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.