Thursday 27th October 2016

My Desktop Dilemma

I've been working with (read programming) computers for years now and I appreciate being able to get things done without having to jump through too many hoops.

From a users perspective there are basically two things I want to be able to do with my machine...

These are deceptively simple tasks on the face of it, however, desktop operating systems seem to be obsessed with wow-ing me with there cool new shiny stuff at the expense of facilities to easily find and launch programs and manage my freaking data.

This opinion piece looks at problems noted above and how they are tackled/ignored by the various desktop operating systems out there. I also delve into the past a bit for a bit of a look at what these systems used to offer compared to now.

Windows

My first in-depth daily exposure to windows as a user was Microsoft Windows for workgroups 3.11, I still remember my first impression... damn this fancy menu wotsit hogs up a lot of memory! I was young and had little understanding of what windows was trying to accomplish back then, all I knew was that the Friday night firefight in Doom required me to exit windows to get enough resources back to start fragging.

The system itself was based around the program manager and the file manager, these tools were squarely aimed at solving the two problems noted above. All in all the layout was not a bad attempt at trying to strap a GUI to a computer. Admittedly it got a bit cluttered after a while with all the windows open all over the place, but we learned quickly to make some shortcuts to all the stuff we used regularly and put them in an easy to reach place. The best part about Windows 3.11 was not Windows... it was the new breed of graphical applications that made use of the windowing system enabling us to run multiple programs side by side (in theory, well at least until the RAM ran out). Windows 3.11 was not pretty by anyone's standards and it was clunky to configure. Some parts of it being configured in windows itself and some parts being configured in DOS on the command line.

It wasn't too long before Windows 95 came along and crippled our machines with it's immense girth. Hard won stability went out the window, plug-and-PRAY came to my world and people got used to computers going horribly wrong on a regular basis, the GUI was arguably better; less clutter, finding and launching programs became easier as we moved our personal shortcuts from the folder in program manager to the start menu. Launching stuff was now a click, click instead of a double-click, double-click. Awesome, clicking reduced by half! Some stuff didn't work however... much of our trusted software was now wrong for the platform, DOS programs needed to be wrapped in complexity to keep them working because memory was no longer something to be directly accessed. Windows started to become part of the operating system rather than being a fancy menu that you launched from DOS. While many of these changes were arguably for the better, that didn't make them less traumatic for the users. We all became familiar with the BSOD at this time, not much changed for the next few years however, Windows 98, ME, 2000, XP all followed the same basic user interface formula but a disturbing trend set in. Windows designers were trusting the user less and less, administrative tools were buried many clicks deep, some tools disappeared altogether and windows desktop machines became harder to support. On the up side, windows stability increased and by the time windows XP was a few service packs in we had an operating system that pretty much did what we needed and we had gotten used to the copious reboots, miserable system security and shady licensing deals that made sure we had windows on our new computers whether we wanted it or not.

Then came Vista... the biggest heap of steaming crap out of Redmond since DOS 4. It held much promise on paper but the project was blighted from very early on. Much of Vista's original lofty ambition was binned in favour of getting something (read anything) to market. Microsoft was under immense pressure and they were years behind schedule. Quiet simply they had rested on their laurels far too long. When Vista hit the shelves it seriously under-delivered on the over-promised hype and it was largely ignored. People stayed on XP. Microsoft were forced to knuckle down and try to clean up the mess, finally we got Windows 7 or as I like to think of it... Vista Redux. Still the basic paradigms are in place, but there is a growing trend to add extra clicks back into the system, stuff is slower, menus are deep instead of wide. It's shinier I suppose but I don't really care, I can't see the desktop when I'm inside WoW or LOTRO or Starcraft II and now it annoyingly shifts in and out of modes whenever I launch 3D software and asks me if I'd like to use different colour profiles if I alt-tab out. No windows, I don't want to click, click, clickity-frikking-click all your inane dialogues, leave me alone, be quiet, I'm trying to use my computer over here. The once predictable menus systems and fairly well regimented look and feel of applications has also gone the way of the dodo. Once my software was unsurprising (this is good, predictable == productive) now it seems like Microsoft brings out a shiny new widget toolkit every week (yes this is an exaggeration, but it's how I feel), depending on which versions of the .NET runtime you have installed you may or may not be able to see the controls inside of your applications. Developers started using other widget sets to try to get a semblance of stability and now it seems that pretty much every program on my Windows 7 box has it's OWN look and feel. Shiny blue and black sound controller thingy, decidedly Windows XP looking Joystick setup dialogue, Blue glassy windows in explorer, weird ribbon menu/app/mess in office (and NOWHERE else). No menu bar in messenger the system tray now hides stuff mostly (thought it was supposed to be a notification area?). I can go on and on about the level of unpleasant surprise and general wide-spread inconsistency of the windows user interface but I won't because I'm starting to get tense!

