August 16, 2009

Redefining the Desktop

[originally posted at] 

So I was thinking about one particular thing that I wrote about in my review of the GNOME shell, when I said that you should drop the ideas you have about how a desktop should look.  This was how artificial the “desktop” concept is.  Back in the Stone Age we came from the desktop paradigm:  it’s what we understood in terms of productivity.  However, a computer is much different, much more powerful than a desk.  On a desk you have a finite space which contains only the information and objects you put on it.  It doesn’t fetch data, tell you anything, give you opinions or options.  It’s a tool.  A computer is different in that it has the power to fetch information, to move it, and to bring it all together and present it to the user.  It can handle any type of media:  where a desk could only handle text and photos (unless you put a boom-box on it) the computer can do text and photos and sound and video and social interaction through Twitter and other feed-based services.  We need to embrace a paradigm that suits the computer.

So what does this mean?  It means that I think we need to drift away from the desktop concept and more to the concept of a house.  Whereas the desktop would be in a secluded area of a house – a study, let’s say, and it would only contain the tools pertinent to a job at hand the computer mixes personal and work life by having your music library available and the ability to play digital and internet video.

Instead of the desktop, let’s look at the house.  Where with the desktop you had just a study – a workspace – the house has kitchens and living rooms and bedrooms and bathrooms.  All of these areas are seperate:  when you’re working in your study you aren’t likely to pop in a DVD and watch the Battlestar Galactica pilot again.

While the desktop idea might have worked when computers were a work tool (which is when this paradigm came to be with, I believe, the Amiga) they are no longer exclusively so, and that presents a littany of temptations to the modern user.  Why work when I can pull up Youtube and do that instead?

So here are my prepositions for a “house” model, based on GNOME Shell (which I think goes a way to addressing this):

  1. Get rid of the application bar or dock.  These invite clutter, and clutter doesn’t belong in any good house.  GNOME Shell does this (replacing it with painfully easy mutliple workspaces and ALT-TAB).
  2. Put a workspace switcher in the panel, but make it just text surrounded by arrows.  Say I’m working on an essay:  I can be on the workspace named School.  This has special, user-defined attributes (if, say, I’m a compulsive web surfer, let’s turn the internet off.  Maybe music as well, and definitely the music player).  It locks me into work mode like the study used to.  There would be an option to lock me in so that I couldn’t change the workspace for (x) minutes.  This would force me to focus (there should be of course an override, but maybe accompanied by optional nagging?  Just there as a psychological barrier).  Similarly there would be a “Creative” workspace where I could use Audacity and Jokosher and certain tools would be there to help me focus on the creation of media.  There would be a “Play” workspace as well where everything goes.  Just as we use houses to organize, we should use computers to compartmentalize our lives. —– Taking this even further, let me tell you a story:  My aunt (whom I lived with in North Africa for a year) never brought her computer into the living room and never let me bring mine in there either because she didn’t want to mix work and play.  She wanted a work-free relaxation environment.  What if our computers knew what room we were in and acted on certain settings accordingly?  Browsers are already location-aware (when I asked Chrome for “Chapters” it gave me the address of the Chapters store down the street complete with a Google Map and phone number) why not operating systems?
  3. Free screen real-estate.  Any good house owner keeps their house spick and span.  Menu and address bars take up too much space.  I have several suggestions:  implement something like GNOME Global Menu (which delivers an OS X like top panel) in Shell.  This isn’t just copying Apple, it’s sheer common sense.  When screen real-estate is ever more valuable (particularly in netbooks and mobile devices) why do we have a top panel with lots of empty space and then a whole extra level for File/Edit/Tools/Etc?  Another suggestion is to hide all the settings on particular apps unless they are needed.  I’ll use OpenOffice to illustrate my concept:  When I’m writing an essay, I don’t need File/Edit/Tools/Etc.  Nor do I need all the text formatting options.  I just want to write.  If I need them, I’ll mouse up to them.  I propose hiding all the settings in apps like OpenOffice until the titlebar is moused over.  After that, the area containing them slides down (and is semi-transparent until mouse-over) and it’s business like usual.  When I go back to typing it goes away.  See, I’m a great fan of MS Office 2007’s interface with my only complaint being that the Ribbon takes up to much vertical space.  Same with Firefox:  the user should have a full-window browsing experience until they actually need to use the address bar or bookmarks or whatever.

As applications move on to the web, it gets more and more important for a Desktop Environment to have as minimal but powerful an interface as possible.  I think that GNOME Shell is a great step towards implementing this.

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