February 6, 2006 9:00 PM PST

Novell seeks to boost Linux graphics

Novell has released new software that could boost Linux's glitz and glamour at a time when eye candy is a major feature of rival operating systems.

The software, called Xgl, uses a computer's graphics chip to give a boost to desktop display features such as transparent objects, 3D effects and zooming windows. But the software could also improve more practical parts of the Linux user interface, such as text display speeds, said Nat Friedman, Novell's vice president of collaboration and desktop engineering.

Friedman acknowledges that some new features made possible with Xgl have been pioneered elsewhere. But he believes the open-source nature of Linux means things will be different this time.

News.context

What's new:
Novell is releasing a technology called Xgl that uses a computer's graphics chip to enhance desktop display features of Linux such as transparent objects, 3D effects and zooming windows.

Bottom line:
The technology could give a boost to Linux graphics at a time when rival operating systems are also getting spiffier interfaces.

More stories on this topic

"It'll be one of those open-source situations where people get a hold of the framework, and we'll get new user interface paradigms to come out," he said. "That's not something people can do on a Mac. I want to see 1,000 flowers bloom here."

The lead Xgl programmer, Novell's David Reveman, released the Xgl source code last month, and on Tuesday, Novell will release the plug-in framework and sample plug-ins, Friedman said. The technology will also be incorporated into the next version of Novell's Suse Linux enterprise products, due to ship in May or June.

Graphics are a central element to the more user-friendly interfaces that software engineers have developed to try to make computers more approachable. The central graphical user interface idea--WIMP, short for windows, icons, menu and pointing devices--has changed little for years.

Recently, though, there's been a burst of graphics innovation. New visual features have been built into Apple Computer's Mac OS X, and a new graphics infrastructure is set to arrive in Microsoft's Vista update to Windows, due by the end of the year. Vista employs a graphics engine called Windows Presentation Foundation, code-named Avalon. The operating system will also include a feature called Sidebar that compares to the small graphical utilities called widgets in Mac OS X.

In spite of this, Directions on Microsoft analyst Michael Cherry wants something that he believes polished graphics have yet to provide. All the operating systems are getting equally fancy graphical abilities, he said, "but the real winner is the person who figures out how to make us more productive."

Novell: It's practical, too
Friedman acknowledged that much of the motivation for Xgl is to provide features that are only skin deep--but appearances can be important, he argued. For example, Xgl permits windows to zoom liquidly into the taskbar when they're minimized, and to zoom back out when needed. It's a visual stunt that he believes makes it easier to understand the system.

Xgl cube

"Those little things give a desktop a sense of physicality," Friedman said.

To the same end, another module gives a new view of Linux's ability to show applications on different virtual desktops. For example, there can be one desktop display for e-mail, another for Web browsing and a third related to a programming project. With Xgl, the virtual desktops can be affixed to the faces of a virtual cube; when a user switches, the cube rotates to show new views. "It makes it clear to people what a virtual workspace is," Friedman argued.

Another use comes up when switching among windows using the keyboard. An Xgl plug-in can show a miniaturized version of the file, so a person can see in detail what he or she is switching to. Similarly, Xgl permits fast zooming of windows, a boon to magnification software that helps those with impaired vision, Friedman said.

Xgl is becoming a part of the X.org software project, which handles many basic graphics elements for Linux. In fact, because X.org also is used by many Unix varieties as well as by Linux, Xgl conceivably could be used to spruce up Sun Microsystems' Solaris operating system, or various BSD versions of Unix.

The software is already "largely integrated" with the X.org source code, Friedman said. Novell plans to announce the Xgl contribution to X.org on Tuesday, in conjunction with the X Developer Conference this week in Santa Clara, Calif. Reveman will give a presentation about the software at the conference on Wednesday.

Improving the Linux interface is a Novell priority. The Waltham, Mass.-based company acquired Linux desktop specialist Ximian in 2003. In an effort to improve the operating system's ease of use, the company has urged Linux programmers to watch videos of real-world computer users struggling to accomplish basic tasks.

But one thorny issue in Linux user interface design refuses to go away: the split between KDE and GNOME, two different but widely used packages that provide Linux with user interface controls and utilities. That split, more than the lack of eye candy, is a hurdle to Linux desktops becoming more popular, Cherry said.

"I struggle with whether I should use GNOME or KDE. There aspects of both I like and both I hate," the analyst said.

Because both GNOME and KDE use X.org, Xgl sidesteps that particular issue, Friedman said.

CONTINUED: Behind the scenes…
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20 comments

Join the conversation!
Add your comment
Productivity
Michael Cherry's comments are amusing, in that the productivity
gains are already clearly there.

