Linux isn’t ready for the desktop yet – Here’s Why

10 June, 2005 at 21:59 Leave a comment

DISCLAIMER: I love Linux and the various open-source desktop metaphors and applications which are out there. I use them daily. But we have to stop kidding ourselves that these are ready for Joe Sixpack to use at his cubicle for anything more than the simplest of tasks.

Since I posted this out of frustration a few months ago, I’ve been utterly inundated with e-mail.

About 50% is flames from developers telling me that I’m an asshole because “Linux has [vi or emacs], the greatest word processor in the world!” (The scary thing is that these people actually seem to think that Joe Sixpack is even gonna be able to bring up the help screen, let alone save his work.). I think we need developers of user-space applications to spend a lot more time on looking at consistency with other applications, matching The Competitor’s software feature-for-feature, and actually consulting with people who are artisitically inclined before making UI decisions. (“artistically inclined” != home-drawn anime posters on the walls. Note this screenshot from the otherwise very good AVI Preview which demonstrates that this blight of tacky and idiotic UI design isn’t exclusive to Linux.)

There’s resistance to my suggestions; at least two mailing lists have Slashdotted this server with several developers deciding this is a FUD campaign. This is not a FUD campaign. It’s a Think Of The End User campaign. Because on the desktop, the user’s experience has to be the central thought with every line of code you write. It’s no longer about the developer’s personal preferences which have served OSS so well up to this point; anyone who really thinks that vi is a viable word processor in 2003 is no longer capable of thinking enough like a normal user to make UI design decisions.

The other 50% or so of the e-mails are accolades coming from people who surfed in from Google and found that I struck a chord, or like-minded users who have come in from my many rants on Slashdot. The best of these e-mails came from Omri Barel. I would invite you to read his first great rant and then his second great rant. You’ll especially like the tale of Mr. Rucker. Tackhead from Slashdot writes that Linux might not even be suitable for Ph.Ds – okay, I’m sensationalizing that one a little bit, but check it out. He continues that the stability of the Linux kernel is irrelevent to the average desktop user, at least with the process control mechanisms we currently have. And my old friend Dave Brown, a professional software developer who writes for the airport computers that I used to administer, wants KDE to stop telling him where to save his stuff. Then he ranted again. And it’s a damned good rant.

I see a glimmer of hope now, though, with the recent formation of the Desktop Linux Consortium, an organization whose mission statement indicates that, among other things, they seek to “facilitate communications between users and developers to ensure that the quality of Linux as a desktop solution continues to improve.”

As for why don’t I develop, if I’m so pissed off about the situation? Simple: I’m not a developer. While I can make Hello World in a bunch of languages from BASIC to 680×0 Assembly, my coding style is so much brute force and ignorance that Microsoft keeps on trying to hire me to write for the Outlook Security Team (my lawyer tells me to point out that I’m kidding). The upshot of it is, if you think KDE is slow and unresponsive now, well, just wait until some of my code has been committed….

So, with that aside, on with the show.

  • Any alternative operating system has to expect to be run on the hand-me-down boat anchor before being promoted to the user’s main workstation.

    As someone who had a fscking UUCP e-mail address (I was on the ‘net in 1988, boys and girls!), I was reasonably familiar with Unix. And yet, my first install of Red Hat 6.0 – only two years old – the problems started when I tried the install with a VGA monochrome monitor. The unselected options were the same color as the background. I thought the strength of Linux was frugality with old hardware and a good CLI? I won’t get into the other problems, but you can imagine with an x.0 release.

    To be able to get the foot in the door, it should at least install easily on whatever piece of dogshit machine you throw it at. There are distros which run on a 386SX with 2 megs of RAM ( Let’s see that as the baseline to get a running kernel. (No, I’m not asking for X to run on a 386, just a happy little shell prompt.)

  • In Red Hat 7.1 – not that old – there’s no support for my mouse’s scroll wheel by default. I don’t care the reason, scroll wheel mice have been popular since 1998. Four years is a lifetime in Internet time, even with a recession.

