Thursday, February 22, 2024

In Praise of Desktops

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The conventional wisdom is that the desktop is obsolete. Laptops, phones, and tablets are supposed to have replaced it. Yet the desktop remains the form factor of productivity, unchallenged in its niche, especially for free software users.

The alternatives — obviously — offer the portability that desktops were never intended to have. Just as importantly, though, they offer just enough computing power for social users. For years, all users had no choice except to buy desktops that were ridiculously overpowered for their needs, and mobile devices corrected that situation, offering just enough power for reading emails and browsing the web and the occasional bit of light work. Recently, I discovered their convenience for myself when I took only a tablet on a short trip, and I not only appreciated the lighter load while trekking through airports, but never once felt the lack of computing power.

Yet my desktop remains where I am most productive. It is perfectly possible to write or to edit small graphics on a mobile device, especially if you carry a few peripherals like a keyboard or a portable hard drive, but except on a high end laptop, the process is painful. However, high end graphics remain an exercise in frustration, because, usually, the RAM and processing power just isn’t there. At best, the resources are barely adequate, so after having tried to use them just so I can said that I have, I prefer not to repeat the process unless absolutely necessary.

In fact, I find myself questioning why so much effort has been made to port applications like OpenOffice or GIMP to Android. I understand that the coding and usability challenges might appeal to developers, but the odds of much intensive work ever being done on a tablet or a phone seem minimal at best.

Problems of Scale

Even if smaller devices had more power, they have one unavoidable limitation: the screen size. Even writing, which generally does not require much in the way of hardware, goes more easily when I can see at least half a dozen paragraphs at a time, because they help me keep the overall structure in mind. To keep the same sense of structure on a mobile device requires constant scrolling, which is a distraction in itself.

As for a detail on a graphic, good luck. All too frequently, I can’t zoom in enough to work with any precision. Instead, I have to work on a magnification which is so far from ideal that I might as well be trying to thread a needle while wearing mittens.

Another routine function that is easy on the workstation but difficult on a mobile device is working with several windows open at once — for example, having a main page open in one window, and an application being tested in another. If I can multi-task at all on many mobile devices, it is next to impossible to open two apps on the same screen. If it is possible, the screen simply isn’t large enough, which means that I need to do a lot of switching back and forth, which is distracting enough that I am better off opening one app at a time, and jotting down notes on paper.

By contrast, working with multiple windows is no trouble at all on workstations. If the screen gets really crowded, I can resort to virtual desktops or, in KDE, to tabbed windows, to reduce the time I spend hunting for windows.

In the future, there’s also the question of how I handle any deterioration in my eyes. On a desktop, I can enlarge the fonts and icons to reduce eye strain and still have plenty of space to work. On most mobile devices, I either have fewer customizations or else too little work space if I increase the magnification. I can’t help wondering how those with limited vision manage on a phone, but I imagine it involves a lot of squinting and swearing.

The Open Source Advantage

I suppose you might argue that I am getting older and set in my ways, and naturally prefer the hardware I have used for several decades. And it is true that my stubby fingers are more comfortable on a full-sized keyboard than trying to text on a touch-screen.

Yet, in the end, the main reason I prefer desktops is that they remain the domain of free software. Browsing through Google’s Play Store, I can find plenty of apps licensed under the GNU General Public License, including many standards like Vim. However, most GPLed software consists of small utilities, or else limited versions of software designed for the workstation. In particular, apart from Ubuntu, few desktop environments have been ported to mobile devices. The few that have, such as KDE’s Plasma, faded for lack adaptation.

I don’t mind working with unfamiliar software. After all, much of my income derives from trying new software. However, I do object to dealing with inferior software that lacks the features I rely on every day. For instance, working without KDE also generally means working with virtual workspaces, Activities, or any of a dozen other tools that make me more productive. I can manage without them if I absolutely have to, but why should I when the experience is so awkward?

Mobile devices are handy in their place. But unless it’s a laptop so high-end that it’s marketed as a desktop, few of them are designed for serious work. Give me a full-powered desktop any day.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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