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The Desktop

The Desktop

Posted Aug 14, 2012 21:52 UTC (Tue) by dskoll (subscriber, #1630)
Parent article: The GNOME project at 15

I think that what GNOME and KDE are finding out is that the old, simple desktop works really well for a lot of people and that many people are very resistant to change.

For example, the QWERTY keyboard layout persists despite the fact that it may or may not be the most efficient because people are used to it. No-one has radically changed the user interface of a car, a phone, a toaster or a camera because the old intefaces are familiar and good enough.

I think this is why many people are using things like XFCE: It's a simple, familiar, unobtrusive UI that doesn't try to impress with newness or coolness. It just stays out of your way and works.

Maybe GNOME will have better luck on mobile devices or new devises whose modes of interaction we haven't even dreamed of yet... I hope so. Because changing entrenched and familiar interfaces is incredibly hard and takes a once-in-a-generation genius visionary to pull off.


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The Desktop

Posted Aug 14, 2012 22:30 UTC (Tue) by ncm (subscriber, #165) [Link]

More to the point, making a better interface is incredibly hard. Thinking you have succeeded is no indication of success, but thinking you couldn't fail strongly predicts failure.

It is hard to get people to adopt a better interface. It is way harder to get them to adopt a worse one. Sometimes it happens anyway (cough Java cough), but it's nothing to be proud of. Genius has nothing to do with it. Sometimes, clever marketing succeeds. Usually, it takes massively overspent hype, and luck. Whether it's your good luck or the adoptees' bad luck may be hard to discern.

Gnome, like the U.S., was an interesting experiment. Many good things came out of it. The organization itself has failed, though long after expected. It is interesting, not to say terrifying, to speculate on what will arise in its place.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 15, 2012 13:29 UTC (Wed) by ebassi (subscriber, #54855) [Link]

Gnome, like the U.S., was an interesting experiment. Many good things came out of it. The organization itself has failed, though long after expected.

[citation needed]

nice hyperbole, but I beg to differ.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 15, 2012 22:29 UTC (Wed) by k8to (subscriber, #15413) [Link]

Citations asked for obvious statements of opinion. Am I to assume you are being snarky or counter-trolling?

I mean, don't get me wrong, I like good snark, but this is kind of below that bar.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 15, 2012 1:49 UTC (Wed) by rgmoore (✭ supporter ✭, #75) [Link]

In point of fact, the interfaces for many devices have undergone dramatic changes. In cameras, for instance, the change from mechanical to electronic mechanisms and manual to automatic focus have radically changed the interface. Even the shutter release isn't the same, since it's now overloaded to control the autofocus and autoexposure. And as somebody who grew up with a rotary phone, I can assure you that the interface there has been completely revamped.

The underlying point is that interfaces have to be changed to keep up with technology and changing expectations of what the device or system is supposed to do. Many of the usability nightmares we deal with are a result of trying to expand the function of a device without an equal expansion of the user interface tools. Voicemail is a great example. 12 buttons and a spoken list of options are not enough tools to make a good interface, which is why visual voicemail on smartphones is such a huge win. Keeping the interface stable is great for usability until you push so far that the old interface is inadequate, and then you may need a radical rethink.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 15, 2012 2:45 UTC (Wed) by dskoll (subscriber, #1630) [Link]

Hmm, I'm not sure what camera you're using, but my digital camera has roughly the same interface as my first 110 film camera from 25 years ago... point and press the button.

I also grew up with rotary phones, and I grant you that the mechanism to enter a string of digits has changed, but the basic interface is still the same: You pick up, dial or press a bunch of numbers (huh? Who in their right mind forces people to remember or write down strings of digits?) and your call goes through. Even cell phones are basically the same; you just have to press the green "send" button at the end.

Keeping the interface stable is great for usability until you push so far that the old interface is inadequate, and then you may need a radical rethink.

Sure, you're right. My point is that most people think the "old" interface (ie, something Windows-XP-like or XFCE-like) is perfectly adequate for desktop PCs.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 15, 2012 8:06 UTC (Wed) by BeS (subscriber, #43108) [Link]

>I also grew up with rotary phones, and I grant you that the mechanism to enter a string of digits has changed, but the basic interface is still the same: You pick up, dial or press a bunch of numbers

What you describe is more the functionality than the interface. The interface has changed dramatically from rotary phones to "push-button telephone" to "carry-phone". Same is true for mobile phones if you look at them 10 years ago and at today smart phones.

