Could Linux Use Some Bells and Whistles?

With the Season of Giving hard upon us once again, it’s a safe bet that many of us are thinking about glitter. Not just glitter, but glitz, sparkle and shine, jingle, bells and whistles.

Such, after all, are the qualities gifts — and the holidays in general — are often expected to have, and manufacturers of everything from ornaments to iPods do their best to make it happen.

What, one might ask, about operating systems? Should they, too, have shiny, splashy, gotta-have features to make them sparkle in users’ eyes?

‘What Are the Killer Features?’

That, indeed, was essentially the question posed by blogger Simon Brew at Linux User & Developer recently, and it’s sparked quite a discussion on the blogs.

“What are the defining features and characteristics of Ubuntu?” Brew began. “Or Mandriva? Or openSUSE? What are the killer features that are born to illuminate point-of-sale material and tedious slideshows the world over?

“What’s… the ‘killer app’ that’s going to get the world excited about Linux?” he asked.

Invisible Appeal?

Brew’s answer: “There aren’t any. There is no single feature to adorn the covers of magazines. There’s no whizzbang gadget to turn the computing world on its head,” he wrote. “Instead, the major appeal of Linux, for me anyway, is that it’s content to be an operating system.”

That, in turn, is a good thing, he concluded: “After all, isn’t the best operating system the one you hardly even notice is there?”

The topic must have struck a chord with residents of the Linux blogosphere, because many of them had a lot to say on the matter.

‘I Feel the Same’

“Nice article, and I would like to say I feel the same,” wrote dhysk in the comments on Linux User & Developer, for example. “Unfortunately the idea of an operating system without bells and whistles as a default [is] one that just doesn’t work as a whole.”

The reason, dhysk added, is that “to most people an OS IS the computer itself.”

On the other hand: Linux “is what you want it to be,” opined cwrinn. “I feel this is the ‘Bells and Whistles’ in a Linux system.”

‘Bells & Whistles’ or ‘[email protected]’?

Over at LXer, bloggers were quick to join in.

“+1, I concur, and all that,” wrote tuxchick, for example.

Then again, “Being cynical here … In the primarily Microsoft world, what’s the diff between “bells & whistles” and “[email protected]”?” asked gus3. “Because that’s what is on the system when you carry it out of Best Buy.

“I’d rather go with an opt-in model, where I install what I want, than with an opt-out model that requires me to clean up what I don’t want,” gus3 added.

Bottom line? Linux Girl couldn’t resist asking her barmates at the Punchy Penguin what they thought. Do we need bells and whistles?

Bloat In, Bugs Out

“An OS should be a device for managing resources like CPU/RAM/storage,” blogger Robert Pogson told LinuxInsider. “There is no need for bells and whistles or feature bloat in that.”

More complex functions “should be left to userland, where bugs can only inconvenience one user at a time,” Pogson added. “The more bloat we put in an OS, the more bugs go with it.”

On the other hand: “Linux distros are complete packages and include a lot of stuff beyond a mere operating system,” Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, pointed out.

“I am not entirely sure the question is meaningful where Linux distributions are concerned,” Travers told LinuxInsider. “It really depends on the market for the individual distro.”

Then again: “Bells and whistles are great for some people and good for convincing people that Linux is on par with the competition, but personally I like being able to turn off some of the more CPU-intensive ones and put my CPU/GPU to better use,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack opined.

Some bells and whistles have been around for a long time, noted Slashdot blogger Barbara Hudson, who goes by “Tom” on the site.

Dual-monitor support, for example, has been available “since the days of DOS (dBASE, lotus123, etc),” she told LinuxInsider, “but even today when people see a computer with more than one monitor, many go, ‘WOW! I wish my computer could do that!’ — followed by ‘That’s too confusing for me!'”

Multiple desktops are another example, and have been available either as an add-in or an optional download since Windows 3x, Hudson pointed out.

“From what I’ve seen, pretty much everyone using Linux uses multiple desktops without even thinking about it after the first week, but Windows users see it as another ‘bell or whistle’ that overwhelms them with its ‘complexity’ because they’re just not used to it,” she explained.

Counterparts today would include “any Linux box with advanced screen compositing enabled,” she opined. “The desktop cube just blows them away, as do the other alternate ‘placements.’

“Unfortunately, it’s too different. Too powerful. It scares them,” Hudson added.

In short, “one person’s ‘bells and whistles’ are another person’s ‘this is too different for me’ impediment,” she asserted.

The solution, Hudson said, is to win users over one at a time — “and that’s a lot harder than coming up with more bells and whistles, or ‘Fisher-Pricing’ the desktop.”

Specifically, “set the example, and let them ask questions when they finally ‘get’ how something makes your life easier,” she recommended. “If they see the bells and whistles as part of the background to a normal workflow, they’re less likely to be overwhelmed, since they also see the familiar — a spreadsheet on one desktop, a document on another, etc.”

That way, users can be reassured that “while there’s the occasional ‘wow factor’ feature, and it’s different, it’s still ‘just a Personal Computer,'” Hudson said.

Ultimately, “bells and whistles are a ‘Good Thing,'” she concluded — “just don’t let them get in the way of using the computer, or overwhelm the new user.”

It may well be that shiny bells and whistles are, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder, Linux Girl would agree — at least to some extent. Then again, to mangle another oft-used expression: All that glitters is not gold. Except, perhaps, in the pockets of Microsoft. 😉

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