It's set to get worse when we look at the up-comming Windows 8 release more specifically the touch/phone interface that is Metro, that is being dumped between us and our programs. The literature from Redmond says they have worked hard to make it keyboard and mouse friendly. the reviews from users say that Metro gets in the way a lot and hogs screen real-estate.

In summary, Windows seems to be regressing, it has lost it's way a little but I suspect not without (good) reason. The current surge in tablet adoption has Microsoft on the ropes, many new personal computers are tablets these days and Apple and Google are the only two real players in the market. Microsoft is trying to use it's considerable presence on the desktop to get it's touch based (read phone and tablet) user interface into the minds of the masses knowing that their next machine may well be a tablet. I suspect MS are clinging the faint hope that if the user sees a familiar (Metro) interface they may be more likely to buy the tablet. I don't know if this strategy will work for Microsoft but who does?

Mac OSX

Apple's OSX is fairly new to me. My first experience with it was OSX 10.5 that came on my wife's Mac Book. My first impression of OSX was... this all seems just a bit too simple! ...applications and data live in something called finder, cunningly named to tip off the user about it's primary function; finding stuff on your computer. Regularly used applications live in the dock, single click to start them, or for less frequently used applications; they're in the applications section of finder. OK easy enough. I'm using OSX 10.7 (aka Lion) on a daily basis now and I'm quite comfortable with it. The same basic formula of where to find applications and data still apply. The single strongest point of OSX though has to be that the user is not very often surprised. You get a new application and you KNOW without opening a manual where to find the basics within it. The user experience is VERY consistent and remember, predictable == productive. Apple are very good at making the system predictable for Joe and Jane average. Apple are also very good at getting developers on their OS to keep their software consistent as well. Hell, my mum can use my mac book pro and my six year old. But neither of them cope very well with Windows (if at all). There's not much else to say about OSX, it just seems to work. It's very different in some ways, keyboard shortcuts are not like windows and the keyboard layout can be awkward at first, but the more I use my mac book pro, the more I appreciate the thought that has gone into the design.

There are weird bits in Apple land as well... what's with that mouse? too flat, too small, makes my hand hurt just thinking about it. But the touch pad more than makes up for it! The multi-touch gestures are very intuitive and easy to perform. All in all the touch experience is head and shoulders above the competition.

Apple also seem to be moving the desktop user experience closer to the mobile experience, but crucially they're not forcing it in as the default and they are not removing the existing paradigm. Launch pad is a program, you can choose to use it or not, it isn't the new OSX shell like Metro in Windows. I think Apple have gotten this right, the desktop is a different environment to a phone or a tablet, a unified user interface across these three very different environments would be clunky at best and likely downright stupid (Yes metro, I mean you).

Linux

There isn't one Linux desktop, Linux is simply a kernel under the desktop. Not many people get this because they are used to Windows being an all-in-one monolith, they incorrectly assume that "all computers work this way". The two main desktop solutions on Linux are KDE and Gnome. A couple of years back KDE moved from KDE 3 to the brave new world of KDE 4 and frankly it all went to shit. I'd been a KDE user for many years and the level of instability at this time was so great that I ditched KDE and moved to Gnome. Gnome was more restrictive than KDE, it used many ideas from OSX and Windows and tried to make a desktop for Joe average as opposed to BOFH. The got it mostly right. Gnome was and is consistent and fairly easy to use, a little peculiar at first for a Windows or KDE user's perspective because the main menu bar was at the top of the screen and the layout was a little different. None of Gnome's odd bits were enough to make it bad or clunky though and it was (and is) plenty good enough for me to get my work done. Gnome however is undergoing a shift from Gnome 2 to Gnome 3 and they have made the same mistakes that KDE made a few years back, they have lost functionality, decreased stability and fundamentally changed the desktop experience. As a Gnome 2 user I'm feeling a bit disgruntled at the moment because even though my desktop WORKS it has been discontinued. Gnome 2 is a happy, easy, place to be and I don't struggle to get my job done when using it. Trying out Gnome 3 at home leaves me feeling somewhat grumpy, it's just not quite there yet and it feels a lot like change for change's sake. I've had a look at Unity from Ubuntu and to be fair it's not as bad as everyone says but it's also not as good (in my humble opinion) as the Gnome 2 Ubuntu experience either.

I'm not sure where the main Linux Desktops are heading at the moment but at least I can ditch them and move to another if I need to. I'm a reluctant Unity user on my Linux desktop at home and I've stuck with Gnome 2 at work (we're back to the predictability == productivity thing again here).

To be fair to Unity, my commonly used programs are only a single click away, it's a VERY simple paradigm. It's the less commonly used stuff that has become a pain in the ass in both Gnome 3 and Unity enormous popup menuzilla seems to be the place to find everything else, many clicks and even some searching by typing now seems to be the norm, this is without a doubt a retrograde step. Maybe it's time to go take a look at KDE again?

update: I've been playing with Gnome 3.4 of late and I'm happy to report with the addition of a couple of addons it's once again a happy place to be. Specifically I'm using Axe menu to get some clicky-love back.