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The desktop metaphor

What Kind of Person Uses Linux, And Should You Be One Of Them?
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Practicality is the key issue facing most users, as they will only use what works. So how do we define what works? Understanding the design concepts behind many of the current systems will help define exactly what makes them usable, or unusable. There are many metaphors used in representing the complex inner workings of a computer to its user and the usability of a system may be down to how well it implements their chosen metaphors. Around the topic of usability a lot of buzz-words exist, and even more opinions exist on what makes an interface work. I think software Joel Spolsky put it most concisely; “A user interface is well-designed when the program behaves exactly how the user thought it would.”

Most modern systems conform to the desktop metaphor of usability, which is mimicking an office desktop. Back in ancient times, before a PC and a place to set it on were all an office needed, files were stored in folders in cabinets. Of course in computing files are stored in folders on drives, but the comparisons run deeper. The screen is handled like a desktop, with in-use files open and placed upon it. Desktop accessories like calculators or sound recorders also have their place in the desktop view of things.

Treating programs as virtual pages (or aspects) of your desktop is not a new idea. The ‘Page paradigm’ as it’s known dates back to the sixties. Many of the concepts we still use to understand personal computers were made public in what’s known as ‘The Mother of All Demos’. In 1968 Douglas Engelbart rose to the stage and changed the way people thought about computers. Prior to this everything was done on the command line, and was strictly text only. Engelbart’s achievements aren’t merely conceptual; his demonstration introduced the mouse as an input device. As computers have become more advanced, and gained functions that don’t fit in with the metaphor, different window managers have emerged that have their own spin on things.

Douglas Engelbart linux

Windows adheres to the desktop metaphor pretty strictly, with only the familiar taskbar breaking the illusion, all in the name of organization. Using alt and tab to switch between windows conforms to the paper paradigm, shuffling the open files like paper. Unfortunately Windows hasn’t advanced the metaphor much and hasn’t evolved much over the years. Consistency is damaged by the fact that applications are designed with no clear standard. OS X on the other hand has gone through major revisions over the years, at heavy financial cost to the user. While constancy is taken care of with solid libraries the desktop metaphor is muddled by an interface that involves users in technical information. The system handles open files and programs like paper only in their respective windows, on the dock and elsewhere they are grouped by process. This can feel awkward to users who would like to have more control.

tiger expose

So how does all this fit into the Linux way of doing things? The range of window managers available for Linux ensures that users have control of how windows are handled, from appearance to position on screen. It also means that some of the advanced features used to extend the desktop metaphor have appeared very early on in Linux. For example the concept of virtual desktops (multiple desktops users can switch between) has existed natively in Linux for years. The feature has been implemented by third-party developers on both Windows and Mac, with Mac to see a native implementation in Leopard, but integration with the window manager has been less than perfect. Such features can hog memory if their methods don’t fit in well with what the window manager is doing. Memory usage and resource management in general can be a big motivator in choosing a window manager, as many options exist for both low spec machines and high end beasts.

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  • 0 Hide
    tstebbens , 24 October 2007 21:28
    This article made me angry. For a start the assertion that Linux supports the most hardware of any OS is unfounded in an article that starts off with the tag line "Why Linux might feel at home on your desktop." That implies PC hardware and Windows rules the roost there no matter how you cut it. If you were talking non-Intel hardware then, yes I'd agree.

    Next the author contradicts himself with the statement "although Linux supports more hardware than any other operating system, compatibility issues can occur. Since Linux isn’t designed specifically for desktop systems more specialized hardware, like 20 button mice or even some graphics cards, may not be fully functional." So what this is basically saying is the hardware is NOT supported.

    All-in-all this article gives the impression of being written by a Linux Fanboy rather than being a balanced piece of objective journalism which is what I was hoping it would be.
  • 0 Hide
    audiovoodoo , 25 October 2007 18:07
    I also see the contradiction and can perhaps clarify a little. Out of the box a modern distribution such as Ubuntu will support an awful lot of hardware without the need for a user to find and install 3rd party drivers. My experience with XP was that whilst I could get every last thing to run it took the installation of a lot of drivers from a lot of sources to get the last mouse button working etc.

    The point I would make is that a lot of HW out there is supplied only with Windows binary drivers and for whatever reason the HW manufacturers do not seem keen to allow others to see the specifications so they can write drivers for the community. There is no physical reason why Linux can not support this HW other than manufacturers refusing to provide a spec to the community.

