Free/Open Source Software has always been about innovation, writes Packt columnist Mayank Sharma. We have come from resolving dependencies to unique point-and-click package management, from text-based installations to graphical ones that are easy to follow, from a lack of desktop-oriented applications to a surplus. But the desktop and window managers still feel like they did initially. Does the buck stop here? Not if SymphonyOS can help it.(www.www.symphonyos.com/)
Creating Desktop Symphony
Free/Open Source Software has always been about innovation. We have come from resolving dependencies to unique point-and-click package management, from text-based installations to graphical ones that are easy to follow, from a lack of desktop-oriented applications to a surplus. But the desktop and window managers still feel like they did initially. Does the buck stop here? Not if SymphonyOS can help it. http://www.symphonyos.com/
Ryan Quinn's Symphony Linux, though still under beta, has a huge fan following, thanks to Jason Spisak's Mezzo Desktop Environment (DE). Initially, SymphonyOS started out with Knoppix at its heart, but the latest version has a pure Debian base with a 2.6 series kernel managing things. As per Ryan, on the project's website, the number of bugs being filed is significantly low as the distribution begins stabilizing.
But first, let's talk of the things that make SymphonyOS stand out -- the Mezzo Desktop, One Click Package Management, and the Orchestra Application Enviornment.
The Mezzo DE is built on Jason's Laws of Interface Design. It breaks from the traditional view of a DE and makes it more intuitive for a user. It is the only DE currently available in SymphonyOS though it can be used with other distributions as well.
According to the SymphonyOS project website, the design of Mezzo has also influenced other projects, particularly the Kuartet Desktop, which is built upon KDE using Superkaramba and Python and renders a GUI similarly designed as Mezzo.
One Click Package Management
Based on Debian's popular apt-get package management, the OneClick system is actually a software store that easily installs software through SymphonyOS's Apt-Plus protocol. All you need to do is find your way around to the OneClick Software (http://apt-plus.com/), browse your way through the applications available, select the one you want to use, click on the Install hyperlink and let SymphonyOS handle the rest. Yes, all through the browser itself!
Behind the scenes, Symphony invokes apt-get that downloads and installs the application and its dependancies. The store is still under development, with applications being added quite frequently. Programs are categorized under Games, Internet, Multimedia, Servers, Windows Compatibility, Web 2.0 apps, Graphics, Office, Utilities, Symphony Desklets and Misc.
Orchestra Application Environment
To me, the way SymphonyOS runs applications is far more interesting than the Mezzo desktop. All of SymphonyOS's applications are a combination of plain HTML files and some interpreted language like Perl, PHP. These scripts are translated by the Orchestra applications environment into standard GUI applications!
Basically, this involves a localhost server running from /usr/Applications/System/orcd that starts with Mezzo. When you click on an application, a request is sent to the server for the file, which if required will first run through the associated interpreter and then displayed by the Mozilla-based renderer running from /usr/Applications/system/orc-moz.
The latest version of SymphonyOS is 2006-05, with a new version expected in July or August. Download the ISO and burn it on to a CD-ROM. Currently SymphonyOS is a Live CD, so you can try it out without data loss fears.
SymphonyOS wasn't able to detect my Linksys PCMCIA wireless card, so I plugged in the Ethernet cable which was automatically configured through Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP). The GNOME Display Manager (GDM) login screen lists the default username and password, including root's, to avoid confusion. Upon login you get the wonderful Mezzo desktop that has several desklets, which are small graphical applets that provide information in an eye-candy fashion. The default desklets bring you the latest NewsForge headlines, along with Yahoo news and allow you to query Google right from your desktop.
You don't get any taskbars at the top or bottom; neither do you see any menus. Instead there are four targets at the corners; housing files and for carrying out tasks related to the System, Programs, Files, and Trash. Navigation between targets is simple; clicking on close at the top right will return you to the desktop while clicking on another target will move you there, taking your open applications along with you.
On the top left corner is "Computer" that lists all disk partitions, mounted, under "Devices". There are also options to configure the desktop and the login screen listed under "Settings". The "Tasks" that can be performed from this target, include installing SymphonyOS to a partition, getting information about the machine and shutdown. Bottom left target points to "Programs" that lists the installed programs grouped under favorite programs and all programs. The One Click Software repository can be accessed from under the "Tasks". SymphonyOS by default includes the Firefox Web Browser, Mozilla Thunderbird Email client, GAIM Instant Messenger, Leafpad text editor, and VLC Media Player.
The "Files" target on the top right corner lists the "Favorite Locations", which are predefined folders to house various files, documents, music, pictures and downloads. On the bottom right corner is the "Trash" target.
You can configure the desktop with the "Desktop Manager". It lets you position the default desklets or add new ones like weather and battery indicators, change the wallpaper, and modify the list of favorite programs and favorite locations. Clicking on the clock at the top will refresh the desktop. Some programs like The Desktop Manager and the Configure Login Screen require root access.
Overall SymphonyOS is a unique distribution. The list of applications in the One Click repository is growing. Symphony Linux is a breather from run-off-the-mill operating systems. It's still in its early days and the current version, should be looked at as a preview of the things to come.
Mayank Sharma is a freelance writer from New Delhi, India. He is blown away by the power of Free and Open Source Software and its usefulness to developing nations.
Check out his blog at http://www.geekybodhi.net/