Desktop Matchmaking in Linux Land

Well it’s been a few years since Linux Girl has had the pleasure of writing about dating in the Linux world — always one of her favorite topics! — but recently the topic came up again, albeit with a slight twist.

Specifically, in a recent article over at Datamation, it wasn’t so much human-to-human matchmaking being discussed as it was pairing of the human-to-desktop kind.

Yes, that’s right — “Linux Desktops and Linux Personalities: What’s Your Perfect Match?” is the title of the article by Bruce Byfield that has drawn several comparisons with the world of amour.

For example: “Finding your perfect match with a Linux desktop environment can be worse than using an online dating site,” the story reads.

‘It’s Why I Use Xfce’

With such an intriguing premise, it’s no wonder Linux bloggers’ interest was immediately piqued.

Is there such thing as a “Linux personality”? What’s the best way to help someone find the right desktop for them? Those questions and more have been on the tips of bloggers’ tongues.

“My personality? ‘The guy who wants his computer to do things,'” began consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack. “It’s why I use Xfce.”

‘Just Enough to Make It Easy’

Xfce “uses built-in OS functions rather than replicate half the OS with a HAL,” Mack explained. “It detects when I insert media and lets me mount without using the command line. Add Wicd and I never have to worry about managing wireless — it just works.”

In short, “it has just enough effects to make it easy to see what I’m doing but not so much that my entire desktop slows down,” he added.

That concept, in fact, seems to have gotten lost amid today’s commonly held “throw everything out and start from scratch” mentality, Mack suggested.

‘A Total Disaster’

“Is it that hard to understand that I want my CPU and GPU for apps and games rather than the OS?” he mused. “Don’t even get me started on the ‘one app at a time’ crowd — have they never had to read info from one window and enter data into another?”

The last time Mack used Unity “it was a total disaster,” he told Linux Girl. “I was stuck because I needed two separate terminal windows for something I wanted to do and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to do it. That’s BAD.

“If I can’t figure it out quickly, how do they expect someone less technical to do it?” he wondered.

Bottom line: “At this point I’m convinced that the Gnome and KDE teams should find everyone who has made UI decisions and ban them from making any more decisions,” Mack concluded. “Then wander out and find a bunch of people who actually have to do real work with a computer, and see what they say.”

‘All Options Are Pretty Good’

Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza uses Unity “because it’s simple and it works,” he told Linux Girl.

“In the past I’ve used many other solutions of increased complexity, but I’m really not finding it holding me back,” Espinoza explained. “If you want to do everything with a mouse then it might not be the optimal solution, but if you tend to use the keyboard to perform some operations and the mouse for some others, then it’s really no less efficient than any other solution.”

In fact, “since you can run any desktop on any credible distribution, I’d suggest using what comes with the default and just trying it, and then changing to something else that seems to fit your needs better if you’re dissatisfied,” he advised. “Starting out by comparing desktop environments is just looking for something to complain about.”

Moreover, “users today can take heart in knowing that all the options are ‘pretty good,’ especially compared to what we used to have,” Espinoza concluded.

‘The Inevitable Software Migration’

Mobile Raptor blogger Roberto Lim took a similar view.

“Explaining to a user that there are various desktop options available will simply make the entire process sound too difficult and fosters the notion that Linux is too complicated to use,” opined Lim, who uses the Gnome 3 shell himself.

“I think it is best to recommend a distribution, let them run it with whatever desktop it installs by default, and if the new entrants to the Linux world were the type to customize the desktop when they were Windows users, sooner or later those persons would discover and experiment with the different Linux desktop on their own,” Lim told Linux Girl.

In the end, “the Linux desktops I have used all work well enough for the average user,” he concluded. “The main sticking point in convincing someone to try Linux is not the desktop user interface but the inevitable software migration that comes with it.”

‘Get Out There and Try’

Indeed, “I think one mistake many people make is simply reading reviews and then selecting a desktop to use,” agreed Thoughts on Technology blogger and Bodhi Linux lead developer Jeff Hoogland.

“I always recommend users get out there and try some of the various desktops first hand before selecting the one that is right for them,” Hoogland advised. “For me the perfect desktop needs to be customizable, lightweight, and look nice,” he added. “With all these, the only choice for me is some Enlightenment.”

‘Trying to Reinvent the Wheel’

Speaking of Enlightenment, “Mr. Byfield did not mention one of my favorites: E-17,” noted Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol.

“The rest of the article is right on spot: KDE and Gnome/Unity are trying to reinvent the wheel and bringing things users don’t need to the desktop,” Ebersol added.

E-17 “hits where KDE 4 and Gnome 3 (and Unity, for that matter) missed,” he concluded. “It is, at the same time, innovative and conservative. A really nice DE.”

‘My Bread-and-Butter Is KDE’

Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien had a different favorite.

