Friday, September 03, 2010

Computer Megalomania

I recently got in an email debate about the merits of Linux with a few friends (you know who you are). It made me think about exactly what it is that I have against Linux. As it turns out, I am a Linux fan. Linux kicks ass for software developers. No argument. It has come a long way, baby, and it's damn good. Impressive, even.


My personal interest, however, is in human-computer interaction in the consumer space (for regular non-software-engineer people). I don't want Linux (as a desktop user interface) to make any headway in the consumer space. Here's why.

I am looking forward to a time when the "art of setting up your computer just how you like it" is a truly lost art - only found among software people. In my (and several others') opinion, computers are not something that should be celebrated, but something that you should be able to use as an invisible tool to get other things done worth celebrating. For example, making photos, movies, music, art - or writing great novels, designing a faster car, discovering new maths and science and medicine, etc. Today, the use-model of the computer is WAY too much of a megalomanic to get out of the way of most people's creative and/or intellectual pursuits. So much potential energy is stuck at the top of the reservoir because the tools of the day require too much investment to use.

The term "[computer] techie" bothers me on so many levels... You should be able to use a computer for great things (unrelated to building computers and/or software) and understand very little about them. A great user experience means the thing you were trying to get done was not effortless - but all of your effort was spent on the *thing*, not on trying to get the computer to do the thing. To me, today's computing metaphor is as ridiculous as a carpenter spending their whole day messing with the cool knobs and settings on their tools, rather than building awesome cabinetry. Computers need to do a better job at becoming invisible and allow the user to focus on their art.

Linux is wonderful on the server - where it invisibly crunches numbers and processes vast streams of data. The reason I don't like it on the desktop, is that it comes from and is shaped by a group of people that view personal computing very much from a "software techie" perspective. That simple passive label alone "popular among techies", is a damning mark in my eyes. I don't want Linux on the desktop to do well (outside of the software engineering world), because that means computers are becoming less and less transparent - rather than more transparent as they should (in my opinion).

All that said, I like Apple's approach at re-inventing the whole computing thing as a mega-simplified interface that is far more intuitive than what we regard as classical "computers". I do love Macs and OS X for a bunch of reasons, but the real future of computing looks a heck of a lot more like iOS. And frankly, Android. The user model is very similar between them, but Android still suffers from that "techie" thing that I honestly hope cleans up.


I can't wait to see what people make and invent and discover when the full breadth of computing power is available to them without the overhead of "modern" computer UI megalomania.

Several of my "techie" software friends are annoyed that new computer users of the future (our children) are going to grow up in a world where computers aren't to be tinkered with, but used to do real stuff. I personally find that future to be a much better one - with more creative things happening in the world that don't directly pertain to computers themselves. The software industry will shrink somewhat (perhaps), because the creative intellectual talent will be busy using computers to build more interesting things.


  1. My daughter just turned 3 and she can completely navigate the iPad. Not just playing her games, but going into netflix for kids shows, looking at our family pictures and movies, etc. What I find even more impressive is that I can give it to her and have peace of mind that it will not be completely screwed up. That says a lot for iOS.

  2. My son isn't either 3 and also surfs the internet on Ubuntu. He is not yet much interested in games but surfs youtube for train videos.

    But I don't think that a 3 year old should be the point of reference. Somebody once said "a thing made for idiots will be used only by idiots". Although I don't agree on that it points to the fact that you have different target audiences for different things.

    Apple puts the focus on a particular hardware which has the effect that the hardware driver issues known from Linux are not there. On the other hand there is certified hardware for Ubuntu for example also.

    I don't think that there will be an end of the user nightmare. There are some users desiring only a minimum of features but in general all people are permanently increasing their expectations because of technology advancing and marketing promises.

    You can try to build UIs easy to use for everybody - but a KISS UI from a todays phone for example is already more complex than a phone UI five years ago just because of increasing functionality (E-Mail, web etc).

    In general you can focus on ease of use or on features/flexibility. I don't really think you can get both at the same time. People think and work differently hence different people will not find the same thing most helpful for boosting productivity.

    For me it looks like Apple is more focusing on easy of use for the majority of people which of course is also perfect for those.

    The different distributions of Linux show the different focus of Linux which is on flexibility. Of course it may need some configuration to get the most out of it.

    I know some people who's basic interest is not computers, but they dig into computers and build knowledge to use it more effectively. So not all people using a computer don't want to think about it.

    And whatever tool you use for whatever job - the better you know your tool(s) the more productive you can be or the better your output quality be.

    I had very little contact with a Mac but my wife has an iPhone (I have a Nokia E-71) and although I find the iPhone easier to handle in several cases (e.g. adding a new WLAN connection) but other things can be used efficiently only in combination with iTunes.

    And: Basically, when you look at Ubuntu Netbook-Remix for example, I do not see that much difference to the UI of an iPhone for example. If you give Ubuntu and a Mac to a new user I would say, both have far less issues, as if you would give them Windows.

  3. Joe,

    Thanks for a great post trying to describe your perspective. I am totally fine with that point of view and think it is perfectly reasonable. What I however disagree with is the sentiment that Linux should not get to that stage to be in the background and out of the way. In fact I believe that Ubuntu (and also very much Kubuntu) actually does a better job at that then the Mac. I was new to the mac a few months ago and get sick and tired of so many warts and problems like windows not resizing as expected or just a missing package management that I am not happily running Kubuntu on my macbook and only boot into the mac when I have to. I think you should give it a better try before you pass judgement. Oh and in terms of getting out the way I believe also for software engineers a operating system should get out the way as much as possible for all the stuff not related to software engineering..