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What's Happening with User Interfaces?
By Howard Fosdick on 2013-07-02 21:04:48
Like many of you, I've been watching the big changes in user interfaces over the past few years, trying to make sense of them all. Is there a common explanation for the controversies surrounding the Windows 8 UI and Unity? Where do GNOME 3, KDE, Cinnamon, and MATE fit in? This article offers one view.

The Windows 8 UI

It's no secret that PC sales have declined for the past couple years, while smartphone and tablet sales have increased:

Device Shipments (Source: Gartner Inc, June 2013 statistics, 2014 numbers are predictions, chart courtesy of Chron)

This has been terrible news for Microsoft. Windows sales are stagnant, even while the company misses out on the tremendous growth opportunity in handhelds:

Operating System Shipments
(Source: Gartner Inc, June 2013 statistics, 2014 numbers are predictions, chart courtesy of Chron)

What to do? A few years ago -- in a gutsy, bet-the-company move -- Steve Ballmer confronted this crisis head-on, announcing a radical redesign of Microsoft's flagship Windows. Now, we all know the result: Windows 8. It flopped. The IDC research firm, Dell Inc., and others blame the decline in PC sales, in part, on the new Windows 8 interface. While the extent of the new UI's responsibility for this decline is debatable, nobody disputes this basic judgment... not even Microsoft. The company is breaking all speed records to produce the 8.1 upgrade it will give away free to save its product.

The puzzler here is why Microsoft decided on one OS with a single interface for both desktops/laptops and its Surface handhelds. The winners in the handheld OS competition, after all, have decided on a two-OS approach. Apple reaps success with iOS for its phones and tablets, yet the company retains Mac OS for its desktop and laptop computers. Similarly, Google offers Android for handhelds and Chrome OS for netbooks and notebooks.

These companies recognize that handhelds and personal computers have fundamentally different operating characteristics, and thus require different UIs. Apple iOS supports touchscreens with direct manipulation via sliders, buttons, and switches. Gestures includes the swipe, tap, pinch, and reverse pinch. Accelerometers respond to movement, so that the device automatically reorients between portrait and landscape. It can even respond when you shake it. GPS navigation underlies locational services. These are vital because we carry handhelds around with us. Lastly, the small sizes of handheld screens dictate many aspects of their designs. On a small screen, it's easier to run a program by touching a big colorful app icon, rather than by selecting from a tiny text list menu that's hard to read. You can't easily minimize lots of windows to a panel on a small screen.

None of these functions -- so integral to handhelds -- relate to desktop and laptop computers. In fact, as the Windows 8 UI demonstrates, if you try to alter the desktop/laptop UI to include some of them, you compromise the user experience.

So why did Microsoft insist on one interface for both its tablets and PCs? And why does the company state that "The release of Windows Phone 8 is a significant step toward convergence with Windows 8"? Microsoft is clearly driving towards a single OS and similar UI across all devices.

Some believe this was an engineering decision. Others think it was an error in judgment, the kind that can happen in any large corporation (even one with such talented people as Microsoft). I believe this is a marketing-driven decision. Microsoft owns the desktop but has no meaningful market share in handhelds. So why not leverage all those loyal desktop and laptop users? Force them into Microsoft's new multi-device OS. Train them into Microsoft's handheld world, even as they use their desktops and laptops, so that when they buy a handheld, they'll be comfortable, familiar, and already loving the Microsoft product. Microsoft believed they could leverage their personal computer OS monopoly to build handheld market share.

So far, the strategy has failed. Perhaps version 8.1 will fulfill Microsoft's dream. Or maybe the version after that. Microsoft's got both the cash and the will for the long game. Many would like to see them succeed. As consumers, we would all benefit from a more competitive handheld universe, with three big software ecosystems vying for our money, instead of only two. (And we sure wouldn't mind if they fixed Windows 8 to work reasonably for desktop and laptop users.) Will it all happen? We'll find out over the two to three years.

Ubuntu's Unity

Microsoft's bold interface gamble very much influenced Canonical in switching Ubuntu's interface to Unity. Mark Shuttleworth shed light on this in his talk at OSCON 2012:

"We said: 'We have this desktop, and it’s a very popular desktop; lots of people love it. But we believe that the future looks like this diverse collection of form factors. We want to have a user experience that spans a range of form-factors, e.g. a desktop, a tablet, and a phone, and, in fact, we even wanted a TV as well!...'

Different form factors [have] different constraints and need different interfaces,
but they can be, we believe, part of one family...

 old desktop would force your tablet or your phone into all kinds of crazy of funny postures... So we said: 'Screw it. We’re going to move the desktop to where it needs to be for the future.'

We [had to move] our desktop because if we didn’t we’d end up where Windows 8 is.
[In Windows 8] you have this shiny tablet interface, and you ... press the wrong button... then it slaps you in the face and Windows 7 is back. And then you think OK, this is familiar, so you’re kind of getting into it and whack [Windows 8 is back]...

[Ubuntu] is in this great position to spread out across all of the form factors."

So Canonical bought into Microsoft's idea of one OS for all devices. As part of their plan, the company introduced the Unity shell for the GNOME desktop environment in Ubuntu 11.04. Unity replaces the traditional Windows-Icons-Menus-Panels desktop with its new Launcher-Quicklist-Dash-HUD-Panel paradigm. Like the Windows 8 UI, Unity's design was heavily influenced by small-screen touch technology.

