March 21, 2008

From GNOME to KDE and back again: old computing habits are hard to break

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

COMMENTARY -- I used KDE as my primary desktop from 1996 through 2006, when I installed the GNOME version of Ubuntu and found that I liked it better than the KDE desktop I'd faced every morning for so many years. Last January, I got a new Dell Latitude D630 laptop and decided to install Kubuntu on it, but within a few weeks, I went back to GNOME. Does this mean GNOME is now a better desktop than KDE, or just that I have become so accustomed to GNOME that it's hard for me to give it up?

A significant barrier to Linux adoption is a natural human resistance to change. The vast majority of the world's computer users are now used to the Windows XP desktop and are not eager to give up something that works reasonably well for them in favor of something new, whether that "something" is Linux or Microsoft's own Windows Vista.

Apple runs millions of dollars worth of clever TV ads touting the superiority of Mac OS, but still has only a tiny percentage of the personal computer marketplace.

KDE and GNOME are as different as Windows and Mac

A switch between KDE and GNOME (or the other way around) is nearly as major, in a user experience sense, as a switch from Windows to Mac. GNOME, as typically installed by default, has a Mac-like "top of the screen" toolbar, while KDE keeps its controls on the bottom of the screen in a more Windows-like fashion.

A person who works on computers all day -- as I do -- and relies on muscle memory for routine tasks such as opening an application or clearing applications windows from their desktop is especially hard-hit by GUI changes. When I first started using GNOME on Ubuntu as my primary desktop, for example, I repeatedly clicked the Show Desktop button in the lower left corner of my screen, where KDE and Windows have Menu buttons, when I wanted to log out or switch users, even though the button for these tasks in GNOME on Ubuntu is in the upper right corner.

I am not saying one location for logoff and shutdown-type buttons is better than another. Windows, KDE, Mac, and GNOME usability people can have that argument without me butting in. All I'm saying here is that whatever screen layout we have grown accustomed to is easier for us to use than its alternatives until (unless) we retrain our fingers to dance in a new pattern.

Most people use the defaults

I've included a screenshot of my current GNOME desktop. It's obviously customized to my taste. The few files you see are ones I'm currently working on. All others are hidden. (My desktop backgrounds tend to change frequently, but are almost always Florida beach or sailing photos.)

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Desktop customization takes only a few minutes in GNOME, and is nearly as fast in KDE. And yet, when I'm at computer conferences, most of the laptop computer screens I see display default backgrounds and themes, no matter what operating systems are behind them. Since I tend to go to conferences that are fuil of programmers and IT people, usually with a high percentage of Linux users among them, we can't say they don't know how to personalize their displays. They know how. They just don't do it.

Default screens seem to have a major impact on how people pick Linux distributions, too. Over and over, I see online comments (and get email) about this or that distribution's default appearance. Sometimes these comments puzzle me. I use Ubuntu these days, not because of its brown default desktop background and theme, but despite the way it looks "out of the box." Since I am in the habit of making my desktop over almost as soon as I install it, I don't care much about the default scheme. But others do. And I suspect that a lot of operating system and desktop decisions are made purely on appearance. ("Ooh, that new Mac OS is pretty -- I want it!")

Some real differences between KDE and GNOME

One shocking difference I found between "normal" (GNOME) Ubuntu and (KDE-based) Kubuntu was in the way they handled wireless connections. In plain Ubuntu, my laptop's built-in Intel wireless "just worked." In Kubuntu, it did not. Even with help from a skilled sysadmin (thanks, Matt Moen), it was a puzzlement. In the end, we got painless wireless connectivity by installing the GNOME Network Manager.

Another difference was the Adept GUI software installation utility included in Kubuntu, which I did not like nearly as much as Synaptic. But then, I find Synaptic superior to the "Install and Remove Applications" utility included in straight-up Ubuntu, too.

A third difference, which still puzzles me, is that I never completely succeeded in making Thunderbird my default email application in Kubuntu. I consulted online guides and scrounged around in the KDE Help files and did what I thought they told me to do, but I still couldn't click on a mailto link in a Firefox window and have a Thunderbird "compose mail" window open automatically. I know, I know -- in KDE I'm supposed to use KMail, just as in GNOME I should use Evolution. I have friends and coworkers who use and love both email managers, but I prefer Thunderbird for my email. And I prefer Firefox as my Web browser too, no matter what desktop environment -- or even what operating system -- lies beneath them.

KDE has it all -- and wants you to have all of KDE

The KDE push toward an integrated KOffice applications suite is laudable. New, non-sophisticated Linux users will no doubt love having all the software most of them need for day-to-day use in a single package, with matching themes and a unified set of attractive icons. But then there are the grumpy oldsters (like me) who have programs they've grown accustomed to using over the years, and who don't want to trade in their favorites for equivalent KOffice components.

This KDE bent toward "all KDE all the time" may be why I had trouble making Thunderbird my default email app in Kbuntu. Without my pro-Thunderbird prejudice, I'm sure my Kubuntu experience would have been happier. But I am not necessarily the target market for KDE and KOffice. A new Linux user (who wasn't already accustomed to using Thunderbird on Windows) would probably be happy with KMail.

One thing that has improved in KDE in the last few years is that most of the included applications actually work. In the past, KDE apps were hit-or-miss. Some were stable and fully realized, while some were not quite "there" yet. I believe KDE would have been better off, and would be in better shape today, if there had been a little more discrimination exercised in package selection for a default KDE install. Packages and projects "that aim to bring you..." may be laudable and worth support, but for an everyday work PC we need software that works today, not software that may work in the future.

