Is Mobile Making Linux Menus Obsolete?: Page 2

Posted November 23, 2010

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

(Page 2 of 2)

An even more radical departure is unfolding in the upcoming GNOME 3.0. In GNOME 3.0, the menu is labeled Activities, and simply changes the desktop view to show a launcher and the available virtual workspaces. The GNOME 3.0 launcher is moved to the left side of the screen in acknowledgement of the fact that wide screen displays have more horizontal space than vertical, but otherwise does little to overcome the problems with the classical menu. Places and Devices and Recent Items menus still occupy valuable space on the launcher, and, to find an item to launch, you need to scroll through an alphabetical list of icons that -- at least in the version offered in the latest Fedora release -- has no high-level organization whatsoever.

In these limitations, the launcher is no worse than the interface of a typical mobile device, but someone accustomed to a workstation may find it a step back from the classical menu. However, possibly, it will become more usable by GNOME 3.0's general release.

Another radical departure with a launcher on the left side of the screen appears in Unity, which is scheduled to become Ubuntu's new default desktop in the next release. However, although Unity's launcher has large, easily readable icons, it suffers from too little organization. In the end, like Plasma Netbook, it falls back on large buttons on the desktop -- a solution that makes for legibility, but is no better than the classical menu when it comes to taking up space.

Different, Not Better

Of all the alternatives, Lancelot comes closest to overcoming the problems with the classical menu while not creating new ones. However, it is used by only a minority, even among KDE users. Given the mobile-inspired designs of Plasma Netbook, GNOME 3.0, and Unity, the users of the major desktops may soon find themselves next to menuless.

Nothing would be wrong with that it the change had any advantages, but, for the most part, these innovations are not better so much as simply different. The classical menu may be cumbersome on modern computers, but it has the advantage of being familiar, and of working with a minimum of fuss -- and of mouse-clicks.

All the same, I suspect that the classical menu is about to become rare on the major free desktops. Having created some of the problems by overloading the menu, usability experts seem less to be solving the problems than exchanging them for new ones.

The worse thing is, I am not convinced that users want the change. Unless I missed something, there is no consensus that the classical menu is hopeless. Nor is there any indication that users want or expect their laptop and workstation interfaces to resemble those on their phones and music players. If anything, I suspect that the average users are sophisticated enough to use the interfaces that are most suitable to the displays.

I have no sentimental attachment to the classical menu. I have little doubt that one day it will be replaced by something better. However, more and more, as I try the efforts to replace it, I am growing convinced that the usability experts are trying to fix something that is not so badly broken that it urgently needs repairs -- and that part of the problems that do exist are the result of their own tinkering.

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