A Look at Gnome Activity Journal
One of the major new features to expect in future versions of Ubuntu is Gnome Activity Journal, which brings a very refreshing approach to the way users interact with files and data. Here’s a look at how it works.
For several decades–since the time when storage devices became large enough to accommodate more than a handful of files–we’ve been stuck with the folder paradigm for organizing files: in order to access their data, users have to sort through their file system to find what they’re looking for. Desktop search utilities and recently-used-file lists can assist in this process, but the file system hierarchy still needs to be dealt with sooner or later.
Gnome Activity Journal, which describes itself as “a viewport into the past,” aims to allow users to organize data without having to place it into mutually exclusive directories whose names they quickly forget. Instead, the application helps users keep track of files according to the times at which they were used, and in relation to similar files that users access at the same time.
Strictly speaking, Gnome Activity Journal is merely a GTK+ interface. The real magic is done via the Zeitgeist backend, which indexes files according to access times and other attributes (including such innovative characteristics as geographical location of use).
Gnome Activity Journal is the tool that lets users view and open the files from the Zeitgeist index; in other words, it’s essentially a file browser, but without the file system.
Here’s what Gnome Activity Journal looks like, based on recent development code:
And for a more detailed look at Gnome Activity Journal in action, here’s a screencast, courtesty of Seif Lotfy:
One of the application’s coolest features, made clear in the screenshot and screencast, is its ability to preview files on mouseover. It even plays videos live, which is impressive.
Gnome Activity Journal’s most obvious inadequacy, as it stands currently, is its lack of support for Web history, which is likely more important for many users than offline data. Being able to view the lists of recently accessed websites would be hugely useful for those of us who spend most of our time in Web browsers. Fortunately, that feature is in progress, so there’s not much more to say here.
As for whether the Activity Journal on its own can serve as a true replacement for traditional file browsers, I’m not sure. Currently, it’s only really useful for finding files that have been accessed in the recent past, and in that sense, it’s not necessarily more helpful than Nautilus. Finding the files you worked with yesterday is always easy enough; the real challenge is to come up with a way to organize data so that it’s as accessible three years from now as it was ten minutes ago.
Features that might help in this regard are searching and tagging, which are also in progress. Again, this functionality is already abundantly provided by other utilities, but combining it with a heavily chronological approach to data organization could prove to be very useful.
The one thing that I can say with confidence about Gnome Activity Journal and Zeitgeist is that, unlike every other GUI-equipped indexing system I’ve tried to use on Ubuntu, they actually keep track of all of my files, reliably. Tools like Beagle and Tracker have proven good at wasting CPU cycles and disk I/O, but they never seem to be able to index all of my files without issue.
Granted, Zeitgeist’s mission is considerably easier, because it’s not indexing the entire file system, but at least it is successful in its limited goals. That success, among others, makes it a promising new tool to look forward to using in Ubuntu.