If I would use your description level for phones to describe computer interfaces I would say: You boot the computer, log in, start your text editor and start typing... nothing changed in the last 20 years.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 15, 2012 13:19 UTC (Wed) by dskoll (subscriber, #1630) [Link]

The interface has changed dramatically from rotary phones to "push-button telephone" to "carry-phone".

I disagree. The change from rotary to pushbutton was rather large. However, if you took a time-traveller who'd only ever seen a rotary phone and sat him in front of a touchtone phone, he'd figure it out in a few seconds. The basic idea is the same.

Smartphones have touchscreens, but still... when you want to call someone you're presented with a grid of digits and you dial. The only innovation is the address book for frequently-called numbers; dialling a new number for the first time hasn't changed in decades.

If I would use your description level for phones to describe computer interfaces I would say: You boot the computer, log in, start your text editor and start typing... nothing changed in the last 20 years.

Ummm... yes? :) OK, maybe not 20 years, but my desktop certainly hasn't changed much in 15 years or so.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 15, 2012 10:40 UTC (Wed) by paulj (subscriber, #341) [Link]

Interestingly, the green and red buttons often show an old-style phone being on or off hook. Direct reference to the old electro-mechanical phones.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 15, 2012 10:43 UTC (Wed) by anselm (subscriber, #2796) [Link]

but the basic interface is still the same: You pick up, dial or press a bunch of numbers (huh? Who in their right mind forces people to remember or write down strings of digits?) and your call goes through.

I don't know about you, but I these days make the vast majority of my phone calls by picking the other person's name from a list of names.

My point is that most people think the "old" interface (ie, something Windows-XP-like or XFCE-like) is perfectly adequate for desktop PCs.

Think of it as the QWERTY keyboard of GUIs – not optimal but incredibly expensive to replace on a large scale. We'll have to see how Microsoft gets on with their »Metro« effort (or whatever it is called these days).

The Desktop

Posted Aug 15, 2012 13:15 UTC (Wed) by dskoll (subscriber, #1630) [Link]

I don't know about you, but I these days make the vast majority of my phone calls by picking the other person's name from a list of names.

I have a dirt-cheap Huawei phone (when my daughter lets me have it) and I find it faster to dial the number than search through the phone book. :)

Think of it [traditional PC desktop] as the QWERTY keyboard of GUIs – not optimal but incredibly expensive to replace on a large scale.

Exactly. I believe I mentioned that analogy in my original post.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 16, 2012 6:10 UTC (Thu) by AndreE (guest, #60148) [Link]

I have over 100 phone numbers in my contact list. Sure, if I could remember all the numbers I need to call then I'll never use the Contact Book. But for many people however, selecting a name from a list has become the primary interface for "dialling" and has been since mobile phones offered such functionality.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 15, 2012 16:04 UTC (Wed) by rgmoore (✭ supporter ✭, #75) [Link]

Hmm, I'm not sure what camera you're using, but my digital camera has roughly the same interface as my first 110 film camera from 25 years ago... point and press the button.
I'm using a DSLR. If you compare the interface of my Nikon D800 to an older, mechanical camera like a Nikon F2, and the interface is radically different. The mechanical cameras had a handful of controls- aperture, shutter speed, film speed, timed release, manual release, and some related to film handling- that were placed where they were because they were mechanically coupled to the internal devices of the camera. The newer digital cameras have most of the old controls (obviously not the ones for film handling) but have moved them because they're coupled electrically rather than mechanically. They've also added a whole bunch of new controls for things the older cameras didn't do- metering mode, focus mode, bracketing, picture review, etc.- and many of those new functions overload the basic shutter, aperture, and shutter release controls. There's also a menu system that lets you customize the interface and access less frequently used functions. If you set it up correctly, refuse to use most of the controls, and limit yourself to older lenses, you can dumb it down to the point that it functions pretty much like an older mechanical camera, but that's like saying that GNOME is just like a VT-100 because you can open a maximized terminal window and ignore the GUI completely.
Sure, you're right. My point is that most people think the "old" interface (ie, something Windows-XP-like or XFCE-like) is perfectly adequate for desktop PCs.

And I think they're a lot like the people who are pining for a digital version of the FM2. The way we use our desktops today is actually very different from the way we used them 10 or 20 years ago, but the control paradigm hasn't caught up. The number of tasks we manage today is much larger, and (especially) the number of things that can potentially interrupt us has increased radically. Our computers are a much more complex and confusing environment than they used to be, but the ability of our interfaces to protect us from that complexity hasn't really caught up.

