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Elementary OS Interview – Iconic Design

Is it really possible to build an entire OS from an icon set? The answer, it seems, is elementary

Over the weekend, elementaryOS 0.2 Luna was released. You can read a very thorough and informative post from the creators over on their blog, chronicling some of the changes that have occurred over the last two years since elementary Jupiter was released.

In issue 129 of Linux User & Developer, on sale now, we interviewed the guys behind elementary to get an idea of what we’d be seeing in this release.

Ubuntu Apple
A new beginning

Linux User & Developer: In your own words, what is elementary? How would you explain it to a friend in a bar?

Cassidy James: elementary is both an idea and a project. It’s the idea that computing should be fast, easy, beautiful, and free. It’s a project that includes an icon set, a suite of apps, and an operating system (elementary OS).

elementary OS, specifically, is an open source operating system that adheres to those ideas. It’s the best-of-the-best from elementary. It’s both powerful under the hood and beautifully simple.

We really don’t like to think of elementary OS as “yet another distro in the Linux world.” elementary OS is an operating system that’s just as good for your grandma as it is for an IT guy.

What niche in the distro ecosystem does it fill? What sets it apart from the crowd?

Daniel Foré: When talking about the role of elementary in the Linux ecosystem, I like to compare it to an album. There’s a lot of “Top 10” and “Greatest Hits” distros out there. But elementary is one of the few that have produced the entire experience from beginning to end. We build a coherent experience with a whole new home grown interface.

Cody Garver: elementary OS adheres to strict ideas and rules for how an operating system should interact with users. The ideas and rules are defined in our human interface guidelines or otherwise decided on by the design team.

What inspired you to be involved in the creation of both elementary and the resulting OS?

CJ: I got involved with elementary a couple of years ago. I’d seen and used the icons and a few of the apps, but wanted to help out. The cohesive sense of design drew me in and I stayed because of the heavy emphasis on user experience.

DF: For me, elementary OS came about because Windows and OS X just weren’t perfect, and yet there was nothing that could be done about it. I wanted a professional, consumer-ready desktop in which I could actually affect change.

Do you feel like you’ve been at all successful in affecting that change?

DF: I think we’ve been 100% successful. We’re a super open community and everybody has a voice here. While we do have an over-arching vision and we have to stay focused on our goals, I think it’s very easy for any developer or designer (of any skill level) to get into contact with right people and affect change on our desktop.

In addressing consumer-readiness, I’m always excited to hear stories from our users about elementary being installed for stereotypically less experienced users (read: mom and dad). We had someone tweet at us recently that they installed elementary on their daughter’s computer and she promptly went off to school and converted 3 of her classmates. I think that’s pretty good for a public beta.

CJ: By taking something that’s powerful and distilling the interaction down to what’s necessary, we enable ordinary users to tap into that power.

It must be hard to draw a line between power and simplicity. How do you go about striking a balance that keeps all users happy?

DF: I think traditionally, power has been equated with complexity. But for me, a piece of software is truly powerful when it’s enabling users to do things they were never able to do before. So for people like my grandparents, power means being able to send email. It’s an incredibly simple task with a traditionally incredibly high barrier to entry. The more tasks that we can lower the barrier to entry on, the more powerful our users become.

CJ: By having a disciplined user interface, we’re able to better expose that power to the user. For example, instead of offering the kitchen sink of customization options, we force ourselves to figure out how to design it in a way that works best.

How would you compare the way you’re “designing it in a way that works best” with, say, Canonical or GNOME?

CJ: I think we have a much tighter focus on the user. I don’t want to badmouth anyone here, but Canonical has their corporate interests, is focusing on servers, and is going out of their way to do their own thing. They seem to be thinking more, “what’s the most effective market strategy?” where we’re thinking, “what the best user experience?”. GNOME’s newer design kick actually overlaps with ours here and there, but I think their focus is really on providing a base for other distros.

DF: To go further on what Cassidy just said, I think we’re sitting at a sweet spot between the two. We still care about desktop, but we’re also into innovative design.

What’s an average day for you on elementary? What are your main focuses at the moment?

CG: This is how things work for the most part at elementary: deluge of bug reports come in (from users or team members or automated crash report). A team member (usually me) looks at each bug and if it’s design related, the design team sees it and makes a decision; otherwise the bug is marked Confirmed or Won’t Fix or Duplicate of another report. If it’s confirmed it gets assigned to a milestone that determines (very roughly and tentatively) when it should get addressed.

DF: My current focus at this point in the cycle is smoothing out any visual design issues. I’m looking for inconsistencies, oddities, etc.

CJ: Our focus at this exact second is getting Luna out the door. Our overall focus, however, is on getting elementary to a point where everyday people can sit down and use it for everything they want to do. We’re quickly approaching that point, and have some nice anecdotes from users, which back that up.

A huge focus from there forward is on developers; we are building an infrastructure for devs to build apps on elementary, distribute them, and get paid.

We already have a lot of unique under-the-hood technologies in place, like Granite and Contractor, that enable devs to more easily make apps that both tie into the system and follow our Human Interface Guidelines.

We’re also working on AppCenter, an app store and distribution service, but I can’t announce specifics at this point I’m afraid.

DF: The team will tell you that we use launchpad, Google Docs, and other online tools extensively – they’re all integral tools to working together efficiently and effectively.

There’s a lot of positives, but what about the challenges? There are always pain points in any project – what are yours?

CG: There’s never enough time. Developers don’t have enough time to work on elementary, tech moves too fast for things to get perfected before it’s either objectively or subjectively outdated.

DF: I think our biggest problem is lack of support from major third-party developers. It’s always awful to talk up elementary to someone and you both get really excited and then they ask about Netflix.

CJ: Time, money, and collaboration are all challenges we face every day. We have a limited amount of contributors trying to fit working on elementary in between their everyday lives. We don’t have a massive pool of money to throw at them or to invest into the project as much as we’d like to. And as Dan said, collaborating with third parties difficult at this point; I think we’re not as established in the OS world as we’d like to be. Which makes sense, really, seeing as how we’ve only had one release, and that was years ago.

What’s the way forward? How do you factor this in and work with it?

DF: I think the only real way forward on this is as an entire Linux community. We owe a lot to Canonical and Ubuntu when it comes to courting big gaming and the like. But overall, I think the more users get behind Linux-based operating systems the more support we’ll see from big names. It’s all up to our early adopter crowd and how much noise they make.

What’s worse for a project like yours – a lack or time or a lack of money?

CJ: I think time and money go hand-in-hand. If we had more time, we could push things out faster. If we had more money, we could pay devs so they could a lot more time to push things out faster.

Grab the latest elementaryOS from the elementary website now – for free, or with a tip.