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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?
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?
The case for change
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 desktop is not a destination
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.
I am not talking so much about specific features, such as the social desktop's ability to find nearby KDE users or those with the same hardware to help you troubleshoot (an idea that seems possibly useful when few users have KDE installed, but could easily become nightmarish when KDE becomes one of the main desktops in computing). Rather, I am referring to more general problems.
What innovators and early adopters can easily forget is that they are a minority. Where they are excited by change, most users are uncomfortable with change. Many will reject any change out of hand, no matter how logical or convenient, simply because it is new.
That is why, whenever I help someone explore GNU/Linux or OpenOffice.org, I suggest that they try it for at least a week before making reaching any conclusions. Otherwise, they will not be reacting to any advantage or disadvantage. They will be reacting to the fact that the software is unfamiliar, and this reaction is likely to blot out any logical analysis.
But, even if users get past their initial discomfort, that does not mean they will eagerly accept changes. Users have a long history of accepting what is good enough, and, whether you are talking about GNOME, KDE, Xfce, or any of half a dozen alternatives, the free desktop reached that stage several years ago.
Would social networking, for example, be more convenient if taken out of the browser, as Seigo suggests?
Possibly, but users are accustomed to it being there. From the conservative perspective of the average user, you might even argue that keeping it in the browser makes sense, since social networking tools all involve connecting to the web. Depending on how your mind works, it might make more sense to have a single point of access for all web activities, rather than having to hunt for them in different applications around the desktop.
But what the innovators are forgetting is that, for the average user, the desktop is not the destination. Nor is the destination even the application.
Rather, the destination is the user's purpose: finishing the quarterly report or IMing a girlfriend. As they focus on the task at hand, users may not want to linger on the desktop to play with its features. They may not even want a button that provides a useful social link within the application.
Instead, where Seigo writes, "I want the network to make my computing life more interesting, more immersive and more useful," users may want nothing more than to get their existing work done. Whether the desktop is the best it could be, or the workflow is logical, matters far less than whether the interface is familiar and they can do their work with a minimum of inefficiency or distraction.
In other words, there may be a very good reason why computer applications have not moved much beyond what people used to do on paper. A strong possibility exists that users neither need or want anything more -- and that they already have it.
Time for a reality check
Whether this suggestion is true, I have no idea -- only strong suspicions. But the point is, neither do the innovators, and they need to find out the truth.
The fact that neither community nor commercial free desktop developers have seriously tried to do so reflects the extent to which free software is still driven by developers working on what interests or concerns them.
The problem is, the days when users of free software were also its developers are long gone, but the habits of those days remain. The result is that developers function far too much in isolation from their user base.
Yet taking users into greater account could create other problems.
Few developers would be pleased by the conclusion that the free desktop is now good enough, and all that is left to do is coding minor enhancements and fixing-bugs.
Innovative coding is simply more compelling than code maintenance. Canonical's One Hundred Paper Cuts -- the project to repair minor annoyances and inconsistencies in Ubuntu -- may be useful and necessary. Yet no amount of marketing can make it as compelling as Shuttleworth's grand vision of a desktop that outdoes Apple's in both form and function.
Even slowing the rate of change to one that the average user can handle would be hard for most developers to accept. Stall or slow development, and developers could start to desert for more exciting projects.
But these possibilities are extreme ones, and would hamstring innovation. The fact that some innovations -- sometimes even most -- are failures does not detract from the fact that others are breakthroughs that users quickly come to depend on. Somehow, innovation and user expectations need to be more balanced.
The trick, I suspect, is to have more usability testing or consultation to help sort out the wanted innovations from the unwanted.
Such testing is expensive and time-consuming, which is why most free software projects ignore it or carry it out on a small scale. It would also require an entirely new aspect of development in most projects.
Even more important, it would require more alternatives in coding. Less popular innovations could still be introduced, but a basic design principle should be that they can either be turned off or easily replaced. KDE 4, I would argue, has managed to outlast much of its initial controversy precisely to the extent that it has incorporated this principle.
Paying more attention to users would not be easy. But my concern is that the alternative would be far worse. Unless desktop developers consult users before building the next cool innovation, the alternative might be endless repetitions of the outcry that greeted KDE 4 -- and that is the last thing that the community needs.