Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The iPad effect, or the future of the desktop

Over the past few days, the latest release of Fedora Linux ( went live.  As someone who doesn't use Fedora, you would think it would be a non-event for me.  However, it is significant because this release includes the MATE and Cinnamon desktops in the official repositories.

There are many reasons why I believe the IT industry has taken a few wrong turns over the years.  Don't get me started on the failure of OS/2 or BeOS, much less the failure of landmark machines like the Acorn Archimedes or DEC Alpha.  While we're at it, I wasn't happy when Apple abandoned the POWER architecture.  At this very moment, the industry stands on the brink of taking the wrong direction once again, and with arguably the most important aspect of an operating system: the user interface.

For years, various manufacturers have been trying to make tablet PCs viable.  Apple is by no means the first company to give it a shot, though they were the first to have the level of success necessary to sustain a market.  In retrospect, they took a gradual approach to the release of the iPad: it came to us via the iPod and, later, the iPhone.  I can't fault Apple for the way they brought these products to market: in marketing terms, it was a stroke of genius.

I also have to admire Android, and the myriad devices it has spawned.  It's arguable that I should wholeheartedly support Android, being an open source advocate, but the whole subject of tablet PCs leaves me cold.  Of course, the open source model will mean that Android quickly surpasses iOS in terms of features, usability and stability, but that's just my opinion.

My interest is in the desktop, or laptop, if you prefer.  Unfortunately, the industry took the success of the iPad and Android to mean that users are in love with the touch screen interface and wish to use it on every device they own.  On a tablet, it works well.  On the desktop, I'm less sure.

Microsoft have a long history of deciding how we, the users, should use our computers.  It is not up for consultation.  With Windows 8, the user interface has changed to one which is geared towards touch screen computing.  If I was the CEO of a large, or even a small, company, I would be absolutely furious right now.  Many businesses held on to their copies of Windows XP, forcing Microsoft to support that version long after the date of its planned withdrawal.  Why?  Well, the user interface is familiar, and it works.  Why change that?  Windows 8 completely changes the way a user accesses their applications and documents.  Staff will need to be trained in the use of this new system.  That will cost time and money.  In other words, it affects productivity.  I heard a nasty rumour that Apple intends to make OS-X more like iOS too.

In the open source world, we have the controversy over GNOME 3 and Ubuntu's Unity taking the same path as Windows 8.  On a personal note, I abandoned the mainstream Debian distribution for Linux Mint Debian Edition, so that I didn't have to "upgrade" to GNOME 3.  In theory, I am using the GNOME 3 platform, but it has the much better (for me, anyway) Cinnamon user interface.  The fact that Cinnamon is a Linux Mint project tied those wishing to use it to that distribution initially but, as usually happens in open source, enough people thought Cinnamon was a worthy project, and the work of porting it to other distributions began fairly swiftly.

MATE is a continuation of GNOME 2.  Whether this rules it out as the future of the desktop is debatable.  The reason why the inclusion of MATE and Cinnamon in mainstream distributions is a good thing is one of open source and Linux's major selling points: choice.  If you don't like the change to an interface more geared towards touch screen interaction, and I would count myself amongst that number, you have the choice to choose another way.

Upon searching this morning, there was even more good news.  The Debian project has included Cinnamon in their unstable release - - meaning that, one day, I may well be able to switch back to my favourite distribution.  Of course, it will take time.  Currently, we are waiting for Debian Wheezy to be released, and the current unstable branch will eventually form the release following Wheezy.  Debian have a noble, though sometimes irritating, habit of making releases only when everything meets their very high standards, so releases are not made very often.  However, when Wheezy is released, Cinnamon will become a part of the Debian testing distribution.  The implication of this is that the many distributions based on Debian testing (and there are quite a few) will have Cinnamon available to them as an official Debian package.

As it stands, the Debian version of Cinnamon is already looking pretty good...

The final version is likely to look very different.  In the time it takes for the stable distribution to be released, Cinnamon will change, as will Debian.  However, Debian forms the basis of so many other distributions, so maybe this is the future of the desktop after all.

Now, I wonder when Microsoft will admit, as I believe they should have with Vista, that Windows 8 was a mistake.

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