The elementary project is a rethinking of the desktop; it’s making using your computer easier, simpler, and prettier. The upcoming elementary OS is a modified Ubuntu, keeping many of the best aspects, while doing away with those an average user is unlikely to need.
There are good things to come for elementary. The team is working on a new file browser, mail app, contacts app, and perhaps calendar app. All of these apps and many of the team’s customizations will be offered upstream for inclusion in Ubuntu if Canonical and the community so choose. In the future, elementary may choose to work with a hardware vendor to offer a more integrated and seamless experience.
Daniel Foré, known around the Internet as “DanRabbit,” is the founder and artist of the elementary project. The project has been making waves in the Ubuntu and broader Linux community for many reasons. Today, I had the opportunity of interviewing Dan himself to gain further insight into the project, its origins, and its future.
Cassidy James: Hi Dan, tell me a bit about yourself.
Daniel Foré: Recently I’ve been contracting for Canonical, which has been a fantastic opportunity. I’ve been involved in the FOSS community since 2006 or so . When I’m not messing around with computers, I’m writing music. I’ve been playing guitar for about 7 years and singing since I was a kid. I’m addicted to Sci Fi and I’m quick to get sucked into a good storyline.
Cassidy James: Neat! So you’re pretty artistic, and not just with computer interfaces.
Daniel Foré: Yea, you could say that.
Cassidy James: elementary started as an icon set. What inspired you to make the icon set?
Daniel Foré: Well, I started with icons before elementary. I was making Dock icons on Windows for RocketDock and I started doing this “Macesque” set; that’s really where it started. But I moved to Gentoo and started mucking about with themes and things. That’s when elementary really started. I was just scratching an itch, really.
Cassidy James: When did you start using Linux?
Daniel Foré: It was right when Kororaa came out. It was the first LiveCD (that I know of) that came with Compiz by default. The combination of Compiz and LiveCD blew my mind as an XP user and I got hooked right away.
Cassidy James: So sometime in 2006?
Daniel Foré: Yeah.
Cassidy James: When did you move to Ubuntu?
Daniel Foré: I want to say it was for Hardy Heron (Ubuntu 8.04). The main motivation for the move was the update manager.
Cassidy James: And when was the first elementary icon release?
Daniel Foré: September 21, 2007.
Cassidy James: So it was actually for Gentoo before Ubuntu?
Daniel Foré: Yea, you could say that. I’ve always tried to make it really distro agnostic, though.
Cassidy James: After the icons, you decided to make a theme. What was your goal for the theme?
Daniel Foré: Well the goal with the theme is the same now as it was then. I want to create something simple, smooth, clean, something out of the way; make it compact.
Cassidy James: So the theme was the next natural step after the icons?
Daniel Foré: Oh yeah. I mean, the icons by themselves just don’t make a big enough difference. You really need the combination to get the full effect.
Cassidy James: True. After the theme, you decided to make an Ubuntu-based Linux distro. What’s your thinking behind this?
Daniel Foré: Well the idea to make a full distro has been something I’ve been playing with since I was back on Gentoo, and really the idea is just to ship something with the default configuration that I’m looking for. I want to get right to doing whatever it is I want to do after an install. I don’t want to have to set anything up to get going.
Cassidy James: The elementary theme seems to have taken the Ubuntu (and broader Linux) theming community by storm, inspiring many alterations, remakes, and even new themes with similar looks. What do you think about these themes?
Daniel Foré: I think they’re great! Something a lot of people have a hard time understanding is that stock elementary isn’t for everyone. So for people to take elementary and make them into something they can use, it’s part of the power of FOSS.
Cassidy James: What do you think about the recent Ubuntu re-branding and the new theme(s)?
Daniel Foré: It’s a big step forward. Cimi has done a great job with Ambiance/Radiance. I’m glad to see purple in the palette; It’s a nice color, really soothing. Overall, as the branding is defined more thoroughly, I think it’ll be great for Ubuntu. They’re really establishing a look that will be noticeable as being very “Ubuntu.”
Cassidy James: Some people give you constant grief for “copying OS X” with your mockups, color scheme, and theme in general. How do you feel about that?
