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Computing: Linux Desktops Will Always Stink; Unless...
Thursday, 2003 October 30 - 6:03 pm
Linux devotees will tell you that it's only a matter of time before Linux conquers the desktop PC marketplace, because its graphical interface is catching up to Windows. But as long as Linux is what it is, that will never happen. And maybe that's a good thing.

Look on the on-line virtual shelves of Wal-Mart and you'll see a bunch of low-cost computers with Linux as the operating system, touted as consumer-friendly due to the seemingly Windows-like graphical user interface on it. But are these computers as easy to use as Windows machines, much less Apple Macintoshes? Will consumers buy these things instead of Windows boxes? It's the user interface where the rubber meets the road.

What makes for a great user interface? Folks who are heavily involved with Linux desktop environments, such as Gnome and KDE, will talk about customizability, flexibility, and the ability to expose the arcane depths of Linux functionality to the user. But they only pay lip-service to consistency and simplicity, which are the true foundation of any good user interface.

When you look at Linux desktops, you might find a decent-looking file navigator, a solid web browser, and a polished e-mail client... but they will all look and work slightly differently, because each was written by a hundred different open-source engineers, each with a different idea of what the optimal design should be, each with a different vocabulary of terminology and graphic representations, and very few with experience in graphic design or usability factors. And, all of the applications will present the user with a dazzling variety of choices and options, because Linux users put a premium on being able to customize their workspaces.

Unfortunately, the computing masses, who largely remain computer novices despite the pervasiveness of computing devices, will be confused by interfaces like this. The machine will appear to be something made by engineers for engineers, not the information appliance they really want. And so, they will stay away in droves.

Some might argue that it's possible for Linux developers to get together and agree on good user interface standards, the same way they've agreed on Internet protocols. But developing protocols and developing user interfaces are two entirely different things. The problem with Linux user interfaces is that they look like protocol specifications: technical and complicated, not simple and elegant.

Apple's Mac OS X and (to a lesser extent) Microsoft's Windows XP are more appealing to users because a single company can standardize design parameters, hire professional graphic designers, and run usability studies with focus groups. Linux users will criticize how Apple and Microsoft limit their individual freedoms to customize, but the masses of desktop machine users will benefit from the fact that every machine and every application behave in largely the same way. And to be commercially successful, it's mass appeal that counts.

Note, Linux fans, that things could change. It's possible that someone with a vested (i.e. financial) interest in the success of desktop Linux (say, IBM, RedHat, or Sun) could institute the kind of standardization needed to improve Linux's usability. Linux programmers everywhere could defer to the standard, accepting the design, look, and feel that is dictated to them. But if this happens, Linux will no longer be the community-developed, open-source entity that it is today. Linux would go the way of, say, Solaris; it would be controlled by a single company that is more interested in financial gain than the satisfaction of the developer community.

So those of you who want Linux to dominate the marketplace, be careful: you might get what you wish for.
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Posted by Ken in: techwatch

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