Who's the fairest on the desktop?

Sun's ballyhooed new 3D desktop interface, Looking Glass, should be shipping to customers early next year, Sun says. But applications will need an update to make full use of its features.

Sun’s ballyhooed new 3D desktop interface, Looking Glass, should be shipping to customers early next year, Sun says. But applications will need an update to make full use of its features.

Laurie Wong, software business manager at Sun Australia, last week showed a prerelease version of Looking Glass to Computerworld . The demo ran on Sun’s Java Desktop System on a reasonably-specced Toshiba laptop.

Looking Glass was launched as an application from within Gnome, the popular Linux desktop environment. The user selects a wallpaper to use as background, and can move to different views of the wallpaper to create a virtual desktop.

Inside each desktop application windows can be “docked” by flicking them to the side of the screen, where they sit until restored with a mouse click. Docked windows have a slight translucency, reminiscent of the Mac OS X desktop, so the user can see the windows and wallpaper behind. An application launchbar at the bottom of the screen also has an echo of the modern Macintosh.

Some of Looking Glass’ features, such as spinning windows, are undeniably just fun to have, but it’s clearly a useful environment for working with multiple windows and applications. However, Looking Glass also includes its own interface tweaks: for example, selecting Mozilla’s preferences prompted the browser window to flip over, revealing an options pane on the reverse.

Application developers will need to update their apps to run in Looking Glass. Sun hasn’t produced a developer API yet, but it will, Wong says. Sun products such as StarOffice are presumably being updated to run in Looking Glass, but it’s possible that future versions of common GUI toolkits such as wxWidgets and Java Swing could support Looking Glass directly.

In the meantime, users are likely to run Looking Glass and Gnome concurrently, Wong says. He was able to demonstrate three applications in Looking Glass: a version of Mozilla, a terminal window and a music player. The music player allows users to navigate through piles of CD covers to find their tunes. It’s pure eye candy, but fun to use — and who doesn’t like eye candy in a music player?

Looking Glass is built upon OpenGL and the X-Windows system, so is portable to other Unix and Linux environments. Wong says it should run as well across a network as any other X-Windows program — “it’s as lightweight as X is”, he says.

Wong says Looking Glass is scheduled to be part of Java Desktop System release 5, due in about nine months. Sun hopes Looking Glass will eventually become the main desktop for JDS users, but in the meantime it’s an indication of the future of the Java Desktop System.

“I think really it is a statement to some that Java Desktop is evolving and will continue to evolve.”

Sun hasn’t decided on licensing yet, but hasn’t ruled out open-sourcing the technology, Wong says.

“There is discussion inhouse right now — do we open-source Looking Glass? If we do that, that’s going to change the dynamics of it significantly.”

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