I was watching some Linux desktop videos, and a number of things occurred to me…
…it seems like most folk think that the Start Menu is the greatest invention in modern application launching UI. I’ve blogged about this before. Microsoft has spent years following the introduction of the Start Menu in Windows 95 mitigating for the astounding crappiness of it as a convenient way to get at your programs (especially when so many applications flood it with useless submenus consisting of program shortcut + crappy release notes documentation that you never read). I guess the Linux distros have improved that aspect, but virtually none of the improvements Microsoft has made seem to have been carried over (like MRU lists, etc). I’m sure I’m overlooking MyWickedCoolStartMenu 0.1.9.7, but it’s not what most people making these vids have installed.
No, my guess is that folk don’t care about the usability of these app launching menus on Linux because they don’t have to use it. They launch everything from the command line, so this key aspect of computer use falls to “it has a UI therefore it must be usable”. (To be fair, I use a command line to launch apps too - albeit one more usable than the terminal… it’s called QuickSilver - and no one ever seems to demonstrate an app like that in any of these videos so I can only assume that if one exists it’s unpopular).
And the videos are most often of things like repartitioning the hard disk (which I can assure you I do three times a week), poking around in the terminal, and chatting on IRC. And XGL was cool to watch once or twice, but after that, the effect is sort of lost unless you’re the one driving. What I really would love to see are people making videos of accomplishing the sorts of tasks that I think regular folk do - like attaching a digital camera and having the pictures come up in some simple photo organizer. I know this is possible on Linux, a Novell guy showed me! This is orders of magnitude more impressive than repartitioning your hard drive because Windows has not been able to recognize my new camera without complex installations and driver discs.
I know I know, I’m being the grinch, people can have fun and create content that’s interesting to them - that’s what Web 2.0 is about, right? The comments I’ll get for this will say that Linux is about the freedom to express your identity through your partition table. Fine. I just wish folk would see that there’s another freedom at stake for a wider audience - the freedom to choose something other than what gets shoved down your throat, and right now in a lot of ways what’s getting shoved is still more palatable (and Windows Vista is in my opinion incredibly pretty). I’m just a little sad because I watch some of these videos and I see the fine work of projects like Tango shoehorned in amongst a mess of other ghastly looking crap, being put to use in what Apple commercials would call “dull little tasks” and I have to wonder if an opportunity is being missed? Just because some large organizations take years to produce bloated, derivative UIs (I have participated in at least one such initiative) doesn’t mean that that needs to be the standard.
I harp on this because I believe that having open systems for the sorts of things we use every day - our desktop OS etc is the right way to go. But I’m a realist - people won’t make the switch until they see something that’s an order of magnitude (or several) better. Judging from the promotional material being turned out by users, we ain’t there yet.