Daniel Foré: I can understand it at a first glance: OS X is dark gray, elementary is light gray. Aqua is very compact, elementary is very compact. Aqua uses blue, elementary uses blue. But its only the very, very, surface things that are similar. If you look at the widgets side by side, elementary is so completely different from Aqua in every way.
Cassidy James: Are some elements of elementary inspired by Apple design?
Daniel Foré: Sure. Inspiration comes from a lot of places, including Apple. But it’s not the only big name. One other really big one is the AppMenu that we’ve been using in our new apps. You can see such a thing in Google Chrome. We also stay away from menubars; this is something taken from apps on mobile devices. The scrollbars are something that are inspired by mobiles, especially the idea that scrollbars are an indicator and something not meant to be clicked.
But also the web is a big source of inspiration. For example, the message list layout in Postler is largely based on Facebook’s messages.
Cassidy James: I noticed on your DeviantArt profile, you list Steve Jobs as your favorite artist.
Daniel Foré: The idea behind that statement is that getting people together to build something great isn’t just a job. It really is an art form if you do it right. I really respect people that are in leadership positions and can handle it so well.
Cassidy James: What’s something you’d like to see happen in the elementary community?
Daniel Foré: The biggest thing I’d like to see happen in the elementary community is making development as low entry as possible. I like the idea of the Opportunistic Developer and I think there are a lot of opportunities for small contributions to add up. I think that’s something we really need to focus on; not only user experience but developer experience.
Cassidy James: You’ve reworked Nautilus (the Gnome file manager), have helped to create Midori (a web browser), are working on a new file manager, and have posted mockups for other apps, such as a music player. What’s at least one additional app that you’d like to see rethought or reworked?
Daniel Foré: Everyone always tries to give me credit for Midori and I just can’t take it. Christian and his guys have been doing an awesome job with Midori. The very small contributions I’ve made there don’t measure up to how awesome those guys are. I can only see our bond with Midori and that team getting tighter.
But, to answer the question and keeping with the idea of developer experience, I had an interesting conversation the other day about doing a really nice front-end to Quickly with some modifications here and there. We were thinking more along the lines of a Project Management app than an IDE. So you still get the desktop-as-your-IDE ideas with Quickly. But you get a really friendly face on it to help you keep track of your projects.
Cassidy James: Are there any other apps you’re looking at tackling next?
Daniel Foré: Well, everyone knows we’re working on Postler, and to back it up we have a new contacts app called Dexter. So another logical one to do would be a calendar.
Cassidy James: What about an office-oriented program?
Daniel Foré: We’ve been using AbiWord, Gnumeric, and Ease.
Cassidy James: So no need to completely reinvent the wheel when there’s already something out there.
Daniel Foré: Yea, we try to work with an upstream before going our own way.
Cassidy James: You mentioned at the beginning of the interview you’ve been contracting for Canonical, what are some of the things you’ve worked on?
Daniel Foré: I did the new Ubuntu mono panel icons, some icons for Ubuntu One mobile apps for Android and iPhone, miscellaneous artwork for Ubuntu Light, and some other random products.
Cassidy James: Are Ubuntu’s default Humanity icons by you, or based on elementary?
Daniel Foré: Yes, I originally started Humanity as a fork of elementary for Ubuntu. Right now they’re being maintained by Vish of Papercuts, but I still make contributions as well.
Cassidy James: Do you plan to continue working with Canonical, or do you think elementary will get in the way of your work for Ubuntu?
Daniel Foré: The schedule I’ve had working as a contractor has been really awesome and it’s actually given me a lot more time to spend with elementary than before I was working for Canonical. Also, I don’t think elementary is in competition with Ubuntu in any way. We’ve been pushing to get Nautilus-elementary into Ubuntu, and we’ll continue the push with Marlin. I’ve personally advocated Midori in Ubuntu Netbook Edition for a while. And we’ll keep pushing with other apps we’re working on to get into Ubuntu.
Cassidy James: Are there any plans for Ubuntu service integration, such as Software Center or Ubuntu One?
Daniel Foré: I think at this point Software Center is probably the best end-user package manager, so we’ll be sticking to that unless something better pops up. Ubuntu One support is planned for Dexter and I don’t see why we couldn’t work it into Marlin, etc.
Cassidy James: How do you feel about shells such as Gnome Shell and Unity, and does elementary have plans for either one?
