Wednesday, December 07, 2011

At Work with Linux: A Little Further Digging into Ubuntu

Three instances of Google's Chrome on the Unity desktop

Those three instances in tile layout after clicking the Chrome icon in the Unity launcher

In digging a little further into how Ubuntu 11.10 works, I installed Real Google Chrome. I then used Chrome to create a shortcut to Oracle Java on the desktop (via Wrench | Tools | Create Application Shortcuts), then experimented a bit with the results.

If you're not familiar with Google's browser "applications", know that when Google's Chrome creates a shortcut to a web page, on execution (double click the shortcut on the desktop) the shortcut launches Chrome as an application without any of the tabs or other decorations present on the regular Google Chrome browser. For those who are used to multiple tabs in one browser instead of multiple browser instances on the desktop this behavior can be somewhat surprising.

Unit's left-side launcher provides nominal visual feedback as to what is going on. In the case above I had three Chrome instances running on the desktop. On the left of the Chrome icon there were three little lit triangles. Clicking on the Chrome icon on the launcher arrayed all three instances in tile-like fashion allowing you to pick a specific instance. This is a nice touch to handling multiple instance clutter, but it will work only if there are a few running instances, and doesn't provide the same visually rich detail that tabs can provide. This doesn't make as much sense for the classic desktop as it does for a tablet screen, but even then tabbed browsers have adapted rather nicely to tablet interfaces, or at least I believe it has under Android Honeycomb on the Asus Transformer and Motorola Xoom.

There's nothing magical about Unity desktop shortcuts. They're bog-standard simple [application-name].desktop text files in the Desktop folder. This, of course, is the way it's been for some time now with Gnome. As the contents of the desktop file are text-based any editor can be used to modify it such as vi/vim, gedit, or emacs, to name but three. You can also create .desktop files from scratch, or copy a working one to a new file and then edit that. Yes, it's annoying that you can't create a shortcut directly from the desktop, but you can at least create desktop launchers the "old fashioned" way. Once you've added a shortcut to the Desktop folder that new shortcut will appear on the desktop automatically almost instantly. Creating shortcuts by adding or editing files to the Desktop folder is Absolutely No Big Deal, but for others it may be. Your Mileage May Vary.

I've reached the end of personal experimentation with Ubuntu and Unity. We will use it as a generic visual workstation, but for development we'll fall back to a selection of distributions we are already familiar with, primarily RHEL, Fedora, and OpenSUSE. We may draft Linux Mint as a more developer-friendly distribution for specific Ubuntu development if and when that opportunity presents itself.

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