include the Programs menu, the Favorites menu, the Setting menu, and the Desktop menu. All these menus can be accessed via the GNOME Menu as well, but this solution makes it even easier for you access the most commonly used menus because you'll have less sub-menus to search through.

The GNOME calendar

The calendar menu.
Figure 3: This menu pops up if you left-click on the clock.

This GNOME calendar might first look just like a simple clock. However, while the clock function is very useful, the main feature is a built-in calendar. To open the calendar, click with your left mouse-button somewhere on the clock. When you do this, the menu shown in Figure 3 will pop up.

From this menu, you have three calendar options, the fourth item, "Format", is for setting the format of the clock. So, if for example you click on "Today", you will see the window presented in Figure 4.

The current date window.
Figure 4: This window represents your calendar for today.

As you see, this utility offers a full-featured electronic calendar. And, because it's easy to access the calendar from the Ximian GNOME desktop, it's even faster to check things in this calendar than in one that needs newly-licked fingers to become browsable! I personally use this calendar every day. It does everything I need without being too advanced and so feature-rich that you get a serious headache every time something needs to be looked up or written down. I have had that problem with other electronic calendars.

The GNOME web site shortcuts

The GNOME shortcuts menu.
Figure 5: Menu with shortcuts to different GNOME-related web sites.

If you click on the small bug (no, I don't mean a software-bug!) at the upper-right corner of the desktop, a menu with shortcuts to various GNOME-related web sites pops up.

This is a convenient feature -- you just click on one of the items on the menu, and in a pinch, the selected web site will be opened in a new browser window.

Feature summary

These features form the Ximian GNOME desktop. It's very easy-to-use and has all the features you would expect from a modern desktop environment. Now, that you have a basic understanding of how Ximian GNOME is put together, we'll learn how to tweak it to make it perfect for our own needs.

Configuring the Ximian GNOME desktop

Of course, the quick-launchers, the menus, and icons wouldn't be of any use to us if we weren't able to create, delete, and customize them ourselves. This isn't hard at all, and you'll only need to read this once!

Adding and removing quick-launchers

In this section, we'll learn how to move items on the panel to make room for a new one. Then, we'll add our own Quick Launcher icon. Everyone has a favorite application, and probably you have one too. So, let's make something useful out of this first test, and make a Quick Launcher icon to your personal "killer app"!

The desk guide pop-up menu.
Figure 6: This menu will pop-up if you right-click on one of the Panel-items (the desk guide, in this case).

Begin by right-clicking on the desk guide. This will bring up the menu shown in Figure 6.

From this menu, select "Move", and then drag the desk guide as much to the right as you can. Click once with your left mouse button when you're satisfied with the new location of the desk guide. Then move the Tasklist in the same way. (Note that you have to right-click on the dragging bar when you're dealing with the Tasklist. If you right-click on one of the application icons, you will see some options regarding that particular window.)

Now, your panel should look like in Figure 7.

The reorganized GNOME panel.
Figure 7: The GNOME Panel after a reorganization.

We now have some space left at the middle of the panel. Right-click on this empty area. From the menu that pops up, select Panel > Add to panel > Launcher, as in Figure 8.

Selecting the launcher.
Figure 8: Select this item to add a quick-launcher to the Panel.

Now, you'll see the window shown in Figure 9 on your screen.

The resulting dialog box.
Figure 9: In this window, you can fill in the correct values for the quick-launcher that you want to add.

Fill in the correct values for your Quick Launcher icon in this window (make sure you select the type "Application"), and then click "OK". A new icon should now be added to the Panel, and it should now look something like Figure 10.

The custom Quick Launcher icon.
Figure 10: We have now added a custom Quick Launcher icon to the panel!

As you can see, I added my favorite game, GNOME xBill (xBill comes with the Ximian GNOME games package -- check it out!).

Adding the icon.
Figure 11: This menu is used to add an icon to the desktop.

