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Menu Madness

I’ve been reading about GNOME Shell this week, in preparation for GNOME 3.0.  A lot of the UI changes I am ambivalent about (workspaces, for example, I never, ever, ever, use; consequently I could not care less how their behavior changes), some of them I think are great, others I’m not so sure about.  The one I’m most interested in learning more about is the demolition of the Applications menu, because that is the primary interface for launching apps, which are, of course, the things we need to Do Stuff.

So I’ve been reading the usability design docs for GNOME Shell and trying to figure out what I think they’re saying.  Frankly, it’s a bit unclear.  The Applications menu is broadly replaced by the “Activities” pane, which subsumes the role of Activities, Recent Documents, and Filesystem Bookmarks (yeah, I know; it’s still labeled “Places” despite the fact that that name communicates no information and ambiguously suggests it’s about Location services, which is a genuine embarrassment since GNOME is adding support for that re WiFi and Zeitgeist).  But here’s the issue: in the screenshots and screencasts, the Activities pane  always appears to hold four or five (tops) application icons.  If you need access to more than four or five applications on a regular basis, you have to search for them, then find the app you seek in an alphabetically-sorted list.  I can tell you right now that that is not going to work for me.  I regularly use two dozen or more apps.  Some of these I keep open perpetually (mainly communication apps, terminals, and Emacs), but most of the others I close down when not in use, simply to conserve memory/swap, etc (Inkscape, The Gimp, Rawstudio, Scribus, Krita, some Prism sites, Rhythmbox, MythTV, VLC, the calculator, Deluge, office apps, Grip, PiTiVi, Grsync, and so on and so on).

Having to search every time I need to launch the fifth-or-sixth app out of that list will take me more time.  If there’s no way to configure this behavior, I’m not looking forward to it.

That isn’t to say that the current Applications menu is All That.  It relies on strict categories, but the categories are broad and fill up rapidly.  Here’s the current count of my GNOME app menu categories:

  1. accessories: 32
  2. archimedes: 2
  3. education: 3
  4. games: 19
  5. graphics: 41, 2 in a submenu
  6. internet: 35
  7. office: 22
  8. other: 3
  9. programming: 9
  10. sound n video: 44
  11. system tools: 15
  12. unviersal access: 1

Obviously, you can see some bias in what tasks I do just by counting those menus, but the point is that everyone who uses their desktop to work has usage patterns.  More than one, I think.  I can group what I use my environment for broadly into office “stuff”, work communication, social communication, creative, entertainment, and utility computing.  They overlap; office stuff includes taking screenshots and writing, plus emailing and installing software.  But utility computing includes updating software, too, and work and social communication both could involve IM, Thunderbird, and other apps.

Still, in my own introspection, when I’m in one mode I need to stay in it for a length of time, then switch.  When I’m working, I’ll have and app open to test and I’ll write about it, and I’ll email/IM/VoIP questions and answers back-and-forth to its creator.  When I’m doing creative work, I’ll need to switch back and forth between the creative apps, often many many times.  But I stay within one circle of apps until I change modes.

The way I’ve customized GNOME 2.x to work with me in this method is through the use of launchers that I place on a dedicated panel, grouped roughly by task list, and by having the “perpetual” apps launch at login.  So far, I’m not seeing in the GNOME Shell documentation how I’ll be able to do anything like that in GNOME 3.  The Activities pane seems to limit the raw number of launchers I have immediate access to, and it seems to enforce either “most used” or “most recently used” as the sorting criterion — unclear which.  That has two problems: first, the perpetual apps are almost always going to qualify as “most used,” and when switching modes, a boatload of apps I specifically don’t need are going to qualify as “most recently used.”  In short, if I’m not able to customize the application launching behavior, it’s going to slow me down.

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