Hertzfeld spills all about Eazel

How top software squad will make Linux as easy as the Mac

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LinuxWorld The most eagerly anticipated debut at LinuxWorld hasn't exactly been a secret. But ever since Eazel went public, boasting a stellar management team including legendary Macintosh software guy Andy Hertzfeld, Bud Tribble (Apple, NeXT co-founder and lately Netscape/AOL CTO), and others from the original Mac team, world+dog has been wondering whether it could live up to its promise. Namely, making Linux as easy to use as the Mac.

LinuxWorld has been Eazel's coming out party, and it's with a self-denial bordering on the Jesuit that we waited for Herztfeld himself to take us through Nautilus, Eazel's pride and joy. We were honoured to hear that Andy is a Register reader, so no parlez-vous-Vulture preliminaries were necessary. But, you cry, is it any good?

Nautilus is Eazel's file manager for Gnome. But the most remarkable thing about Eazel is that it doesn't plan to make money from Nautilus at all. Eazel is a straight services company, or as they used to say way back in 1998, a "portal play".

Eazel's business case is that will make its money from services, and that the file manager is the first place new users look for these services. Hertzfeld says Eazel has readied a database containing information and advice for solving dependency conflicts when installing new packages. It's a bet that users will get fed up with the DLL hell (incidentally, that's the name of Microsoft's own internal dependency-conflict-resolution-thing) of Windows or Extensions conflicts of the Mac. It doesn't guarantee fixing them, but Herztfeld suggests it could get pretty close, and at least will provide a better advice we get today.

On top of that, Nautilus wants to be route one to commercial software upgrades, taking a small cut of revenue along the way - between $2 or $5 a month. Then there's the usual ASP suspects - backup, disaster recovery and variations on that theme, including buying a new PC with your personal data already pre-installed. And encrypted, we hope.

We'll have to wait for the full vision. Herztfeld says he has a personal two year plan to see his ambitions realised. But Nautilus sits on Gnome, and Gnome is a moving target. A year ago the Gnome team announced version 2.0, promising us final code right about now. What we got this year is a big bounce to convince innocent bystanders that world+dog has indeed adopted Gnome, but is just hanging around for the code. In the meantime that 2.0 release is still six months away, and some of the most attractive features might have to wait longer, for example, embedding Mozilla components in the file manager.

Lost OS/2 icons discovered

So what's it look like? Well, to anyone familiar with a two-paned Windows or Gnome or KDE file manager, from a distance it looks pretty identical. All the regulars are there, like the browser buttons and Windows-style minimise close and quit buttons. The designers have added some slick extras such as individually sizeable icons - you can make an icon as large as you like. Each icon shows a preview of the file's contents, unlike more recent Microsoft UIs, which put the preview in the left-hand pane. The whole thing's customisable, and easier to customise than you might think.

Eazel is also creating an opportunity for third-party clients to live in that window, for example. We also recognised the default folder icon as being an identical duplicate of the one from OS/2 Warp 3.0, circa 1994, and although Andy assured us that Eazel doesn't lift artwork, maybe someone could... um... peer-review this one.

The idea of storing and refreshing this file preview information somewhere also gave us a touch of the heebie-jeebies. Nautilus won't store this at the file system level in extended attributes, like Windows or BeOS, but cache it somewhere in userland in XML format. Herztfeld said the team had considered doing the Right Thing - to the extent of trying to hire the Right People - but judged against it. "It's a multi-year process to get people to change their file systems. We'd still have to store metadata at the file system somewhere, and we'd gain only a small increase in performance"

But we were surprised what Nautilus isn't. It isn't a task switcher - something else can do that. Eazel is playing with the desktops of its own, but they don't seem to be mandatory. And we were disappointed that the icons are just icons, and don't do anything clever.

Of course, Herztfeld is the pioneer of icons doing something a bit smarter than just being symbols - he's been approaching this for 15 years with aborted UI upgrades to the Mac, and later with General Magic. Ideas for introducing presence to the desktop, and combining it with instant messaging - ie. a "friend" appears on the desktop as icon, and you can tell how far away they are and what they're saying - are on the drawing board.

In summary, it's familiar, it's fun, and for now, it crashes a lot But the potential is enormous, and we were left wondering - given the moral authority these folks have in the developer community - why they are't being more ambitious in filling the rest of the Linux desktop UI with their ideas. They know it's a community process. The community knows they know it's a community process. The community likes and trusts Eazel. How about it? ®

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