I think a lot of the un-Unixy behavior of applications is a response to that. We now have web browsers that basically have their own built-in window managers and manage each page in a separate process. Why? Because people want to have dozens or hundreds of tabs open at once and our desktop environments can't deal with it. Our email apps have sprouted contact managers, calendars, to-do lists, and the like. Why? Because we can't build seamless apps out of mix-and-match separate specialist components well enough to make that a sensible approach. And we can't do those things because our desktops haven't kept up with the stuff we're trying to do with them. When we expand our desktops to keep up with the way we actually use them, we're also going to have to rethink the interface. I don't know if GNOME is going in the right direction, but they're right to think that what we have isn't good enough.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 15, 2012 18:26 UTC (Wed) by dskoll (subscriber, #1630) [Link]

The way we use our desktops today is actually very different from the way we used them 10 or 20 years ago

No, at least not for me.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 15, 2012 23:01 UTC (Wed) by sorpigal (subscriber, #36106) [Link]

> The way we use our desktops today is actually very different from the way we used them 10 or 20 years ago

Citation needed.

I am literally using the same interface today that I have been using since I adopted E16 11 years ago. I'm using the same theme with the same modules loaded and the same gkrellm. So, that's 10 years there. The only difference is that my resolution has gone up a lot.

20 years ago it was a bit different, but I was also on a radically different OS at the time; in 20 more years I plan to still use Linux or its spiritual successor.

I don't see any significant change in how we use desktop computers coming and I don't see one in the last decade. What we do with them may change but not how we do it.

> We now have web browsers that basically have their own built-in window managers and manage each page in a separate process. Why? Because people want to have dozens or hundreds of tabs open at once and our desktop environments can't deal with it.
FluxBox solved this problem with tabs at the WM level, it's just too bad there wasn't a spec everyone could implement. Every time an app tries to make the WM be a WM (e.g. GIMP) people ask why the app isn't being the WM. Maybe there's a lesson to be learned about what people want.

> Our email apps have sprouted contact managers, calendars, to-do lists, and the like. Why? Because we can't build seamless apps out of mix-and-match separate specialist components well enough to make that a sensible approach.
All attempts to build a system of such components has failed, GNOME's attempt included. KDE was more successful, but even they seem to have de-emphasized user-defined apps based on throwing kparts together. I'd love to see it, but I'm skeptical about how possible it is.

> When we expand our desktops to keep up with the way we actually use them, we're also going to have to rethink the interface. I don't know if GNOME is going in the right direction, but they're right to think that what we have isn't good enough.
Throwing the baby out with the bathwater isn't helping, especially since there is not yet an agreement on what (if any) problems exist.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 16, 2012 6:16 UTC (Thu) by AndreE (guest, #60148) [Link]

When some engages in what is clearly opinion or conjecture, spouting "Citation Needed" (as if any relevant citation could ever be provided for such statements anyway) is churlish and unnecessary

The Desktop

Posted Aug 16, 2012 15:57 UTC (Thu) by arafel (guest, #18557) [Link]

> I am literally using the same interface today that I have been using since
> I adopted E16 11 years ago. I'm using the same theme with the same modules
> loaded and the same gkrellm. So, that's 10 years there. The only

I would respectfully suggest that your experience and approach is way, way outside the mainstream.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 17, 2012 14:46 UTC (Fri) by dskoll (subscriber, #1630) [Link]

I would respectfully suggest that your experience and approach is way, way outside the mainstream.

That's your opinion. Most people I know who've been using desktop computers for a long time use them pretty much the same way today as they did 15 years ago.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 22, 2012 7:43 UTC (Wed) by rahvin (subscriber, #16953) [Link]

There are quite a few people using windows today that after receiving a new system reset the look and feel to "classic mode" which is essentially the interface of Windows 2000 which is close to 15 years old. There are lot of people that don't like change for the sake of change.

In my opinion the interface of something like Gnome2/KDE3/WindowsXP along with keyboard and mouse is the culmination of nearly 40 years of evolution of the computer interface towards the most efficient method of input/output, and processing along with information display. What's happening with Gnome3/Unity/Windows8 (and others) is trying to revise the PC interface to be that of a touch based information retrieval device not that much different than a TV (limited input, little control and restrictions how it's used).

It frankly doesn't make sense to me. I don't doubt that over time that as each interface revision fails miserably that they will move back towards a more optimal interface, but I don't ever see phones/tablets and PC's having the same input/use characteristics because they are used differently. Anyone that thinks the PC is going to be replaced by a tablet (or they should have the same interface) doesn't use a PC for real input/output/processing.