Daniel Foré: I think it’s good that people are rethinking the desktop metaphor. We really need to start over and question everything we’ve come to assume. Of course we’re coming back to computers as cars. Unity isn’t going to work for everyone, same with Shell.
For the moment, we’re sticking to a more classic panel plus Docky setup. But that could change depending on where things go. To be honest, I don’t see that as being the most important part of the Desktop. The focus is going to need to shift to launching applications; Everything else is kind of secondary.
Cassidy James : I know some time ago in the forum there was a discussion about “locking down” the default elementary OS setup, such as the panel configuration. What is the thinking behind this?
Daniel Foré : Well, elementary isn’t a distro for people who like to configure things, it’s a distro for people who like to use their computer. And specifically, we have a big focus on making things simple and easy. I can only imagine the panic of a first time user deleting their panel, and I’ve witnessed firsthand people getting frustrated and not understand why it’s suddenly on the side of the screen. It’s easier to just to say “Here’s the panel. It’s done.” If you feel the need to tweak, you probably know how to unlock it.
Cassidy James: Do you plan to hide a lot of the configuration options by default as well? Clean up the menus, if you will?
Daniel Foré: A discussion that I had recently with the lead developer on Dexter was that there are certain things a user shouldn’t be asked to decide. For example, alacarte (the Gnome menu editor) isn’t included in our latest builds. The idea is to have a clean slate and use the disc space for things that will be more helpful to more people.
Cassidy James: With elementary OS, how do you plan to attract current Ubuntu (or GNU/Linux in general) users?
Daniel Foré: Well, I don’t really see it as a competition like that. I see operating systems like cars. Some people need a truck, some need a hybrid, some want a sports car. The people who need Ubuntu will use Ubuntu and the people who need elementary will use elementary.
Cassidy James: Do you plan on trying to adopt new-to-Linux users?
Daniel Foré: Absolutely. But as far as getting elementary out there as a choice, we have an excellent web team that just keeps growing. They’re doing an awesome job with our website and I think it’ll be a great place for people to discover what it is we’re doing and help them decide if its right for them.
Cassidy James: Are there any plans for more broad advertising of elementary OS?
Daniel Foré: We have Facebook and Twitter pages that we post to and OMG! Ubuntu! has been awesome about featuring what we’re working on. I don’t think there are any non-free things planned (TV commercials or anything).
Cassidy James: Do you think there is a possibility of hardware vendor support for elementary OS (ex, System76, Dell)?
Daniel Foré: You never know what the future holds. If the opportunity presented itself, I’d definitely jump at it. Especially if it was a smaller vendor like System76 that we could work with to produce a more solid hardware/software experience. I’d like to pull my computer out of the box and know that the sound card works. And the webcam. And all the shortcut keys . And that it’ll sleep properly.
Cassidy James: True! And System76 has already been doing that with Ubuntu.
Daniel Foré: Yep. So the next evolution of that is seeing what we can do to exploit the fact that we know what hardware we’re running on. That is one thing that Mac users never ever ever have to worry about is hardware support. You could say that Apple doesn’t just make an OS or a piece of hardware, they sell a complete experience. If they didn’t sell all the pieces together, they couldn’t guarantee that experience.
Cassidy James: It’s true. That may be an exciting path to look into for elementary. Similar to projects like Boxee; offer the software for free, but also have optimized hardware.
Daniel Foré: Sure, so we’d have a specific set of hardware we design for and if you want to try to run it on something else, feel free. I think it’s important for a project to know what their goals are and what is just out of scope.
Cassidy James: Alright, time for everyone’s question: When will elementary OS be ready? Any idea?
Daniel Foré: Haha, When it’s done! We’re working really hard on getting a get set of default apps to ship, and it really depends on how fast that comes together. But we’re doing it one step at a time. The distro itself is kind of the last piece of the puzzle. So it’ll be after Marlin, Postler, Dexter, etc. are all released.
Cassidy James: Same timeline on those?
Daniel Foré: Yep.
Cassidy James: To sum up, what is “elementary?”
Daniel Foré: I’d say elementary is a couple of things. Firstly, its kind of a philosophy: A way of thinking about software development, user experience, developer experience, etc. And in that way its something that’s still being defined and it’s continually evolving. But really, elementary is the community that has come together to do something really exceptional for FOSS.