GNOME, too, has bits and pieces that don't work as well as they should -- or, at least, the way I personally want them to work. For example, I don't particularly like gedit, the default GNOME text editor. But then, I don't like the KDE text editor either. Most of my writing appears on the World Wide Web, and Bluefish is the perfect text/HTML editor for my kind of work on any desktop.

This does not necessarily mean Bluefish is superior to its competitors. Many people like Quanta Plus as much as I like Bluefish, and would find it hard to switch from Quanta Plus to Bluefish -- or to any other text or code editor. But that's my point: we get accustomed to certain tools, and switching to other tools, even tools that may be better in some ways than the ones we're used to using, can be painful.

Windows and Mac: Not to my taste at all

I tried Mac OS X. Several versions. I tried to like it. And I failed. After more than a decade of GNU/Linux use, Mac OS seemed alien and unintuitive. And the software had funny names, and even humble things like the closest application I could come on a Mac to my beloved Bluefish editor cost money, even though they were no better than -- and in many cases not as good as -- the free software to which I had grown accustomed.

There are ways to fiddle some Linux apps into working on Mac OS, much as Wine can make some Windows apps run in Linux, but this is a lot of trouble. I ended up using a $2,000+ MacBook Pro as a fancy Ubuntu (and for a while, Fedora) platform. What a waste! The only thing I do that needs lots of computing power is video editing, and it's the only thing I do that requires proprietary software, at least on a professional level, and I'd just as soon use Windows-only Sony Vegas as Apple's Final Cut Pro, so I turned in the MacBook Pro in favor of a much less expensive Dell laptop, dual-booting Ubuntu GNU/Linux and Windows XP.

And here's the funny thing: Windows feels a lot more Linuxlike to me than Mac OS. In many ways it seems as if it's a slightly clumsy knockoff of KDE. But it also has a lot more in common with GNOME than Mac OS does. The applications menus are structured in a similar manner. Ditto the way you store and find individual files, for which Windows uses the same "folders and subfolders" metaphor as both KDE and GNOME, and Windows gives me a Linux-style horizontal list of open programs across the bottom of my screen, which Mac OS does not.

Backing up my data in Windows is lots harder than backing up a /home or /username directory in Linux, because Windows seems to scatter data all over the place. Why this is I do not know, but no doubt someone at Microsoft could tell me why this inconvenience is a good thing, not a bad one, just as I'm sure they could tell me why all kinds of annoying pop-up balloons that interfere with my work (instead of letting me concentrate on what I'm doing) make my life easier instead of harder.

I could go on and on here, but I won't. I'll just say I treat my one dedicated Windows machine as a slightly touchy video editing appliance that connects to the Internet only through one of my Linux boxes -- and from behind a Linux-based router at that. Windows is supposed to be less virus-prone than it was a few years ago, but the only way to keep malware off of Windows (that I know of) is to not connect it to the Internet -- and to watch it like a whole flock of hawks when it is online, even if it is well-protected (by Linux) from the Internet's raw fury.

Conservative by nature

I was at an older friend's house yesterday, showing him how to get pictures from his digital camera onto his Windows computer -- except he doesn't know what Windows is, just that his computer is a Dell, because it says so on both the monitor and on the black rectangular box that sits under his desk.

This person, who suffered from several virus infestations before a kindly local computer repair joint sold him a proprietary antivirus package, would be a natural candidate for Linux. He does nothing with his computer he couldn't do as well -- or better -- with Linux. Except for one thing: as far as he knows, he doesn't connect to the Internet or use email software. He connects to AOL, which to him is the Internet. Including email.

We're talking here about a man who, when I told him to right-click on a photograph to send it to me as an email attachment, said, "I'm not sure about right-clicking. I'm a left-click kind of guy."

This is someone who, by nature, ought to have a Mac. At least he wouldn't get confused by multiple mouse buttons. But then again, he'd be confused by almost everything else, and would take endless hand-holding to make the conversion.

And Linux? I'm sure I could teach him to use GNU/Linux, especially KDE. But when would I have time? My friend has had a home computer for three years, and used desktop computers at work for at least 10 years before he retired, and he still hasn't figured out how to right-click and use the little menus that that act typically brings up. He has several advanced degrees, but computer functions are alien to him, and learning what little he does know has caused him so much stress, and has taken so long, that I am scared to alter his computer-using routine in any way.

Not only that, he would resist the change. He was worried about Firefox, which I downloaded and installed for him, because it operates in slightly different ways from the AOL and Internet Explorer combination he has learned to use. He promised he'd try to use the new ("What did you call it? A browser?") thingie, but I have little hope that he will master it without intense instruction.

Am I really any better, though? I have programs and procedures and habits that get me through my days of computer use without thinking about them. I've developed those procedures and habits over many years, and not all of my computing habits are good ones. But they're mine, and I'm used to them.

I continue to advocate increased GNU/Linux and FOSS use, partly for licensing and freedom reasons, and partly because I believe open source, overall, leads to better software in the long run. But I no longer expect everyone who comes into my office and sees Linux on a desktop for the first time to suddenly yell, "Hallejulah! I have seen the light and will henceforth use nothing but GNU/Linux and Free Software!"

Instead, I have more luck helping people who want to be helped move toward open source software one step at a time, starting with programs like Kompozer, which another friend has now used to make a simple Web site for his wife's acupuncture practice, and OpenOffice.org, which is a great, cost-free alternative to Microsoft Office for the many aspiring writers and poets in my neighborhood. And yes, I've even moved a few people to Linux, but only a few, because I don't have time for much intense hand-holding, and that's what it takes to teach people who are not naturally computer-inclined how to use any new operating system or software.

Habits are hard to break. Even bad ones. Maybe especially bad ones. Now please excuse me while I light another cigarette.

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