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Linus, GNOME 3, and Much Ado About Desktop Interfaces

Linus, GNOME 3, and Much Ado About Desktop Interfaces

"The world of IT is a better place when developers respect users instead of trying to enslave them," said blogger Robert Pogson. "We need new user interfaces for new gadgets with tiny screens and no keyboards and no mice, but there's absolutely no reason to radically change a user interface that has been used satisfactorily for decades."

By Katherine Noyes
06/14/12 5:00 AM PT

If ever there was a week to make a person believe in the cosmic forces of fate, this might be it.

To wit: Linus Torvalds -- always a topic of interest here in the Linux blogosphere -- has been a particularly "hot topic" in recent weeks thanks to his critical comments earlier this month about GNOME 3.

Quick snapshot: "The whole gnome3 approach of 'by default we don't give you even the most basic tools to fix things, but you can hack around things with unofficial extensions' seems to be a total UX failure," he wrote in a post on Google+.

The 2012 Millennium Technology Prize

Them's strong words, there's no denying, so it came as no great surprise to see TuxRadar launch one of its ever-thought-provoking Open Ballots a few days later. Entitled, "What does Torvalds know about interface design?" the TuxRadar post invites readers to sound off on how seriously Torvalds' views should be taken on the topic.

Torvalds has also been in the headlines lately, meanwhile, for expounding his views on another highly controversial topic: UEFI and secure boot in Microsoft's Windows 8.

Now, fast-forward just a few days and there's the news that Torvalds has officially been declared a joint winner of the 2012 Millennium Technology Prize.

Welcome to June, the month of all-Torvalds, all the time!

In the Eye of the Beholder?

Of course, well-deserved as all the attention over Torvalds may be this month, it doesn't really help resolve the interface question.

Is GNOME 3 a mess universally? Or does a desktop's beauty lie in the eye of the beholder? And should it really matter what Linus thinks, Millennium Prize or no?

These are the questions on Linux bloggers' minds.

'His Needs May Differ from Yours'

"I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Torvalds, but when it comes to desktop interfaces, I don't think I've ever heard him happy," Google+ blogger Linux Rants told Linux Girl down at the blogosphere's seedy Broken Windows Lounge.

"He comes down on the side of the one that sucks the least for him," Linux Rants added. "I can't fault him for that in any way, but it doesn't mean that I agree with his conclusions."

Because Torvalds is "such a beloved figure and he's so passionate about Linux, people listen to what he has to say," Linux Rants concluded. "I think they should, but everybody needs to keep in mind that he's only speaking his mind. His needs and opinions may differ from yours."

'A Big Megaphone'

Indeed, "Linus, because of who he is, will draw a lot of attention whenever he speaks," agreed Google+ blogger Kevin O'Brien. "But in this case he is speaking as one user who just happens to have a big megaphone."

The fact is that interface design is "a distinct discipline that is trying to do things that are not at all like developing a kernel," O'Brien noted.

"If Don Norman were to make some observations, I would count them about 1000 times more than what Linus says on this topic," he added.

'A Little Respect Is in Order'

And again: "With all the Linux distributions available, and the desktop options, you would think Linus Torvalds could find a combination that he likes and extol the benefits of that combination rather than what has become a series of rants," suggested Roberto Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor.

"People have worked hard on these projects, are trying new things and in general are trying to push the great Linux creation out of its position as a desktop 'also-ran'," Lim added. "A little respect is in order."

In short, "I think Linus Torvalds' opinion as to what a good user interface should be is about as good as the guys over at Xerox who decided that a GUI was not needed," Lim concluded.

'The Wrong Way to Do IT'

Others were more sympathetic to Torvalds' views.

"Linus is right, as usual: GNOME has tried to fix what wasn't broken," opined blogger Robert Pogson, for example. "That's the wrong way to do IT."

A better approach would be, "if something works, improve it; don't eliminate it," Pogson told Linux Girl. "It's fine for developers/programmers to want to scratch their itch, but they should leave users with familiar, usable systems."

No Reason for Change

Pogson uses Debian GNU/Linux "with good old xdm, xfwm4 and XFCE4," he noted. "It's clean, easy to use and lets me get on with my work without getting in the way.

"And yes, I do have a bunch of virtual desktops all in use," he added. "I have a large monitor and I have every window and tab in view at all times so I know what I am doing and can change contexts any way I want, when I want. Why should I allow GNOME or anyone else to hide my tools?"

In short, "the world of IT is a better place when developers respect users instead of trying to enslave them," Pogson concluded. "We need new user interfaces for new gadgets with tiny screens and no keyboards and no mice, but there's absolutely no reason to radically change a user interface that has been used satisfactorily for decades."

'Linus Is Right to Be Frustrated'

Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, took a very similar view.

"I have sometimes said that no two words have caused more problems for our industry than the words 'obsolete' and 'innovation,'" Travers began. "It isn't that innovation is bad or that some approaches aren't eventually superseded by better ones, but rather that innovation for the sake of innovation is never a good thing, and abandoning the tried and true because someone says it is obsolete is just as bad."

Users "need a stable platform, and this is not something that Linux desktop environments have been very good at giving lately -- Linus is right to be frustrated," Travers opined. "The sense I have seen among desktop developers (Unity developers, GNOME 3 developers) that the current user base does not have needs worth addressing is sad."

Bottom line: "Developers need to serve the users, not the other way around," he concluded.

'Changes Hurt Rather Than Help'

"I wish GNOME and KDE would quit trying to rearrange the UI and spend more time making sure all apps work properly with the current setup," offered consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack. "They have forgotten that the primary job of a UI is to get work done.

"We are well past the point where changes hurt rather than help, and these sorts of stunts are the largest reason I switched to Xfce several years ago and can't be bothered going back," Mack concluded.

Indeed, amid the rush to jump on board what Slashdotblogger hairyfeet calls the "supergigantic smartphone bandwagon" with desktop interfaces, "everyone seems to forget that there is a REASON why GUIs have developed over the last 30 years into the classic desktop metaphor with submenu drop downs that we all know so well," he told Linux Girl.

'Thankfully, We Have Choices'

Specifically, "it's because it is the most efficient way to cover as many users as possible while still allowing good workflow with a mouse and keyboard," hairyfeet explained.

In the end, however, "bad design is simply bad design," he concluded. "Thankfully, we have choices on the desktop, whether it is staying with an older version on the Windows side or tossing the tripe that is GNOME 3 and Unity for something that actually works, like LXDE or Xfce on the Linux side."


Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.


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