In the past the challenge for developers of the free desktop was to reproduce the functionality available to users of other operating systems, and a bit more besides. But in recent times the developers have begun to look towards a future that might take the desktop further beyond the accepted conventions.
The point-and-click desktop as we know it has been around since monitors had flickering green screens, although the average laptop has disk, RAM and graphics capacity that was undreamt of a few short years ago. The approach of free desktop developers has been to find ways of taking full advantage of the expanding technology, the versatility of Linux, and the limited spatial characteristics of mobile devices. In doing this they have to satisfy the conflicting demands of users.
KDE 4 introduced Plasma and widgets, and made extensive use of the ‘sweet spots’ of the screen, the “edges and corners, which are easier to aim at”. GNOME 3 is based around the GNOME Shell, and Ubuntu is pushing off in another direction with Unity. The justification for the KDE developers was that “desktop computing has changed radically in the last 20 years, yet our desktops are essentially the same as they were in 1984. It’s time the desktop caught up with us.”
Usability is a delicate balance between utility and practicality, simplicity and aesthetics, and is inevitably subjective. How do you maximise both the potential scope and the usability of the desktop? Should the desktop be an end in itself, or should it be nothing more than a framework for accessing applications and data?
UNIX users find usability in transparency and a multiplicity of choices. Mac users prefer one-click solutions and couldn’t care less where their data hides. KDE is a popular choice for the Linux desktop because it is aesthetically pleasing and offers configurability and transparency. Likewise, many Linux users who have arrived at Linux through hearing about Ubuntu have liked the experience precisely because GNOME has aimed for simplicity and ease of use.
Usability is too often defined by familiarity. Critics talk of intuitive behaviour, but what we mean by intuitive behaviour is coloured by our familiarity with the recognised way of doing things. What we call intuitive behaviour when talking about computer desktops is neither intuitive nor natural, but depends almost entirely on learned behaviour. It isn’t intuitive to sit in front of computer and click a mouse. It isn’t intuitive to send an email to the other side of the planet, and it isn’t intuitive to tap out words on a keyboard, but all these behaviours become second nature because we know that this is the way it’s done.
Predictable behaviour and a minimum of choice is desirable for infrequent users who don’t want or need to learn new behaviours. Familiarity dictates that once we learn a way of doing things it becomes intuitive. It follows that if a certain set of behaviours become second nature, we don’t like change, because change necessitates a different behaviour.
So changes to the behaviour of interfaces don’t always go down well, especially where they’re done for the sake of change, or to “add value”. We know that if GNU/Linux is to break into commercial environments on a large scale there has to be continuity and consistency.
At the same time the desktop cannot afford to ossify, and the developers cannot be expected to ignore the potential that the technology offers. There are different users to please. Compiz has been massively popular with certain classes of user. Its popularity has little to do with utility or functionality. Nobody needs wobbly windows or spinning cubes to get their work done, but aesthetic pleasure, which Compiz provides for some, is as much a part of the usability equation to some users as the transparency of the file system is to others.
The KDE developers ran into problems with KDE 4.0 because, of necessity, changes to the applications lagged behind changes to the framework. As the new environment matured and the relationship between the applications and the desktop environment become more transparent, attitudes changed. Some users have been converted, and some have reverted to the lightweight window managers that do just enough and do it well.
It is early days for Unity, but the response so far has been at best ambivalent. Mark Shuttleworth’s declared aims are to unite design with free software, to blur the line between the web and the desktop, to create an intuitive GNU/Linux desktop that is a thing of beauty, and to make Ubuntu and free software popular among the kinds of user who have never heard of free software before.