    Sure, scroll wheels are probably a Windows invention, but they’re just about the only good idea to come out of Redmond, and to paraphrase Steve Earle, “Go on, take the idea and run”. Microsoft owes a debt to everyone else in the computer field; we should adopt their few real innovations posthaste.

    UPDATE 20021013!! Nope, the scroll wheel mouse (“IntelliMouse”) is probably not a Microsoft innovation.

  • Xine is arguably the best multimedia player for *nix, but it doesn’t have something as simple as a repeat button, from what I can tell.

    I want an endless repeat just like Windows Media Player. Why? Maybe it’s so I can add endless loop TV commercials to public displays, maybe it’s because I want to loop that 20 second porn video I downloaded off Gnutella. Who cares. I am the end user, and that’s what the end user wants. If Media Player has it, it can’t be that weird. At least create a list of all the features Windows programs have and strive to meet them. The most important additional feature, at this point, is running on a resilient operating system.

    Yes, it’s nice that there are effectively billions of dollars of software development provided to me free of charge by volunteer efforts, but if all it has is compatibility with a stable operating system, it’s not very useful. At this point, equivalent features are mere credibility.

    However, a week before I wrote this, the Xine developer’s mailing list was discussing plans to change the default skin into something garish and sacrificing function for form; instead, we should be looking to emulate the styles of popular GUIs – MacOS X and Windows. Clean, conservative, efficient and neutral.

    Microsoft and Apple have millions of dollars being invested in sitting people around in focus groups to see what end users want. We can’t afford that, but at least the Linux community can see the fruits of their labors, and use them as a basis for design. Or, do we want to see Microsoft in the same dominant position 20 years from now?

  • Speaking of mere credibility… The (apparently but who knows anymore) predominant mail client, KMail, for the (apparently but who knows anymore) predominant GUI, KDE, doesn’t include a spell checker which underlines mistyped/misspelled words.

    Microsoft’s Outlook has it, so it’s a feature that end users are used to. Qualcomm’s Eudora has it. I don’t care about the technical reasons why it has not been implemented, or why KMail’s spell checker sucks as much as it does. I have to manually invoke it like I did with DaVinci’s spell checker back on a corporate LAN in 1996, and even then it doesn’t have a decent vocabulary. WTF?

    (Why is “KMail” not equal to “KMail’s”? I hate to think that my dictionary has to be so wasteful as to include a possessive and probably also a plural version of *every* noun! We’ll not even get into why my e-mail client doesn’t appear to even know its own name and flags it as an error, that’s another story entirely; I know the answer but, like a point-and-drool end user, *simply don’t care* to hear the excuse.)

    Evolution has a real spell checker, but Darwin’s Evolution is faster than Ximian’s. Truth in advertising would dictate that we call it Ximian Continental Drift. Eudora runs faster under Wine, so I run that or KMail. And while Mozilla’s browser kicks butt, the mail client doesn’t have a spellchecker at all.

    Quote from a business owner who surfed in from a search engine: “No wonder you can’t sell Linux. It sucks!” Now, this guy apparently doesn’t understand the concept of open source or of the technical superiority (“What’s a kernel, and why would I want to compile one?”). But I gotta agree with him about the user interface.

  • UPDATE 20021123!! Apparently, this afterthought will be added across all of KDE 3.2’s text editors. Wow, only 5 years behind Microsoft, and we wonder why the public hasn’t embraced Linux faster.

    UPDATE 20030212!! Kick butt, guys. Thank you. This looks beautiful and will apparently be a part of KDE 3.2.

    UPDATE 20040928!! As much as I love Linux, I’m using Windows on my main workstation because so much of the userspace in Linux simply reeks. Glimmer of hope from the Mozilla folks: Mozilla’s excellent Firefox browser and decent Thunderbird e-mail client. I *love* Firefox. I like Thunderbird, but not only is the spellchecker useless (ie. not underlining, literally a decade behind all popular e-mail clients for Windows), it doesn’t know simple words in common usage! Come on, guys. Where’d you get your words lists from, if it doesn’t know words like “Okay” or “proven”? The interactive (rather than passive underlining) spellchecker is a huge impediment to the credibility of an otherwise near-perfect cross-platform e-mail client. Not even knowing its own name or who made it, well, that’s just a joke.

