17 June 2011

Nerd rant: Gnome 3


I've been a loyal Linux fanboy since discovering that it's free, fast, and runs on most older systems. I've been less of a fanboy since being able to afford more modern hardware and attempting to do something other than playing mp3 or video files on my desktop computer, especially with the great job Microsoft did with Windows 7.

Albert Einstein, who may have enjoyed Gnome 3. I do not.

My main reasons for preferring Linux over Windows are:

  1. User control and freedom. I could plug anything I want into anything else and it usually worked after a bit of tweaking and a few blue sparks.

  2. Consistency and standards. This is part of the Unix design philosophy. I knew, if I had a document or a file from one brand of Linux, that it would run on a different brand of Linux too. It would mostly run on Windows as well.

  3. Aesthetic and minimalist design. This must be because Linux comes from a command-line interface culture. There was no clutter on the desktop with prior versions of Gnome and older versions of KDE. As a complete novice, I could find most information I needed in the man files or by going on a click quest through the window system. But, other than with Windows, I had User control and freedom to decide where my buttons were, what size they were, how many there were and even what they did.

What's wrong with Gnome 3

Their design approach is fundamentally flawed because it is inappropriate for a desktop computing environment. Gnome 3 looks like the worst in mobile operating system interface designed forcefully jammed onto a desktop.

Dude, where's my right click?

A traditional free software application is configurable so that it has the union of all features anyone's ever seen in any equivalent application on any other historical platform. Or even configurable to be the union of all applications that anyone's ever seen on any historical platform (Emacs *cough*).

Does this hurt anything? Yes it does. It turns out that preferences have a cost. Of course, some preferences also have important benefits - and can be crucial interface features. But each one has a price, and you have to carefully consider its value. Many users and developers don't understand this, and end up with a lot of cost and little value for their preferences dollar.
[sic] from the Wikipedia entry on Gnome.

Emacs *cough* does a great job, because I can use it in virtually any context. I can use it as a plain text editor, a fully-fledged IDE, an email client, anything else I can think of but (most importantly) I do not need to use it at all. I don't even need to install it. This loose-coupling (as Object-Oriented slaves would know it, Unix developers would know it as orthogonality) is a solid design principle because it helps me on the user end to avoid the butterfly effect on my own computer.

It turns out that you do not have certain preferences with Gnome 3. Not only do you not have the preferences on the interface, but they simply are not there. Does this hurt anything? Yes, it does. It takes away the benefits of using Gnome 3 and since this is supposedly the best value for preferences dollar I can get from the free and open source world, I would rather spend real money and get a working operating system that gives me more preferences. Such as Windows 7. I'm not quite prepared to spend money on a Barbie computer from Apple yet, but even Windows is better!

Plus, there is no right click context menu!

It also turns out that some features (gnome keyring for one) get installed no matter what you chose to install on your computer. This gnome daemon is supposedly part of gnome, which I chose not to install, but it's still there. I presumed that I could unfuck my desktop by not installing Gnome at all, and opting for a traditional, configurable windowing system that allows me to join or separate all the features I'd like to see. The difference is that I am the one in control, and I may decide which preferences are available and which are unavailable. This is what preferences are about: catering the UI for my individual needs, which may be completely different from the next person who installs the same windowing system, but the option must be available.

How to unfuck your desktop if you were unfortunate enough to be hit by the plague that is Gnome 3

After installing and reinstalling about 4 different Linux distros, I realised that the main problem was not the Linux distro after all, but the horrendous retarded brain child that is Gnome 3. The first step to unfucking your desktop is DO NOT INSTALL GNOME 3. The second step is to use a windowing system that had the revolutionary idea of giving you more options instead of the beaurocratic idea of taking your options away.

A few of my favourites are:

  • XFCE. What Gnome 3 could have been if they didn't take this minimalism idea too far. It looks like the real Gnome, with some interesting additions like a quick link bar at the bottom. Bonus: it doesn't look like a mobile phone.

  • Openbox. My current favourite. What Gnome 3 should have been if hiding overwhelming task bar options from users was the main idea. It is based entirely on a right-click context menu idea and it is a thing of beauty. Bonus: it doesn't look like a mobile phone either.

My suggestions for future Gnome development

  • User oriented development instead of "expert" driven design. With both Gnome and the new Unity for Ubuntu, I get the idea that some CEOs decided that the future of computing is in pads and hand-helds, so obviously it's a great idea to go after Android. Both projects have the mentality of 'this is how it's going to be, if you don't like it, tough'. Perhaps this works in the long run, but in the short run there's a large segment of Linux users who are used to having more options, not less. It appears that the only user testing (if any) in this development loop was done with fellow developers to see with what they can get away with, instead of seeing how they can solve usability problems in real user environments.

  • Stick with established, tried and tested design hueristics instead of reinventing the wheel. There are a few that are readily available, my personal favourite being the Unix design philosophy heuristics but the shortest and sweetest is Nielsen's usability heuristics.

Less is not more. Less is less, and more is more. If you want to go for less, keep the following in mind:

Einstein's Razor

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler. ~ Albert Einstein.

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