This post has been boiling in the back of my brain for quite some time. It's been one of those that I was never completely sure of, until 2011 saw the influx of emails coming in saying how out of touch the Linux desktop designers were with both reality and the end user. From my perspective, it's a bit strong of a sentiment; but the driving force behind the idea is dead on. After giving this train of thought plenty of time to derail, I decided it was finally time to fully address what I think is actually becoming an issue with the Linux desktop and how other platforms manage to avoid the problem. Although there is no big science behind my conclusions, this issue is something near and dear to me.
So, what gives? Let's talk.
I want to preface this by making a fairly bold statement. We, as a whole, are out of touch. I'm talking about nearly anyone from my generation (think Gen X). Why do I say this? Simple — read nearly any technology blog and you will inevitably come across mention that no one likes change. Any time a desktop is changed, people don't like it. But the truth is, that really only applies to the older generations. With the younger generations (like my stepchildren), you can hand them a desktop one day, replace it with a completely different desktop the next, and they won't bat an eye. Younger generations laugh at, nay mock, change. Here's a simple example: My youngest stepdaughter (she's 17) has a laptop that was running Ubuntu 10.04. She came to me wanting it updated to the latest version. Naturally my first thought was, "She won't know what to do with Ubuntu 11.10, so I better think of something different." Instead, I decided to install my newest go-to distribution, Linux Mint — in this case Linux Mint 12. It was New Years Eve. She went to bed early, as did my wife, so I could just get the installation done and let her know about it in the morning.
After the install completed, I wrote down her new password on a piece of paper (in case she woke before me), realizing I was going to have to tell her how to use the new GNOME 3 desktop the next day. Surprisingly enough, I woke up to find her happily using her desktop. Switching from Classic GNOME to GNOME 3 was a total no-brainer for her. The only question she had was regarding the name of the application she needed to install for her web camera. I was going to show her how and she said, "I got it."
Okay, so yeah... younger generations aren't tripped up by change. Older generations? Not so much. And this is where that long thread of thought has led me.
In the world of Microsoft and Apple, you have developers who have to answer to managers, who have to answer to CEOs, who have to answer to shareholders. If the general public cannot use the software, or have trouble using the software, the trickle down will get nasty by the time it reaches the developers. To that end, developers and designers MUST create products that are user-friendly and do NOT cause problems at the hands of the general public. The product (and their jobs) depend upon it.
With Linux, and open source in general, this is not the case. The designers and developers are typically only beholden to their egos, their pride, and the hope their work will finally take Linux to the next level. That leads to the release of things like Ubuntu Unity and GNOME 3. And although younger generations can adapt with lightning quick reflexes, the current majority of users are still stuck in that "change is bad" philosophy. The only way the older generations can adapt to change is if said change is done in micro-steps.
Here's the thing — Linux designers and developers need to start working on their products as if their livelihood depended upon the immediate success of their product. Only then will they start delivering products that are the equal to their skills. And trust me, some of the most amazing designers and developers in the world work on open source projects.
This is not to say that open source developers need to start thinking as if they are working on proprietary projects. Not at all. It means the designs and developments should be done with the progress and success in mind. Those two ideas are not mutually exclusive. A desktop can be both progressive and successful. There have been minor changes in GNOME 3 that are making a fairly progressive desktop quite successful.
And GNOME 3 is a perfect example of how designers and developers on open source projects need to rethink their plans of attack. What should have happened with GNOME 3 is a wider scope of users should have been taken into consideration before releasing the product. Put the desktop in the hands of new users, old users, skilled users, unskilled users — a wide cross section of society that could give some fairly immediate input as to whether the desktop was heading in the right direction or if some major changes needed to be made.
I know this sounds like common sense and many might say, "They did beta testing." Problem is — and I know how this works — within the world of Linux beta testing tends to fall into the hands of those that already know how. Fellow developers, designers, hard core users, people like myself — we wind up beta testing software and tend to report bugs as well as give feedback on what we think is right or wrong about a design. But we are not the average user who will be looking at this desktop from a completely different perspective.
And this is why I fully believe the design of the desktop should not be in the hands of the developers. Take an average user, ask them what they would like to see in a desktop (how they would like to interact with their desktop), do a mock-up, and send that mock-up to the developers. As much as I respect the open source developers, I can't say they always make the best decisions with design choices.
I was really impressed with my stepdaughter's ability to pick up a completely different desktop and immediately feel at home. And some day, when her generation is running the show, the idea of change not being good will no longer apply. But for now, it does and that means further development of the Linux desktop needs to be handled with serious care and concern for the people who would actually be using the desktop — the end user.
And finally — now that it's officially 2012, I want to offer a heart-felt 'thank you' to all my readers and fans for continuing on with this hay ride. I hope this new year brings to you much joy, prosperity, and success.
Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.