Regularly switching between Mac and Windows, I find myself
missing the Expose feature from the Mac more than anything
else - it's one of those incredibly small but significant
productivity boosts - certainly more so than the features they
push like the Dock and Widgets. It just doesn't seem so
interesting in demo.

I'd similarly love to see XGL's desktop switching on Mac and
Windows - it's something common on most flavours of Linux- I
can have a 'coding' desktop, an 'office' desktop, a 'leisure'
desktop, even a desktop for specific projects that would show
the applications and documents I'm working with for that project
- this reflects the different modes in which we use computers,
and replacing the need to create folders to hold applications and
documents by category - and returns some use to the original
desktop metaphor.

I don't use Linux myself, but I can see it's a powerful innovation.
(It can be achieved on Windows and OS/X, but only by third party
software).

The key point is that neither of these aren't graphical
technologies - they are desktop UI technologies - but they rely
on a graphical core to make them viable.

I'm just surprised a technology analyst can't see the productivity
benefits in them.
Posted by JulesLt (110 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Virtual desktops unrelated to Xgl
FWIW - Virtual dekstops (having more than one desktop and small "pager" window with the contents of each desktop in miniature) in UNIX have been around since tvwm (1980s) as have things like Apple's expose.

Xgl's only contribution thus far is to make it practical to, in real-time, update the window appearance in the pager. This was possible before, but it required too much CPU to be desirable.

Xgl will provide considerable other eye-candy too, but principally stuff you already get from the X composition manager extension (Xcompmgr) which bears more similarity to Apple's engine.

The best feature of Xgl is its adoption by Cairo. GUIs are still principally 2D in nature, but video card manufacturers really abandoned 2D for 3D long ago. By making use of the newer rendering model, they go a long way to accelerating the GUI and keeping GUI work off the main CPU. I hope that Qt also takes advantage of Cairo soon for the same reason (and because I personally find KDE more feature-rich).
Posted by Zymurgist (397 comments )
Link Flag
It's about time...
... someone invests on this! :)
Posted by Mendz (519 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It's about time...
... someone invests on this! :)
Posted by Mendz (519 comments )
Reply Link Flag
please incorporate GLX!!
remote displays rock. I would like to see some unification amongst the various technologies.... like VNC and GDM.. and GLX...
Posted by freq (121 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It's All Moot Probably
I've been a Unix developer for over 10 years.
Nothing but Linux for the last four. So, I'm
no Windows fanboy. But, having looked at Windows
Vista, I think that the nail in the coffin has
been driven for the Linux desktop. I think
Microsoft has probably managed to put a minimum
of five years between itself and Linux (in as
far as the desktop).

Of course this doesn't mean that this is the
end of using Unix for intensive graphics
applications. But there is a difference
between development of graphics applications
and development of a user desktop. One has
very little to do with the other.
Posted by X99 (37 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Vista = Theif!!
I would have to dispute the 5 year gap. Alot of what MS hypes as "new" has been done in the Linux DE's for quite sometime. Take for instance the use of SVG icons so that you can scale them to a HUGE size. One just needs to spend some TLC time with a DE to learn all the niffty features it has under its belly.

Using KDE for reference, 3.5 though not a "major" release provides a great deal of updates to the DE and makes it run wicked fast. Also KDE 4 concepts and alpha work have looked, for lack of a better word, awesome.

HAL, DBUS...xorg progress...add all these to the mix and figure in the time before vista is released and I really don't think vista will be 5 years ahead like speculated.
Posted by Atari05 (45 comments )
Link Flag
Not neccesarily true.
I am currently using XGL and Compiz on Ubuntu 6.04 FLT 4 and it is very stable and usable right now. If anything, Linux has beaten MSFT to the punch by releasing these features and abilities 9 months before Vista is expected to ship. MSFT is behind both Linux and MAC in this area and 9 months is a long time to sit on something in the software industry. XGL and Compiz are beyond just the development factor and are now available for those with the hardware to install and use. By the time Vista ships there will be new updates and releases that possibly could make Vista out of date even before the first copy ships.
Posted by mstlyevil (39 comments )
Link Flag
It's All Moot Probably
I've been a Unix developer for over 10 years.
Nothing but Linux for the last four. So, I'm
no Windows fanboy. But, having looked at Windows
Vista, I think that the nail in the coffin has
been driven for the Linux desktop. I think
Microsoft has probably managed to put a minimum
of five years between itself and Linux (in as
far as the desktop).

Of course this doesn't mean that this is the
end of using Unix for intensive graphics
applications. But there is a difference
between development of graphics applications
and development of a user desktop. One has
very little to do with the other.
Posted by X99 (37 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Vista = Theif!!
I would have to dispute the 5 year gap. Alot of what MS hypes as "new" has been done in the Linux DE's for quite sometime. Take for instance the use of SVG icons so that you can scale them to a HUGE size. One just needs to spend some TLC time with a DE to learn all the niffty features it has under its belly.