  • KDE or Gnome? Fine, they’re really only libraries and can coexist, but the division is counterintuitive, confusing, not relevant and off-putting to new users.

    For the most part, the differences between distros are the same. Sure, that’s part of the strength, but it’s also part of the weakness. Bicker privately. The user experience should be transparent to the squabbles. I’m sure someone at Microsoft says “Going gold, let’s get it out the door”, while someone else says “hold on, let’s fix the bugs”.

    KDE/Gnome holy wars should be as invisible to end users as Bill’s DoublePlusGood Quality Control Department, or the functionality of KDE’s cut and paste.

  • Konqueror as a file browser: This is poorly thought out. Want to combine web browser and file browsing functionality, like Windows 98 and up? No. There’s a Windows way of doing things, and a Unix way of doing things. The Windows way doesn’t involve the user’s life being based around /home/$USER. Therefore, the “Home” button on your web/file browser can take you to or whatever. If I configure Konqueror to do that, I have to manually type /home/myname or browse to it. That’s stupid.

    Konqueror’s other great flaw is the single click to open a file. It’s as stupid as Windows 98 with Active Desktop turned on. So, the other day, I decided to *manually* clean out Mozilla’s cache for reasons that I’m not gonna get into. I navigated to Mozilla’s cache directory, chose “Select All”, then right-clicked in the file browser window to choose the Delete option. Whoops. Even though I didn’t release the key, it acted like I did, and it managed to open over 5,000 image files before the machine exhausted its RAM, then swap space, then my patience. Ctrl-Alt-Backspace.

  • XMMS: KMail gives me the “You’ve Got New Mail” beep, and XMMS crashes. “Audio device is in use.”

    For Christ’s sake, I’ve installed it according to the docs and managed to keep my attention-deficit-disorder-inflicted brain idling for 15 minutes while it compiled; is this 2002 or 1991 all over again? (Hey, those years were both palindromes!)

  • Buggy boxed distros.

    At this point, the only real strength of Linux is stability. Security is a product of stability; if a program is stable, I feel somewhat more confident in assuming there are less/no buffer overflows waiting to be discovered and exploited. So why are distros turning to The Redmond Way and undermining the only 100% foolproof advantage Linux has in a world of 15 Win32/Klez booby-traps waiting nightly in your mailbox?

    Why do we have new x.0 distros of *anything* leaving the CD-ROM press with more root holes than IIS? I’ll tolerate a few, but do we really need BIND running by default when Handsome Hubby The Bored Accountant picks up a box of $LAST_WEEK'S_VERSION of $WHATEVER Linux in the cashier display for $5.99 at $ELECTRONICS_RETAIL_CHAIN?

    How bad is it? Red Hat 7.3 ships with Wine installed and configured, and with file associations to launch Wine when you click on a Windows executable. Accidentally click on that Klez payload in your mailbox and you will infect your Linux machine with a Windows virus.

    Good one.

  • Mind-numbing slowness…. like, oh my God, how long will it take for KDE’s file browser to show me the list of the 2,765 MP3s in my directory?

    As allegedly fat and slow as Windows 2000 is, it installs off only *one* pirated CD (not *three*, like most distros), and Explorer manages to pop up my MP3 collection a hell of a lot faster than when I boot in Linux.

    Note also that I didn’t have the opportunity to compile Windows for this particular machine, yet I did for KDE. Why, despite KDE’s advantage of optimization, is Windows Exploiter still faster? Everything stopped for three weeks when I opened the directory which contained my pr0n collection.

  • An application crashes. Nothing responds to mouseclicks. I’ve waited a few seconds and need to get back to work.

    My alternatives appear to be CTRL-ALT-BKSP (the “Three Fingered Salute”, Finnish Edition (sorry, Linus)) or, from the other machine which the typical home user doesn’t have, “telnet $HOST / $USERNAME / $PASSWORD / top / k -9 $PID_OF_APPARENTLY_CRASHED_PROGRAM“.