    I run a fairly standard PC that is 3 years old. My mouse is fully supported, my MS ergo keyboard is fully supported, my TV tuner card is supported and so is my web cam. I can use any USB mass storage device without issue so cameras etc work fine. I can get Bluetooth support for my phone working, although I admit this took a bit of work it was no more than it took me under XP. The point I make is this.. all that works without installing anything other than the OS. Yes HW tends to be built and drivers designed with Windows in mind but things have improved radically over the last 3 years that I have been using Linux. Perfect.. NO. An option for most home users.. YES. About to destroy MS.. nah.. not for a while yet.
  • 1 Hide
    gmuppet , 25 October 2007 23:12
    "It’s an operating system that looks like a clear winner by most standards, from technical to functional. Linux supports more hardware than any other operating system"

    Um... don't know what to say, man... RHEL 4/Centos 4 supports neither my SONY camera, nor my Canon flatbed scanner, nor my Logitech webcam. What gives?
  • -1 Hide
    cbxbiker61 , 26 October 2007 02:24
    The Redhat/CentOS twins are server distros. I'm not sure why you'd use either of them for that type of hardware. My instinct says you're a flamer and don't really care for a real answer.

    For those that want a real answer.

    Just like any OS. Selecting supported hardware is still important. Cameras? Buy cameras that support the open Mass Storage format and you won't be locked into any OS. Webcams? Buy a webcam that has a driver (there's a European going nuts writing drivers that support tons of webcams). Scanners? I'm not into scanners, but if you are then I guess you can do your own homework. Let's say searching "linux scanners" would do the trick.

    One thing I do like is that when you select hardware that is supported, it usually stays supported for the useful life of the device. Which is quite the opposite of the Microsoft franchise where they typically get you coming and going. Hmmmm, you bought that two years ago for XP, sorry no drivers for Vista. Hmmm, you want to buy a new one of those and you have XP, sorry the new device only comes with Vista drivers. It's always a case of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Interestingly enough all of the hardware I used with Linux in '95 still runs with Linux in '07. 12 years of OS improvements still works on the old hardware.

    In my experience Linux quite often doesn't support the crap devices which often get used with Windows boxes. Ever heard of Mustek scanners? Who in their right mind would waste time writing drivers for crap devices?

    Linux is about having choices. That's not going to change. If you want Linux for Dummies there's a version for you Linspire/Freespire. If you want a Linux with long support cycles that's available too. Roll your own Linux, sure. Personally I use Slackware, if you're comfortable with VI and shell script (or want to learn) it's straight to the bone configuration is an advantage.
  • 0 Hide
    Cabelo , 26 October 2007 03:21
    I'm very much in agreement with the above post.

    The other thing to remember is that, just because so many users are comfortable with Windows doesn't mean they instinctively understood how to use it.

    I've used Linux from time to time, and while I've never managed to stick with Linux as the default OS on my desktop, I like knowing the option is there.

    In truth, the biggest reason for not sinking some time into learning to use Linux (as I did with Windows) is that I'm a far older man now than I was when I first started using Windows... and I just don't have the kind of time.

    I am however, continually impressed by the steps Linux is taking towards being immediately friendly to people like me, who just can't find the time to learn... it's nice.
  • 0 Hide
    perzy , 17 November 2007 15:38
    Well apart from being free, Linux is worse in every area than windows for desktop use. Stability, gaming, driver support, ...you name it.

  • 0 Hide
    marclane773 , 31 January 2008 18:57
    hi ive allways used windows ever since 3.1 over the last few years ive been tempted by linux but never bothered because i didnt want to learn my way round a new os and i was concerned about software compatability ive now had a look and it doesnt seem that daunting can anyone recomend a version for me i mainly use my pc for D/L and gaming P.s what is the network support like thanks any advise would be great i would love to leave xp's childish moronic feel behind
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , 22 May 2008 16:07
    The main reason why Linux hasn't taken off: games. If Wine ever became fully compliant with DX9 or even DX10, we might be able to play the latest games right out of the box. But, for now, practically every teen will be using Windows at home and will carry on using it in their adulthood, because, let's face it: games are a big part of the modern culture and cannot be ignored.

    And, no, it is not enough that Linux users can play 2-3 year old games. How many kids go around the schoolyard talking about 2-3 year old (or older) games? They want the latest games and they want them immediately.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , 22 May 2008 21:56
    This all misses the point. The biggest reason why Linux has never taken off is because Microsoft made it prohibitively expensive for the PC vendors to offer pre-installed OSes besides Windows. They were by the civil courts found to have abused their monopoly position in the U.S. Unfortunately, by the time they were caught at this, Windows was pretty well established.
    .
    Want to know just how good Linux is? Wait and see what really happens this year and next with the UMPC market. If Linux is as good as those of us who use it regularly believe, it will continue to be pre-installed on a big chunk of these little boxes. (It's been on the eee since last fall and selling quite well, btw.)
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    Hint: The Asus CEO figures he'll sell 40% of the eees this year as Linux. Assuming Asus meets their sales targets, that's 2,000,000 devices. MSI has stated publicly that he expect to sell about 50% of the MSI Wind as Linux.
    .
    Many, many people are finally getting a good look at Linux for the first time. If they like it, it'll sell. If they don't, you'll see only the WinXP UMPCs around in a year or two.