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Editor's Note: Some Random Linux Usability Thoughts, or, Linux is not Windows

Aug 20, 2010, 23:02 (33 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

Some Linux design decisions seem like hangovers from Windows-land. But, unlike Windows, Linux does not need to be protected from itself, so why hang on to old habits?

Usability on desktop systems is difficult, because users have diverse needs and wants. Still, if we start from the premise that Linux is not Windows, some design decisions might flow more sensibly.

Let's start with my fave peeve, multiple clicks to power off a computer. Why? What's the worst thing that can happen? Say you turn it off by mistake. Big deal, just turn it back on. What is so perilous about this that it requires jumping through Windows-type hoops to make sure you really want to? Linux is not Windows-- it boots fast and is ready to go. Unlike Windows, which has all kinds of activity going on for several minutes after it appears to have started, and which gets in your way and slows everything down, so maybe you want some safeguards against a careless shutdown. Windows gets in your way with multiple nags and unhelpful messages; Linux doesn't need to imitate this. I make a shutdown icon bound to the poweroff command for one-click off, and so far nothing awful has happened.

Second peeve, not really a Linux peeve: Firefox plugins that get left behind with new Firefox releases. This seems like a fundamental design flaw; it's not realistic to expect thousands of plugin maintainers to all keep up with the rapid pace of Firefox development, or users to have to play guessing games as to which of their plugins will still work after an upgrade. The pace of Linux kernel development is blisteringly fast, and Linus has a policy of not breaking userspace, even when a userspace application is defective in some way. This is a nice user-friendly policy. Genuine user-friendliness, not fake user-friendliness like talking paperclips and multiple nag screens.

More undo, lots more. Like tearing off a tab--wouldn't a re-attach tab be handy? Or any complex configuration change done through a GUI control panel-- I would love to have a "revert to previous configuration" button. KDE apps are pretty consistent in having a "reset to defaults" option; Gnome apps are less helpful in backing out of configuration changes. This is where text config files win, because it is easy to make backup copies, or comment out old sets of config options so they're right there in the file.

When we navigate application and Web menus with arrow keys, why can we only go forward with the right arrow key, and not go backwards with the left arrow key? The up and down keys work both ways.

How about immediately halting an operation with the Escape key? For example, you accidentally launch a slowpoke application like OpenOffice, or stumble into a boggy Web page, wouldn't it be nice to have an instant stop button? Why do we have to wait for any stuck application to sort itself out? Just press a key and be done with it. Faster than opening a terminal, hunting down the process number and then killing the process. This would cause Windows and Windows apps all kinds of headaches, but on a nice stout Linux system it shouldn't cause any grief.

While I'm wishing, how about a "open/edit configuration file" button in every application? The CUPS Web interface has this, and it is a great time-saver. Finding configuration files is a lot more complicated these days, and sometimes it seems like some devs don't want us to find them.

How about application GUIs that learn, and get more streamlined over time because they remember your previous operations? Instead of having to wade through the same baby steps every time you use the program. Or configurable GUIs so we can streamline them ourselves. I think this all by itself would be a "killer feature". It does not seem that efficiency is very important in GUI design. The command line still reigns supreme for efficiency because it has multiple tools for customization, doing things faster, and automating repetitive tasks.

OK, well, that's pretty much it for my Linux usability wish list. For the most part working in Linux is pleasant and satisfying, much more so than Mac and Windows, and I can't find too much to get exercised about. What are your usability wishes?