I do think there are improvements to be made in the PC interface, but thinking those improvements need to be in the avenue of touch based is IMO crazy. Finally, a small example, the Ribbon in recent version of MS Office has been shown to be easier for new users to learn and master and once learned offers a much more streamlined and quicker use. It's been demonstrated to be better in actual user studies but at the same time it's harder for existing users to use because they are used to the clunkier menu based interface yet you've never seen people complain so heavily about it. I myself did the same after being forced to use the new version at work. Having finally learned the interface I realize it's better (very painful to admit after complaining as much as I did), but the change was brutal on existing users. Without the monopoly MS wouldn't have been able to do it, even though it's better for new users, because of the damage it does to existing users workflow until learning it.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 18, 2012 10:05 UTC (Sat) by Jandar (subscriber, #85683) [Link]

> The way we use our desktops today is actually very different from the way we used them 10 or 20 years ago

Why should that be? 20 year ago I had an established workflow on my desktop and why should I spend time to rewire my reflexes/habits every time a new craze shows up? Every now and then a new functionality enters into my workflow, but it's an evolution not a revolution. Having NOT to think about the interface of my desktop is the major timesaver. Revolutionary changes would require a lot of relearning (aka thinking) and is an absolute no-go.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 21, 2012 13:42 UTC (Tue) by nim-nim (subscriber, #34454) [Link]

In fact, all those interface changes have been as minimal as possible given the technological constraints and consumers have consistently rewarded manufacturers that simulated old controls with new tech whenever possible. Even radical changes like taking pictures from a screen and not a viewfinder have been smoothed over by providing both for years to give users time to adapt.

Interface changes are a cost not an opportunity. Radical interface changes are only seen in concept cars and quietly dropped before going into production (and when designers are too prideful to remove enough of the concepts from the concept cars in production models the result does not sell).

Consumers do not like interface changes in real life they like solid no-hassles and no-surprises execution. Gadgets with radical interface changes succeeded in spite of those changes not thanks to them (the iphone built on ipod familiarity, and the ipod tried to build on Apple computer device looks at a time no two mp3 players had the same buttons in the same place). Radical interface changes only work on TV commercials. Users do like bling and surprising looks, but only on non-functional pure decoration parts they don't have to interface with.

A fugly app like LibreOffice is getting slowly adopted because it gets the work done reliably (and is cheap). winamp and xmms had a terrible interface but this interface was stable and the software worked and that led to wild adoption at the time. GNOME 2 got happy users when it stopped trying to impose new UI paradigms and focused on fixing bugs. The most loved Windows release of all times was the NT version that got delayed, forcing developers to fix bugs for months because the scheduled feature and UI changes were already finished. Apple made a comeback thanks to Steve Jobs insistence on fixing every little thing (not because he had some magic vision, and in fact his vision changed several times, from color imacs to black-and-white ones, but because he made sure each time his people executed cleanly without cutting corners). All the server-y unix stuff Desktop people have denigrated for years have been increasing its market share in the past decade because it just worked and didn't eat your data. Working, not eating your data, and being predictable is much more a seller than half-finished software that tries to follow some abstract vision at the cost of execution.

GNOME people will get some praise and happy users the day they stop looking after the rainbow for a way to win market share instead on focusing on fixing bugs and adding features while changing the interface as little as possible. And it won't matter at that stage what interface design is in place. What makes a Rolls Royce is not the paint colour but the insane number of paint layers that ensures Rolls Royce owners do not have to bother with paint scratches ever. Software is no different.

Pure wisdom

Posted Aug 21, 2012 17:21 UTC (Tue) by man_ls (guest, #15091) [Link]

Hear, hear. In the early days computer interfaces had to be designed with real-world metaphors in mind, because users were unfamiliar with them. Nowadays it doesn't matter so much; good designs are not good because they appeal to computer newbies, but because they offer no surprises to existing users. Smartphones are quite new, but we had many years to adapt to touch screens in kiosks, ATMs and other finger interfaces; Apple (and other manufacturers) just followed the trend to its logical conclusion.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 15, 2012 13:45 UTC (Wed) by juliank (subscriber, #45896) [Link]

At least XFCE 4.8 is hardly usable for the average user I think:

* The user switching applet only shows user names, which they don't know (seems fixed in 4.10, though)
* GTK+3 applications are unstyled by default. Given that you most likely need to use GNOME components to make the desktop somewhat usable, you need new themes.
* It does not feel "integrated" in any way.

