New times, new paradigms

It has been with interest that I have been seeing my friend Andy Wingo and then Alex Graveley commenting on the state of the desktop.

It is somewhat of a debate which has been had in the GNOME community for the last 3-4 years at least. The problem is that nobody is really able to come up with a compelling idea for this ‘revolutionary UI’ that people seem to want. And its not like we are alone in this situation. Nobody else is really able to come up with something earth shattering either, so while KDE4 and Windows Vista both have been blowing their trumpets like crazy lately, its not like you find anything apart from incremental refinements of already known concepts when you dissect them.

And it is not like nobody has tried to come up with new stuff. Alex Graveley has been pushing his own ideas on and off, and the online desktop is another effort who sees itself as redefining the GNOME desktop. Yet, despite Alex’s disappointment in a lack of interest, my contention is that while there are some improvements in the ideas put forward, neither Alex or the Online Desktop has so far been able to put forward a narrative which has gotten people truly sold. And expectation of great interest or unbridled enthusiasm when one hasn’t been sold on the idea is a bit much in my opinion. I think I have walked out after both Alex and Havocs talks at recent GUADECS thinking; looks interesting and I will keep my ears open to news about it, but I am not convinced this will make me rethink how I want to interact and work with my desktop.

Yet we have entered, or been in, a phase where everyone wants a new paradigm for the desktop, even if nobody can agree on what it should do or at least what it should be. So instead we pull in buzzwords of the day like web integration and online presence. Which are all concepts loose enough to be able to mean nothing and everything. In fact the whole web/desktop integration idea isn’t even very new even in the context of GNOME. I assume I am not the only one who remembers IBM’s SashXB effort many years ago, which would change the world through GNOME and Mozilla¬† ‘weblications’.

So maybe all the ‘small’ fixes we focus on these days are not enough to revolutionize the world of desktop computing and change market share numbers so quickly that Microsoft crumbles under our onslaught. But I don’t think such an innovation is possible, or rather if it comes along it will be so different from what we are doing today that it will not really be considered a direct continuation of the PC desktop. However I do think that we are on the right track and that while the incremental improvements we push out in every new release might not feel like something that change the computer interaction landscape, they do add up to creating a stronger and stronger argument for the linux distributors to get traction with major corporations for being open to looking at a Linux desktop migration. And to pull it down to the microlevel, for me personally the fact that I am now for instance able to pair a phone over bluetooth with my desktop and transfer files by drag and drop from it is actually a huge step forward to where we was just a year ago. Or that I am now able to plug and play a SD card into my laptop without obscure mount commands. Sure its not revolutionary, but it is the kind of things that makes it easier for me to feel good about trying to get my family to switch over for instance, as I can now know that getting them to do so will not need to mean endless support calls and frustration on both sides.

So to summarize while I can understand that with the core desktop metaphor feeling like it has only slightly evolved since Xerox introduced it can feel a bit dull and that people feel the time is overripe for something new, lets not walk off a cliff while we walk looking up trying to figure out how to travel the stars :)

Jono’s new effort, Severed Fifth

Since I am in the process of discussing people attempting new stuff I thought I should bring up my friend Jono Bacon’s latest effort, Severed Fifth. I think its a neat example of someone deciding that the current paradigms in the field (of Music) are not working and thus is doing a little experiment to try to figure out if there could be another way of doing things. Most of the time such efforts collapse into nothing, but something they do strike gold and show a path forward. Too early of course to tell if Jono will be able to strike gold here, but I do think he deserves kudos for daring to try. Even in the meritocratic free software world I think we have a tendency to focus a bit too much on providing other people with stop energy whenever the opportunity arise. So if you are interested in exploring alternative ways of organising the world of music then be sure to check out Severed Fifth.

7 thoughts on “New times, new paradigms”

  1. Well spoken. I also think gnome is on the right track. I have recently converted the desktop of my girlfriend and the desktop of my brother to gnome. Normal people only want stability and a good future set. A year ago I could not have confined normal people to use gnome now with ubuntu I can.

    Things that I think gnome is still missing is good and simple video creation tool so people can make simple home made DVD from there Cam coders.

    Also thinks like restoring items out of the wast basket is missing.

    But overall gnome is in a good shape and project like telepathy, webkit and conduit are bringing gnome in a evolutionary way forward.

    I have had a look at KDE 4 and it looks great but thing that i personally miss is stability and that is what gnome has and that is the key point that I use to convert people to gnome.

  2. Totally agree dude. I just tried Ubuntu after a 4 year gap and am amazed by the ease of use – although I also dig the fun features like compiz. I would much rather have bugs fixed and things easy to use than “the next generation experience” or whatever. In some ways, what people are describing as decadence is an indicator of success – developers have focused on polish, bug fixing, and all those things that were supposed not to “scratch an itch”.

  3. Nobody has been able to come up with a radical new user interface? No, not on the desktop, but you’re looking in the wrong place.

    For example, Google Docs does several of the radical things talked about in all these decadance blog posts – it’s document centric, it automatically saves (no file menu with save / save as), it’s collaborative (multiple people can edit documents at once). It has a document browser that is search based, rather than hierarchical filing system based.

    Lots of these things were done by Palm over 10 years ago. There are books (such as the Human Interface, and About Face) just as old which describe how they should function in detail.

    The “compelling idea” is pretty clear, really.

  4. I think what will happen with the Desktop paradigm is that we will learn a lot from mobile phones and that will change our Desktop. The thing that is very different on mobile phones is that most of the cool and easy-to-use ones now come with a touch screen, which lets us do the zooming, pointing etc with our hand (gasp!). If that was possible on the Desktop, that would make a real difference. How many monitors do you know that have fingerprints on them? Why? Because people like to point with their fingers – it’s what hands and fingers are made for. We do not use that functionality of our bodies at all with computers because typically your laptop or desktop screen is not a touch screen. I think it should be! Then we’d get a different paradigm! But until most hardware changes, we will not see a change in the software side of things.

    The other thing that will change our desktop is the introduction of multi-pointers. But that really also requires a touch screen to work nicely – or how many people do you know that could use a mouse both with their right and left hand?

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