Writing about Diversity on the Desktop

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jul 12, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Writing about the Linux desktop used to be simple. I wrote about GNOME and KDE, and, if I really wanted to be complete, I mentioned Xfce. Very occasionally, I might mention a few window managers. But those simple ways were lost in the fragmentation of GNOME over the last three years, and now writing about the desktop is vastly more complicated than it used to be.

Today, the number of desktop environments with significant market shares has tripled. To do a thorough job, I can no longer talk about just GNOME and KDE. At a minimum, I also need to talk about Cinnamon, Mate, Unity and Xfce -- and I'm not sure I shouldn't add LXDE and maybe a handful of others to the list.

From a user's perspective, so many choices are welcome, although possibly a little overwhelming. However, from a writer's perspective, the number of choices is nothing short of a nightmare, the type I wake from with an over-all cramp and sweat drenching the pillow. To be relevant, I want to mention all the environments that people are using, but how do I do all of them justice at the same time?

A comparative problem
Part of the problem is the amount of space. Many articles are 1000 words or less -- maybe twice that if I am lucky. Minus space for an introduction and conclusion, writing an article of typical length about KDE or GNOME means that I have about 350 words to write about each. By contrast, if I try to include all the major desktops today, each gets less than 120 words, which is so short that superficiality is guaranteed.

It gets worse, too. If I talk about more than one desktop environment in an article, I usually intend to compare them. But when I already lack space to describe each one, how can I possibly start to compare each environment to each? With two desktops, I have two comparisons to make. But with six desktops, I have an unwieldy fifteen (figure it out for yourself), and writing is constantly threatening to bog down.

But even if I manage a comparison, the techniques of comparison fall apart. Write about each desktop in a continuous passage, and either the article loses coherence, or I reduce my space for discussion by continually referring to each of the other desktop. Organize the article by features, in which I move back and forth between each desktop within each section, and I risk leaving readers (and me) in miserable confusion as I jump around. Either way, I are asking readers to endure more than they expect, and taking on more than I can hope to accomplish.

Looking for solutions
In theory, there are a few ways around these problems. In practice, though, none are consistently satisfactory.

The most obvious is to write longer articles. However, do that all the time, and I disrupt my writing schedule. Nor will print editors necessarily welcome greater lengths, since they need to balance carefully the ratio of pages devoted to articles and to ads. Even an online editor may not welcome longer articles, which disrupt their work schedule as much as the writer's.

A more promising solution is to limit Ir subject matter. For example, I can limit my discussion to GNOME derivatives, which means that I only need to talk about Cinnamon, GNOME, Mate, and Unity. Or if I are talking about GNOME 2 replacements, I can talk about only Cinnamon, GNOME Classic, and Mate. But sometimes I do want to talk about all the alternatives, and not just a sub-set.

Alternatively, I can narrow my focus to a single aspect of desktop environments, such as virtual workspaces or menus. But attempting this solution means that I risk descending to irredeemable triviality.

Still another solution is forget about comparisons altogether, and talk about each desktop environment only in isolation. The trouble is, people often do want comparisons, and personally I would hate to abandon them just because they hae become more difficult.

I've tried all these solutions, each with varying degrees of success. But even the times that I've been most successful, I work harder than I did four years ago to get the same result.

Don't get me wrong -- I like the increased choices as a user, and as a writer I'm committed to trying to do it justice. But increasingly I'm getting nostalgic for simpler times.

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