For the last eighteen months, the GNU/Linux desktop has been in a period of radical innovation. KDE 4 introduced new features and workflows. Mark Shuttleworth launched Ubuntu on a unilateral redesign campaign, starting with notifications. GNOME announced a new desktop that, so far as anyone can tell, will profoundly change the user-experience.
These innovations are likely to continue for at least another couple of release cycles, with upcoming versions of KDE scheduled to put social networking into applications and remote windows on to the desktops of passing computers.
Yet in the middle of all these experiments, nobody seems to be asking a basic question: Does the average user want any of these things?
Personally, I love these innovations, every one of them. I'm a tinkerer who likes to play with new things and write about them. Some of these experiments may succeed more than others, and some I consider outright failures, but I don't tire of any of them.
Their number suggests that the free desktop is in a healthy state and has surpassed proprietary ones, and I'm proud of that.
However, people who share my enthusiasm for innovation seem to be the minority. Whenever KDE 4 is mentioned in an article online, the comments are sure to include complaints that KDE 3.5 was better.
Similarly, an article I recently published on GNOME Shell, the basis for the new GNOME desktop, inspired only condemnations of the program, even though its final form at this stage is anybody's guess.
Admittedly, commenters may not represent general attitudes. We have no way of knowing whether they do. Yet the fact that most of the praises for these innovations come from people who participate in the projects involved seems suggestive.
Under these circumstances, the free software community needs to consider the pros and cons of these innovations -- not one at a time, but as a whole.
Is there a compelling argument for innovation? Or has the free desktop reached a point where it satisfies most users and any attempt to change its current state is going to be regarded as an unwarranted intrusion on the average person's activities?
And, if so, what can be done to improve the situation?
On an abstract level, few free software users are likely to find much that is objectionable in the arguments in favor of innovation.
For example, a year ago, Shuttleworth is reported as saying, "The great task in front of us over the next two years is to lift the experience of the Linux desktop from something that is stable and robust and not so pretty, into something that is art . . . . I see this [need] for free software beautiful, elegant software. We have to invest in making this desktop beautiful and useful."
Many online services, Seigo points out, are not free software, and cannot ensure protection of data or privacy -- the implication being that, in contrast, KDE's social desktop suffers from none of these problems.
He notes, too, that "The innovation essentially stopped at 'things I used to do on paper'. I want to do more than just have an easy place to dump my embarrassing photos of others from last night, keep up a public journal, read an annotated map or exchange small blocks of text with others. I want the network to make my computing life more interesting, more immersive and more useful. The innovation has all but dried up in social networking, however, and what we have is an electronic version of the library and post office. A really freaking cool library and post-office, but that's about it. We can do better than that, can't we?"
Seigo goes on to say that free software is uniquely positioned to improve on the current standard. As a community, it already understands the concepts of community behind social networking. Nor is it constrained by financial considerations in its quest for innovation.
Then Seigo paints a utopian vision of the possible future: "I see our computers becoming helpers rather than mildly frustrating tools; I see services becoming a true web of interacting greatness rather than silos with the occasional rickety handmade (and often one-way) rope bridge between them; I see 'social networking' and 'personal rights and freedoms' being mutually supporting at every level."
Like Shuttleworth, Seigo is invoking the motherhood issues of the community. Both are talking about concerns close to every free software advocate's heart. Reading their rhetoric, you can easily be swept away by its visionary scope, and find yourself nodding excitedly.
Not only are they talking about realizing your dreams, but they are talking about doing so in the very near future.
Who could resist?
The trouble with the rhetoric of innovators is that it exists on an abstract plane, not a practical one. Many of the same people whose hearts beat faster at the rhetoric's promises are likely to behave very differently when they turn from reading to focusing on what they have to.