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Fixing open-source user interfaces

Filed in: design, Linux, Thu, Jul 29 2004 18:40 PT

A couple weeks ago, I took the leap. I bought a new Athlon 64 processor, hard drive and CPU, and set it up to run only Linux. It’s my first Linux-only desktop since about 1993.

Now, since then, I’ve had plenty of time to think over my decision. Some of it has been fantastic: MythTV, for example, is doing a great job in its beta test of replacing my TiVo.

But in other areas, well, there is still a way to go. Some things, like build errors and other installation conflicts, remain, and the nature of Linux development is that they are periodically resolved. But most of the trouble, in my experience is in the realm of the user interface. I wrote about this in a magazine just over five years ago, and while the situation has improved a bit, it seems that without a change of ideology in open-source software development, open-source software will be limited to knocking off new applications like iTunes. That’s not where you want to be: even the best copycat designer isn’t going to do much to advance the practice of user interface, just like the best copycat painter isn’t going to advance the world of art.

Many KDE and Gnome apps suffer from widget-itis. For example, I downloaded KBear, a graphical FTP client which was highly recommended by users, and found that it was completely unusable. Whatever I clicked, it did something I didn’t expect. And this is from a client representing a protocol that I know backwards and forwards. The interface was packed with KDE widgets, to the point that the simple use case of downloading a few files was damn near impossible. Interfaces need to be built around the user they’re designed for, not the widgets a windowing toolkit can supply.

All those years ago, I said that developers needed to learn some UI skills, instead of slapping together interfaces around the technical stuff that was already written. But now, given the scope of many projects, it’s probably more viable now to just get UI specialists in to work on them.

I don’t know why every user interface designer in school or looking for work right now isn’t working on the front end of an open-source project. There are more than enough to go around. And if Linux or any other open-source product is going to take hold of the market, they’re going to need to compete on equal footing with commercial software. That means doing things like usability testing — on real, non-geeky people — and solid user-centered design practices as a matter of course. Some of the stuff coming out of commercial software houses is great, but it’s not rocket science. It can be matched, or exceeded — and it must, if Linux on the desktop is to succeed. Being free is no longer an excuse.

Update: (30 July) No sooner do I post this, than do I find the best HCI-themed comic on the Web, OK/Cancel, has a comic and article on the topic today. Seems like I’m not alone here.

Seeking new CPU/MB advice

Filed in: Linux, tech, Mon, Jun 28 2004 07:54 PT

I’m looking at upgrading my Athlon 950 to something a little bit more shiny, and here’s where I enlist your help.

This is what I’m looking at buying:

  • AMD Athlon XP 3000+
  • ASUS “A7V600-X” KT600 Motherboard
  • Kingston 184 Pin 512MB DDR PC-3200
  • Maxtor Ultra ATA/133 250GB hard drive

I’m going to reuse my ATI All-In-Wonder Radeon card, and the WinTV PVR-250 I so enjoy. I also have a nice sound card, but I’m not sure whether or not to use the onboard audio on the motherboard. Either way, it should work.

This is probably going to be my first Linux-only primary desktop. So my question is, am I going to have any trouble? Does anyone see a looming conflict with what I’m buying?

And another thing: what the hell is up with fans? I went to pick one out, figuring, how many choices could there be? Well, Newegg has over a hundred of the damn things. I mean, fan is fan, right? I’m not planning to overclock or anything. This should be a slam dunk. What kind of fan do I need to buy?

Installing Linux (again)

Filed in: Linux, lists, tech, Wed, Jun 23 2004 23:48 PT

Here’s how to tell if you’re a geek: you’ve run out of machines to run Linux on.

I’ve gone and catalogued, to the best of my recollection, the number of machines I have installed some flavor of Linux on since my first one, over 11 years ago. (I installed it using my old OS/2 Warp 3.0 beta floppies.) There may be some I’m missing, and I’ve made an educated guess at some of the dates based on which room I remember being in as I cursed the bloody machine in question.

  • 386DX-33 (SLS 1.02, kernel 0.94pl12, February 1993)
  • 486SX-25 (Slackware, late 1993)
  • 486DX2-66 (Slackware, late 1994)
  • Pentium-166 (Red Hat, 1995)
  • K6-2-450 (Red Hat, 1997; Debian, 1998)
  • IBM PS/2 90 (MCA Linux, 1997; also NetBSD)
  • Casio Cassiopeia A-11Plus Windows CE device (Linux/SH3, 1998)
  • IBM WorkPad z50 Windows CE device (Linux VR, 2000)
  • Siemens Scovery 110 (Debian, 2000)
  • Mac SE/30 (Linux-m68k, 2001; also NetBSD)
  • PowerMac G4 (LinuxPPC, 2001)
  • Sun Ultra 10 (Debian-SPARC, 2001)
  • PowerBook G3 (LinuxPPC, 2001; Gentoo-PPC, 2004, active install)
  • New Internet Computer (NIC OS, 2000; Tenhand, 2000; Feather Linux, dyne:bolic and Oralux, 2004, active install)
  • Athlon 950 (Red Hat, 2002; Debian, 2002; Gentoo, 2004, active install)
  • ConnecTV set-top box (Red Hat, 2003, active install)
  • Xbox (GentooX, 2004, active install)

Not included: HP 9000/340 running NetBSD, 1998

Note to Vaio PCG-SR17: Never send to ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Mono: almost ready for prime time

Filed in: Linux, tech, Tue, Sep 9 2003 23:56 PT

Ximian (now a division of Novell) has announced that the Mono project is coming to fruition, offering .NET support on Linux this year.

As someone who managed to blow off C and C++ his entire career, I am looking forward to failing to find something to do with C# on my Linux box, too. (Ack. I swear I’m going to learn some .NET stuff one of these days. Really.)

My move to Debian

Filed in: Linux, Fri, Apr 4 2003 00:33 PT

Debian logo

I’m a switcher. My desktop system, which was running Windows XP exclusively, now dual-boots with Debian (GNU/)Linux, and has spent very little time back in Windows since.

What I have left to do to get back to feature parity:

Get my sound card working
I have a Hercules Game Theater XP card, and there are theoretically working drivers available, but so far my efforts have been without success.
Set up Video4Linux
My ATI All In Wonder Radeon card is itching to watch and record some TV for me.
Get my HP psc750 printer and scanner to run
This one I haven’t even started on. But it’s the last thing I’ll need to do before things feel settled.

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