Using KDE for reference, 3.5 though not a "major" release provides a great deal of updates to the DE and makes it run wicked fast. Also KDE 4 concepts and alpha work have looked, for lack of a better word, awesome.

HAL, DBUS...xorg progress...add all these to the mix and figure in the time before vista is released and I really don't think vista will be 5 years ahead like speculated.
Posted by Atari05 (45 comments )
Link Flag
Not neccesarily true.
I am currently using XGL and Compiz on Ubuntu 6.04 FLT 4 and it is very stable and usable right now. If anything, Linux has beaten MSFT to the punch by releasing these features and abilities 9 months before Vista is expected to ship. MSFT is behind both Linux and MAC in this area and 9 months is a long time to sit on something in the software industry. XGL and Compiz are beyond just the development factor and are now available for those with the hardware to install and use. By the time Vista ships there will be new updates and releases that possibly could make Vista out of date even before the first copy ships.
Posted by mstlyevil (39 comments )
Link Flag
Reply to moot
Sure, you're one of those "I know Unix and Linux
intimately, but know that Microsoft is
better/winning/whatever". I call BS. I think
you're Microsoft shill posting fake opinions (as
one can see on any big site nowadays). Your
claim that Vista will put Microsoft 5 years
ahead of Linux is completely unbelievable. Vista
has just been delayed, again, and Linux desktops
can show technologies that Vista only
"promises". So, where's the 5 years, i do not
see it.

What is more, you claim to have "looked at
Vista". What does that mean? Did you read the
press claims by MS, did you see screenshots from
MS blogs, and, did you ignore that everything MS
promises- Linux already has.

Bah, you're just a fake. Or very, very ignorant
of Linux.
Posted by (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Reply to moot
Sure, you're one of those "I know Unix and Linux
intimately, but know that Microsoft is
better/winning/whatever". I call BS. I think
you're Microsoft shill posting fake opinions (as
one can see on any big site nowadays). Your
claim that Vista will put Microsoft 5 years
ahead of Linux is completely unbelievable. Vista
has just been delayed, again, and Linux desktops
can show technologies that Vista only
"promises". So, where's the 5 years, i do not
see it.

What is more, you claim to have "looked at
Vista". What does that mean? Did you read the
press claims by MS, did you see screenshots from
MS blogs, and, did you ignore that everything MS
promises- Linux already has.

Bah, you're just a fake. Or very, very ignorant
of Linux.
Posted by (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Productivity
Michael Cherry's comments are amusing, in that the productivity
gains are already clearly there.

Regularly switching between Mac and Windows, I find myself
missing the Expose feature from the Mac more than anything
else - it's one of those incredibly small but significant
productivity boosts - certainly more so than the features they
push like the Dock and Widgets. It just doesn't seem so
interesting in demo.

I'd similarly love to see XGL's desktop switching on Mac and
Windows - it's something common on most flavours of Linux- I
can have a 'coding' desktop, an 'office' desktop, a 'leisure'
desktop, even a desktop for specific projects that would show
the applications and documents I'm working with for that project
- this reflects the different modes in which we use computers,
and replacing the need to create folders to hold applications and
documents by category - and returns some use to the original
desktop metaphor.

I don't use Linux myself, but I can see it's a powerful innovation.
(It can be achieved on Windows and OS/X, but only by third party
software).

The key point is that neither of these aren't graphical
technologies - they are desktop UI technologies - but they rely
on a graphical core to make them viable.

I'm just surprised a technology analyst can't see the productivity
benefits in them.
Posted by JulesLt (110 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Virtual desktops unrelated to Xgl
FWIW - Virtual dekstops (having more than one desktop and small "pager" window with the contents of each desktop in miniature) in UNIX have been around since tvwm (1980s) as have things like Apple's expose.

Xgl's only contribution thus far is to make it practical to, in real-time, update the window appearance in the pager. This was possible before, but it required too much CPU to be desirable.

Xgl will provide considerable other eye-candy too, but principally stuff you already get from the X composition manager extension (Xcompmgr) which bears more similarity to Apple's engine.

The best feature of Xgl is its adoption by Cairo. GUIs are still principally 2D in nature, but video card manufacturers really abandoned 2D for 3D long ago. By making use of the newer rendering model, they go a long way to accelerating the GUI and keeping GUI work off the main CPU. I hope that Qt also takes advantage of Cairo soon for the same reason (and because I personally find KDE more feature-rich).
Posted by Zymurgist (397 comments )
Link Flag
please incorporate GLX!!
remote displays rock. I would like to see some unification amongst the various technologies.... like VNC and GDM.. and GLX...
Posted by freq (121 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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