“I have been playing with Unity a little because I think there is genuine innovation going on there, and I like to keep up with these things,” O’Brien began. “But my bread-and-butter for everyday use is KDE.”

O’Brien started with KDE “back in the days of Mandrake,” he explained, “and I’ve stayed with it ever since.

“I tried Gnome, but got frustrated very quickly because it seemed difficult to do what I wanted to do,” he added. “I like KDE because it is so configurable. If I can think of something I want to do, chances are there is a way to do it.”

‘Reason Enough to Adopt GNU/Linux’

Blogger Robert Pogson also started off with KDE “complete with icons with an insensitive ‘hole-in-the-middle,'” he told Linux Girl. “It was fun. It worked without crashing even if an application froze. That was reason enough to adopt GNU/Linux.”

Today, however, “life is much better,” Pogson added. “GNU/Linux offers huge advantages to OEMs, retailers, users, and system administrators. The fact that with all the advantages one can still have a choice of user interface is wonderful.”

KDE and GNOME were both “standards for a long time, but both have lost their way seeking new paradigms,” Pogson opined. “Unfortunately, a PC or a network of PCs still remains fundamentally the same: a collection of processes and data-structures with which a user needs to interact or to ignore. The new paradigms appear to make it easier to ignore processes, which is good, but they also seem to make it harder to interact with processes.”

‘That Is a Huge Waste of Time’

In fact, “one has to search for stuff one knows is running out there somewhere,” he explained. “That is a huge waste of time. The user knows what he/she is doing and can point and click on visible icons for those processes with which the user wants to interact.”

Fortunately, “there are tried and true display and window managers that do allow users to customize the desktop the way they conceive of it rather than with some abstraction above and beyond the icon,” he added. “I use xdm and Xfce4 because it allows me to clutter my huge monitor the way I want.

“Debian GNU/Linux offers choices,” Pogson concluded. “When a distro makes choices difficult, it’s time to change distros. That’s why we have hundreds of them.”

‘A Shallower Learning Curve’

Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, would like to try Cinnamon, but currently he is “slowly getting used to Gnome 3,” he told Linux Girl. “While on the whole I am coming to like the changes, I don’t think they are suitable for many users.”

In general, “Gnome 2 and friends were very well optimized for use of a mouse as the primary communication with the computer,” Travers explained. “Gnome 3 and others tend to be best if you are happier to use a keyboard. They may be better for professional users who are very keyboard-centric, but for those who are mouse-centric, I remain unconvinced.”

In the end, “I think most users would do better with a classic desktop rather than a more keyboard-centric one like Gnome 3 or Unity,” Travers opined. “A classic desktop has an inherently shallower learning curve, even for someone unfamiliar with the software.”

‘We Can Do Better Than This’

Last but not least, Slashdot blogger hairyfeet thinks it’s time for a new desktop altogether to emerge.

“KDE is an ersatz Windows and Gnome an ersatz mac UI — what does that say to your potential customers?” hairyfeet explained. “That the best you can do is a cheap knockoff of the other guy; when they see a knockoff, they are automatically gonna start looking for the differences.”

So, “maybe now that MSFT is about to shoot itself in the face by trying to turn Windows into a ‘supergigantic smartphone,’ this would be a perfect time for a new Linux DE, one that instead of saying ‘Me too!’ says, ‘We can do better than this’ and comes up with the next new UI design,” hairyfeet suggested.

In other words, “now is the time for a truly new and fresh idea to move us beyond the desktop metaphor,” he concluded.

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+.


  • Who is hairyfeet. Sounds to me like he is loverock from ZDNet. Why are you always quoting him. Is he some ‘god of the gui’ or something?

    Why pay attention to him when the users are the ones to whom you should be listening.

  • Everyone seems to either be going for the ancient desktop metaphor or the cell phone ripoff, but if you truly want to gain share its time for something new, maybe instead of a desktop metaphor an office metaphor instead?

    Picture being able to treat the desktop wallpaper like a whiteboard, to simply write or draw on it and be able to instantly share it with those in your network or just specific people. Maybe for audio instead of sliders it would be more like a stereo, with a notched knob that would let you see at a glance what inputs and outputs were selected, and anything to do with video or pictures would be like a storyboard.

    Another key change would be to remove the fear of malware by making the OS a "default deny" environment and unless specifically told not to all applications would be in sandboxes with lower rights than the user. Also make dependencies a thing of the past with something similar to OSX’s .app, where they can just drag and drop it into an application folder and the OS will take care of shortcuts and the like.

    I just think things could be done better if instead of just ripping off the other guy something truly new and different came along, and NO Unity is NOT new and different, its a cell phone-tablet rip just like Win 8, what we need is to throw ALL of that out and try something truly different, with a focus on easy, easy to manage, easy to use, easy to learn.

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