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.