GNOME 3 Fallback mode provides a more coherent and integrated environment than you could ever create with XFCE (apart from Totem and Eye Of Gnome, which look out place in Fallback mode, as they use the dark variant of the Theme, while Metacity uses non-dark borders).

Maybe I might have the chance to try XFCE 4.10 within the next year, and see what changed, but I don't think it can get much better than GNOME 3 Fallback mode for (my) average users.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 15, 2012 18:28 UTC (Wed) by dskoll (subscriber, #1630) [Link]

At least XFCE 4.8 is hardly usable for the average user I think:

My (very non-technical) parents use XFCE 4.8 and don't have usability problems. I guarantee they'd be totally lost in GNOME 3. And that's because they're used to a Windows-XP/XFCE-like desktop.

All your other points ("not styled", "doesn't feel integrated") have nothing to do with usability, which is concerned with how efficient it is to actually get stuff done.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 15, 2012 23:12 UTC (Wed) by hp (subscriber, #5220) [Link]

There was some usability study back in the day that concluded that the Linux desktop setups that looked like Windows were harder to use, because they set the wrong expectations. They worked differently enough from Windows in details that it was confusing; a setup that looked different gave people the right idea that they should be learning something new and made it easier to complete the tasks in the study.

A common intuition, including mine, was the opposite (that we should theme/configure things to look like Windows). I saw lots of Linux desktop deployments that started by picking the most Windows-like theme and putting the panel at the bottom and basically going through all the settings making it like Windows. According to this one study anyway, that was not a good approach.

I can't remember where this study was from, I'm not even sure it was ever public. And not advocating swapping out your parents, if nothing else I'm sure they're used to XFCE at this point.

But I do think it was an interesting counterintuitive finding.

I expect a lot of commentary on GNOME 3 probably comes down to "not like Windows / GNOME 2"; a lot of commentary on GNOME 2 was the same. If you define "usable" as "what people are used to" then essentially all change is wrong. In some cases that definition of usable is the right one. Depends on your goals.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 16, 2012 1:30 UTC (Thu) by dskoll (subscriber, #1630) [Link]

There was some usability study back in the day that concluded that the Linux desktop setups that looked like Windows were harder to use, because they set the wrong expectations.

Oh, I can believe that. In my case, I'm very lucky because my parents have never used Windows. I put them on Linux from Day 1.

And XFCE looks different enough from Windows that it's obvious that it isn't windows, while looking similar enough that a Windows user can get used to it in a few minutes.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 16, 2012 6:56 UTC (Thu) by jmspeex (subscriber, #51639) [Link]

There was some usability study back in the day that concluded that the Linux desktop setups that looked like Windows were harder to use, because they set the wrong expectations.
Just curious, do you remember what "type" of users were targeted by this study? Were they "average" users, users who were new to using computers, power users, ...? There seems to be a tradeoff here because most (not all) Linux users happen to be a lot more tech savvy that the average computer user. Now, you don't want to design an environment that's only for power users, but at the same time, ignoring the majority of the current users is probably not good either. How was this trade off considered?

The Desktop

Posted Aug 16, 2012 16:54 UTC (Thu) by hp (subscriber, #5220) [Link]

I think it was some kind of "office workers" new to Linux, but I really don't remember much at all other than that one observation about Windows-like setups being confusing.

The Desktop

Posted Aug 16, 2012 7:19 UTC (Thu) by ncm (subscriber, #165) [Link]

Certainly some complaints about Gnome 3 say it is not like something else. Dwelling on that is an easy way to ignore the real message: it is not working even as well for those people as that "something else", despite that the "something else" is (like everything) a mess. If Gnome 3 really were better, then the natural response would be to point out how people could get their work done more quickly and easily the Gnome 3 way. I have never encountered such a response. Every time, instead, it's been one of "you don't need to do that" or "nobody here cares if you need to do that". Those remarks have been expressed about practically everything I do. As a refrain it gets old very quickly.

This is different from the transition to Gnome 2. Occasional expressions of contempt surfaced, such as hiding the gtk_key_theme=Emacs capability and the file-chooser text entry box, but it was clear that enough core people cared about usefulness to keep the system useful. Those people seem not to be working on Gnome any more.

Gnome 3 looks prettier, in many ways, than 2, and many of the changes are, arguably, improvements. A great deal of good came out of the Gnome project. It's sad to see it go this way.


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