Adding a desktop icon

Adding a desktop icon is almost as easy as walking. Just right-click somewhere on the desktop, and choose Directory, URL Link, or Launcher from the New submenu.

To complete the job, you will be asked to fill in the exact same window as the one you fill in when you add a quick-launcher -- Simplicity, that's the key!

Editing the GNOME Menu

To edit the entries and menus on the GNOME Menu, you use a tool called the GNOME Menu Editor. You find this tool on the GNOME Menu by selecting Programs > Setting > Menu editor. See Figure 12 for a screenshot of the GNOME Menu Editor.

The menu editor.
Figure 12: The GNOME Menu Editor.

The menu editor is very user-friendly. You just select the part of the GNOME Menu that you want to work with from the left side, choose "new submenu", "new item", or "delete" from the buttons at the top, and then fill in the correct information in the fields at the right. When you're done, don't forget to click on "save"!

Customization Summary

You now have a basic understanding of how the different features of the Ximian GNOME Desktop are tweaked and customized. With this knowledge in hand, you are able to do any of the most important tasks that are needed the build a personal desktop environment. Sure, there's a lot of features we didn't mention in this section, but you will probably be able to figure them out yourself now that you understand how things basically work in Ximian GNOME.

A quick look at some killer apps

No desktop environment is worthy to be called just that if it doesn't include a set of the most important applications and utilities such as an e-mail client or a word processor. In this section, I will just give you a couple of hints of what Ximian GNOME has to offer.

Evolution: Ximian GNOME's answer to Outlook

Evolution is, just like Microsoft Outlook, a complete communications application with integrated support for e-mail, news, calendar, and contacts. At least these are the goals of the Evolution project -- the software is still under heavy development (yet still very useful).

Evolution screenshot.
Figure 13: Evolution -- an integrated e-mail-reader, newsreader, calendar, and Contact Manager.

Gnumeric: A spreadsheet with Excel support

If you ask me, Gnumeric has become very important for the progress and popularity of the whole GNOME desktop environment. With support for the Excel 95 file format, and all features you could ask of a advanced spreadsheet application, Gnumeric was one of the reasons why I could finally delete my last Windows partition. Gnumeric is a must -- get it!

Gnumeric screen shot
Figure 14: Gnumeric is great spreadsheet application with all features you could need.

AbiWord: Functional text-processor

Well, not even the most fanatic open source enthusiast can say that AbiWord is as feature-rich, standardized, and stable as Microsoft Word, but it does the job for most things, and it's both light and simple to use. It's a really pity it doesn't support saving in Microsoft Word format though (it offers import only). However, give it a try!

AbiWord screenshot.
Figure 15: AbiWord is a simple word processor with the most common features.

CodeCommander: An Editor For Programmers

CodeCommander is a great editor for programmers with highlighting, and even some IDE (integrated development environment) features like compiling, debugging, and executing from within the editor.

CodeCommander screen shot.
Figure 16: CodeCommander is a great editor for developers. It is useful with most modern programming languages.


After reading this article and the first one, you now have a good understanding of what Ximian GNOME is, how to use it, and what it has to offer. I strongly believe that Ximian GNOME will make your day in front of your Unix/Linux machine both easier and more convenient.

The similarities between Ximian GNOME and Microsoft Windows is quite obvious, so if you're migrating from Windows to Linux/Unix, Ximian GNOME will hopefully make the process easier. I think one of the goals the Ximian GNOME developers have is to kill Linux/Unix's reputation of being a "Hacker's OS".

As you probably understand, it's hard to come up with a cool multimedia ending sequence in a short article like this (even if it's published on the WWW!). So I would like to ask you this favor: Left-click on the bug (the one with the Web shortcuts) at the right upper corner of your desktop and select "About GNOME".

The end!

There! You got the ending sequence!

Daniel Solin is a freelance writer and Linux consultant whose specialty is GUI programming. His first book, SAMS Teach Yourself Qt Programming in 24 hours, was published in May, 2000.

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