    That’s unacceptable. When my system load gets above, let’s say, 10, I want it to nice all the seemingly errant tasks, then have a window to pop up and say, “Hey, dunno what the heck happened here, but this program ain’t responding to system messages no more. Wanna kill it? (Y/N)”.

    As a minimalist alternative, how about a key combination which, when pressed, renices the application using the most resources? Chances are that’s the one that is making the machine unresponsive.

    Several people have flamed me for suggesting that we do such silly things as drawing a window when the machine has crashed. Well, I’m sorry, do we want this to be a useable desktop operating system or not? These are features desktop users demand because the competition has them.

    It’s humiliating to think that Windows – a kludged together card-house of poorly thought-out and proprietary features tacked onto a single-user single-tasking operating system concept – should, in any way, offer better management of crashed processes than a first-order derivative of a mature mainframe operating system.

  • Some *nix users. Most will give you the shirt off your back to help you out and I appreciate those, but there’s a distressing and non-trivial number who will mock nonconformity within an Anime/Star Trek environment.

    It’s hard to imagine pure computer geeks being as cliquish and superficial as 14-year-old girls in a schoolyard, yet I know when I copy this to a comment form in Slashdot, I’ll be modded down.

    It’d be much worse if I were trying to get my first Linux install running on Mom and Dad’s computer and was being made fun of for asking if Linux will run on Dad’s Pentium III-450.

  • Speaking of Mom and Dad’s computer, we need advocacy and an installed user base of kids who can’t necessarily afford their own machines.

    We need installation to be foolproof, as risk-free as possible, and easy to ensure a future userbase who will go to college, get jobs, and be in purchasing positions.

    We need a *great* initial user experience. We need focus groups going to senior citizens homes and getting feedback.

    But, as a starting point, we need the damned installers to check the hard disk for free space in a Windows partition, offer to automatically and safely resize it, and then install a (working/effective/safe) dual-boot system in such a fashion that any AOL-using blue-haired grandmother who drives to church every Sunday in her 1974 Oldsmobile Delta 88 and can’t figure out why MediaPlay doesn’t sell 8-Tracks anymore, can figure out the Window/Linux startup choice.

    That should be an absolute priority so that trying out Linux – on all major distos, whether contemplated and downloaded or an impulse “hey, what’s this Linux thing in the news?” buy at Wal*Mart – involves as little risk to an end user as possible.

    UPDATE! 20020909: Thanks to some feedback from a reader, I’ve been clued-in to Knoppix. Go get it now, spread copies around your office. It’s a single self-booting CD which includes a 2.4 kernel, KDE 3.0.1, Mozilla, OpenOffice, XMMS, etc., and allows an individual to try out Linux with no commitment whatsoever. It reads FAT32 partitions, allowing you to see what Word files look like in OpenOffice and play your MP3 collection in XMMS. On new Pentium IV machine, it flies, detected and used all available hardware (sound, etc.) and used DHCP to effortlessly bring itself to life on a large LAN, though it didn’t seem to be able to read Windows XP NTFS filesystems. I’ve also seen it work flawlessly on Pentium II machines, AMD Athlons, etc. all from the single CD. My only fault with Knoppix is that it looks like it was designed by the same 14-year-old Run Lola Run fan from East Berlin who designs Xine skins – the Eurotrash style is adopted when the otherwise extraordinarily impressive startup script seems to feel a need to test every text color available to text mode VGA. Otherwise, it’s excellent. Don’t like it? Shutdown the machine, eject the CD, and reboot. All Linux distros should include this live CD feature. And maybe someone will come up with a distribution which will install itself in an equally foolproof manner…

    “If there is any hope, it lies with the proles.” – Winston Smith, 1984.


Entry filed under: Computers/ICT, Life-Theories, Research, WebXP.

Portable GNOME Usability Lab – Interesting Linux Directions Criminals and Community Service

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