The free desktop leads in innovation

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jul 10, 2009 GMT
Bruce Byfield

The first time I booted GNU/Linux over a decade ago, the desktops were adequate, but lacking the tools and features found in Windows. As the lacking tools and features were slowly added, pundits kept predicting "The Year of the Linux Desktop" with such regularity that the phrase is now a joke. The result is that we've become so used to the idea that the free desktop needed to catch up that nobody noticed when, a few years ago, the situation started to change, and GNU/Linux quietly became a leader in interface innovation. In fact, we're currently in the middle of what could become the biggest revolution in desktops since Windows 95.

Don't believe me? There's been signs of the changes for years, such as Microsoft Word's borrowing of Writer's floating window for styles. And, for quite a few years now, the free desktop has been ahead of its proprietary rivals in customization and features such as virtual desktops. But these are nothing compared to some of the projects, features, and developments currently under way:
Consider these examples, some minor and others major:

  • Eagle Mode: As I've mentioned before, this little-known project presents a view of the desktop that changes as you zoom in or out with the mouse. It's a completely new way of interacting with the screen, but, once you get past the initial confusion, a surprisingly simple one.
  • Terminator: I first became aware of Terminator as a way to open a new prompt within the same virtual terminal window. Since then, it has added all sorts of features, including a find function similar to the one in the less command, the drag and dropping of text strings into the terminal, unlimited scrollback, horizontal and vertical scrollbars that appear only when you need them, and warnings if you try to close a window while a process is still running. With these kind of features, Terminator is the biggest update of the virtual terminal that I've seen.
  • Ubuntu's interface revisions: A year ago, Mark Shuttleworth challenged the free desktop to outdo Apple in the desktop within eighteen months. This challenge signalled a new emphasis on usability in Ubuntu. So far, the result has been a unilateral overhaul of the notification system that may have become bogged down in getting other projects to accept them, but Shuttleworth's challenge may still produce some revolutions in functionality and appearance.
  • GNOME 3: After a couple of years of indecision, GNOME decided to move beyond regular incremental releases and produce major changes. These changes include a behind-the-scenes cleaning out of old libraries, and a new desktop built on GNOME-Shell that includes a full-screen view of multiple desktops and the use of Zeitgeist to manage files based on such metadata as when and where they were last used.
  • KDE 4.x: With the 4.x series of releases, KDE has rethought the basic structure of the desktop while leaving enough of it intact that users are not completely disoriented. Behind the scenes, it has largely decoupled the engines that control hardware and software resources from the desktop itself. On the desktop, configuration of the panel and desktop are now done in separate modes from the ones you work in. Desktop icon sets can be easily swapped in and out, and assigned to different virtual desktops. Future changes in 4.4 include the ability to move widgets on other machines to your desktop for easy use and reference, and improved notifications and configuration tools.
  • The KDE Social Desktop: This is the name given to the effort to move all sorts of online social interactions out of the browser and into the desktop. The main trunk of this development hopes eventually to allow you to find fellow KDE users nearby, as well as those with your particular hardware, but KDE applications are already undertaking similar changes. For instance, the latest version of Amarok seamlessly combines resources online and those on your hard drive. Similarly, the latest DigiKam not only downloads pictures from your camera, but automates the downloading of pictures from Facebook.

I could go on, but I think the point is clear: the free desktop has become a center of innovation in computing. Some of these developments are borrowed from other operating systems. Others are influenced by the interfaces for mobile devices, which are rapidly becoming the computerized devices that people use the most. Still others are frankly experiments, or introduced simply because a developer thought them cool. But, no matter what their origins, the free desktop is where they are being perfected and popularized.

Not all these developments are going to succeed equally. In fact, some will probably be failures. For instance, you have to wonder how many are going to abandon traditional file hierarchies for Zeitgeist, or want social interactions moved out of the browser in KDE.
Nor are all these developments going to greeted with equal enthusiasm. If anything, the initial reception of KDE 4.0 demonstrates that some are likely to spark large scale user revolts, perhaps because the ideas are flawed, or, more likely, simply because they are new.

But the point is, the emphasis has shifted. The free desktop is no longer struggling to keep up. Now, it is setting the pace in the interface race. We'll know that it has succeeded when some of the new features now under development find their way into Windows or OS X. meanwhile, we're privileged to be living in exciting times.


  • Talking about distortions

    You're talking about the look and style. I'm talking about features. Not the same thing at all.
  • Distortion of reality

    "I could go on, but I think the point is clear: the free desktop has become a center of innovation in computing. Some of these developments are borrowed from other operating systems. ... But, no matter what their origins, the free desktop is where they are being perfected and popularized."

    Ubuntu trying to follow Apple's lead makes Ubuntu clearly an innovator. KDE following the Vista style clearly makes KDE an innovator, and so are Compiz's attempts to incorporate everything from transparency or the Exposé function from OSX. Whatever the facts are: Linux is clearly leading the innovation of the graphical desktop.
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