The Future of Linux UI Scares Me

I don’t think I have mentioned that I moved from Ubuntu to Fedora. Two years ago.

Why has this to do with the state of the Linux desktop? I’d say at least somewhat to do with it. When I last switched from Gentoo to Ubuntu, it was due to the eventual frustration with the incessant amount of tinkering I had to do in order to get things work.

Most people would have jumped the bandwagon and moved to the newer, and trendy MacOSX. But you know what? What most Linux windows manager have is the “focus follows mouse” feature, which is the most Zen-like simplicity that no other non-unix OSes have. That was why I swapped to Ubuntu, which was the new poster-boy for the “Linux that Just Works”.

The charm however, did not last. “apt-get” was the loveliest feature that I embraced, and it was great that Ubuntu finally fast-tracked Debian to bring forth the most bleeding edge of software packages, albeit with a higher defect rate than the rock solid Debian. Even so, the defect rate in Ubuntu wasn’t something that I perceptively noticed. Not until it came to development tools.

Fedora is the undisputed leader for being the distro by the developers, for the developers. Ubuntu is great, but only when you don’t have to tinker under the hood. If you are, then be prepared for pain. Badly configured packages like GDB, with debugger instability and crashes, and badly placed debugging symbols for packages made it hard to treat Ubuntu as a serious development environment.

It so happened that my company was relocating, and as part of the transition, it was just a good time to think about the software infrastructure that we were using, and to set things up correctly. It was also fortuitous that at the same time, we had hired a very capable sysadmin who is an expert on Redhat based distros, so the decision was to maintain one and one (free) distribution only - Fedora.

I have to say it has been a good choice; personally, I think the QA behind Fedora is very solid generally, and especially in developer tools. But what I thought had been a good choice was that Fedora stuck to the original Gnome desktop where everything was simple, like Windows 98 simple. No, it isn’t a pun; older desktop environments did get it correct, like how OS/2, Windows XP and the KDE 3.x did. They just worked.

There is nothing wrong with the existing paradigm of having an app-menu selector, a taskbar, and a widget area for notifications, plus a few bells and whistles here and there. But Ubuntu decided that it wasn’t good enough; “No, we’ve got to look like Apple”, Mark Shuttleworth says. Then he starts tinkering with the menu icons, switching it from the right hand side to the left.

I’m glad that I’ve left Ubuntu before then; I’m sure he must have realised that getting about 80% of the desktop users to make a context switch of a long-established habit won’t be pleasant. It’s like telling a heroine addict that going cold-turkey is a piece of cake. Bad analogy? But you get the point.

Then Mark decides that a singular change isn’t enough, “I have an idea, let’s revamp the whole desktop altogether!” And this is how the Unity interface came about. Still, that’s ok. Ubuntu is Mark’s baby, he’s entitled to drive the design of his distro any way he likes.

I don’t really have much to say about Unity, since I’ve never used it. I don’t think I will anyway; it looks too different to what I have come to be very comfortable with as a desktop environment. But it is not just that I ain’t adventurous; field reports from users who had tried it just didn’t look encouraging.

However, the bad news is, Gnome 3 will start shipping the new Gnome-shell interface, which appears to have taken a leaf from Unity’s design. It means that Gnome will be the last major window manager to jump the shark. Well so long Gnome, it’s fun while it lasted.

Fedora 15 will be shipping with Gnome 3. The thought of upgrading makes me shudder. Will I be productive with it, or will I be “enjoying” my time in discovering what new features the new UI will bring? Unfortunately, I don’t understand what all that fuss about, competing to reinvent the desktop. I’ll just get a Mac instead*.

*Oh wait, that’s a joke. Don’t get too upset, my Mac fanboy friends. I’ll show you my new shiny Xfce-compiz desktop, or my zen-like fluxbox windows manager. Trust me, you’ll love it.