It’s all about the interface

October 4, 2012

This post is related to The Perfect OS is Hard to Find from last year. That earlier rant, perhaps unwittingly, was about interfaces.

Nnow I’ve realised how everything I though of which defines an OS is down to the colours and shapes it draws on the screen. Or to be more precise, my trouble was in finding an OS that I enjoyed using on a surface level. There’s no doubt I much prefer Linux on a technical level. In fact, much of my efforts on Linux have, in retrospect, been attempts to strip away as much of the interface as possible. The more Linux interface I get, the less happy I am. The same seems to be happening with Windows, Mac and even Android.

The latest Linux Format cover CD (Mint KDE, Bodhi Linux and Pear Linux) demonstrates a couple of my favourite problems.

  • Mint KDE is nearly indistinguishable from openSuse KDE or Kubuntu, because the KDE desktop on which they’re all based is so distinctive.
  • Bodhi Linux has the Enlightenment Desktop, all 2D pretending to be 3D. It runs quite fast but dances around in front of your eyes. The makers of Enlightenment-based distros seem to revel in the desktop’s abilities, but all you end up with are distracting animations, pulsing buttons and things dancing around when they really ought not to. It’s the opposite of an Apple product: the designers spent all their time designing your interactions with the system, instead of concentrating on designing the hours you’ll spendnot interacting with it (i.e. using a program running on top of it).
  • Pear Linux goes for the option of replicating the OS X interface to within an inch of the legal system. If I want the OS X interface, I’ll use OS X. I particularly despise it when open source projects are intent on nicking others’ ideas, instead of forging ahead. Maybe that’s why I like Unity.

The Interface for me

So how does this help me decide on the OS for me? Well, I’d really like to find a system where:

  1. the interface has everything I want to hand, yet allows a little bit of tweaking (my own shortcuts, for example);
  2. the persistent but little-used elements (network icons, clock etc) are understated but neat;
  3. it doesn’t lock me in to the vendor, or the vendor’s ecosystem, or the vendor’s idea about what I should be doing on it’s hardware.

The reason this is all coming together in my mind is the most recent version of Apple’s Macs, Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 8 Metro interface, and a recent (now retracted) idea from Canonical to include Amazon products in the desktop (app) search.

As someone who needs a full keyboard, wants to create stuff, and needs as little distraction as possible, and also as someone who likes to tweak, upgrade and customise, the idea that my buying choices will consist of a shitty tablet interface grafted onto my desktop, or a laptop with the RAM soldered onto the motherboard, or affiliate links in the software menu, infuriates me no end. The fact that Windows 8 will be ‘best experienced with a Microsoft account’ sends a shiver down my spine. The thought of anything I spend money on becoming obsolete as soon as the manufacturer decides to ‘improve’ the connectors into an even more obscure format makes me nauseous. The imposition of the Internet into my desktop menu for my own good without my putting it there makes we want to punch the screen.

One day, apparently, we’ll all just be using screens to consume media from the one company we’ve thrown our lot in with. Then we’ll go on-line with that manufacturer’s hardware to debate in forums about why our choice of conglomerate is better than yours. Then we’ll share LOLcats because that’s all we can be bothered with on our key-less gadget.

What I want is probably actually more basic than the latest releases offer. Just something which gets out of the way, lets me use the software I choose and doesn’t second-guess in any way. It has to keep out of my way when I want to upgrade, or move to a different system.

Anything Anywhere

Our computers can do anything. Anything. I’ll say that word again: anything. So it’s such a shame that we have two major choices of which OS to use, which cloak the computer in layers of fluff, trying to get you on-line spending money, or signing you up to something because, really, everything you can do worthwhile on a computer has been possible for about 10 years now, so we’re having trouble making money.

So, to conclude: I think I’ll be sticking with Linux, and Ubuntu with Unity for now. It’s the nearest thing to the computer I want. I have to use Windows for work, so that’s a decision made for me. Maybe I’ll take the time to learn one of the more obscure desktops like Openbox, which seem to give you a clean slate to start off with, but require a bit of fiddling to get perfect.

A message to OS interface designers: make sure your system works brilliantly when I’m not interacting with it, and quit trying to remind me how great you are whenever you get the chance. Keep out of my way, and like cats which make beelines for non-cat people, I may come to love you.