As Shuttleworth acknowledged in his speech, "... [This change] turned out to be a deeply unpopular process." Canonical responded to user resistance to the new Unity interface in several ways. It has variously offered the classic GNOME shell as a fallback, the gnome-panel package, and Unity 2D. More importantly, Canonical continues to improve and enhance Unity at a rapid pace. Lastly, official Ubuntu derivatives still support the traditional desktop metaphor. This fulfills Shuttleworth's vision where he says  that "Different form factors [have] different constraints and need different interfaces, but they can be, we believe, part of one family..." The different interfaces that are part of the family include Xfce (Xubuntu), LXDE (Lubuntu), and KDE (Kubuntu). It is very telling that a new Ubuntu GNOME project was recently added to this list, since it was the switch from GNOME 2 to Unity that caused all the controversy.

Today, many users enjoy Unity. Others have left Ubuntu for its derivatives, as well as for Linux Mint. The Mint developers saw what was happening with Unity and the somewhat similar new GNOME 3 interface and developed a dual-bore response. They built upon the traditional GNOME 2 interface in their product named MATE, which enhances this GUI and supports legacy graphics hardware. Mint also built upon the new GNOME 3 interface and its state-of-the-art graphics in their Cinnamon shell -- while adding menus for traditional navigation. Linux Mint has become very popular in part because its developers understood that Unity and GNOME 3 would meet user resistance, and they astutely continued supporting traditional desktop interaction. (The Mint distribution also offers KDE and Xfce.)

GNOME 3 with the GNOME Shell

When it was introduced in spring 2011, GNOME 3 abandoned the traditional desktop design of GNOME 2 in favor of the new GNOME Shell. The GNOME shell is superficially somewhat similar to Unity (though the two are diverging over time). Both present a new style of desktop interaction influenced by mobile devices. As with Unity, some liked the new GNOME desktop paradigm, but others didn't and it caused quite a controversy. Linus Torvalds famously criticized it and switched from GNOME 3 and its shell to Xfce. Then, as the product rapidly improved, he went back to GNOME. Tons of extensions and packages like the GNOME Tweak Tool smoothed the way. Computers that couldn't boot GNOME 3's new graphics ran a Fallback mode that was reminiscent of GNOME 2.

GNOME 3.8 was announced in May. It includes a new Classic mode "...for those who prefer a more traditional desktop experience." Classic mode replaces Fallback mode. Through Classic mode, the GNOME team addresses those who dislike its new interface. The goal is to continue with the new desktop while keeping users who want a traditional system in the fold. My guess is that most will judge GNOME on the basis of its enhanced version 3 design, which today many like. Those who want a traditional UI have probably already left the GNOME Shell for alternatives. In any case, the GNOME project remains vitally important to the free software movement in its support of many dozen tools and applications.


KDE, too, ran into controversy when it altered its desktop paradigm. This was way back in 2008 when version 4 was first introduced. KDE 4 promoted new understandings of folders and icons that many initially found off-putting. But like the Unity and GNOME 3 projects, the KDE developers moved quickly to address issues. The Plasma Desktop had matured by release 4.2, quelling most complaints.

Rather than a "one UI fits all devices" approach, the KDE project offers a multi-pronged strategy. The Plasma Workplace concept includes Plasma Desktop, Plasma Netbook, Plasma Contour (for tablets), and Plasma Mobile (for phones), thereby distinguishing the high-level user interface by device while retaining lower-level commonalities. Plasma Desktop mates traditional and new concepts in its own unique manner. Thus, KDE continues to be popular on desktops and laptops, especially among power users who appreciate its flexibility, customization, and powerful applications.

Xfce, LXDE, and MATE

With the drastic changes in some UIs, interfaces that have remained true to the traditional desktop metaphor have gained in popularity. Xfce, LXDE, and MATE innovate within the context of this long-established paradigm. Xfce is well polished and much faster than when I first tried it with Xubuntu several years ago. Today it really flies on my Mint systems. You can customize it by adding icons to its desktop or quick launch panel as easily as you can in Windows. LXDE features a highly-modular design with independent, plug-and-play components. Together with its fast apps, LXDE has become the lightweight default interface for several distros including Knoppix, Lubuntu, and Raspbian. MATE continues the GNOME 2 heritage and incrementally improves it with new features and themes. Several distros have adopted MATE instead of GNOME 3.

Xfce, LXDE, and MATE will run on mature computers. The newer UIs require state-of-the-art graphics hardware. These include current releases of GNOME (with 3.8's elimination of Fallback mode), Ubuntu (with 12.10's dropping of Unity 2D), and Cinnamon (which requires 3D acceleration).

What Happened?

The rise of the handhelds caused turmoil in user interfaces. Ubuntu Unity, GNOME 3 Shell, and KDE 4.0 transformed their desktop UIs to handheld-influenced designs. All three immediately became embroiled in controversy as desktop and laptop users resisted. In response, these projects modified their initial efforts. (They also admitted the legitimacy of their users' complaints by providing various options for continuity with the traditional desktop metaphor.) Now, a few years in, many users enjoy the new UIs into which these three products have evolved.

Windows 8 suffers this same controversy today. Microsoft could have avoided the strife had they adopted the dual-OS approach favored by Apple and Google. These two competitors clearly distinguish between handheld and desktop/laptop UIs. But Microsoft's marketing needs dictated otherwise. Now the company endures a difficult period in which it tries to balance the UI changes consumers demand with achieving the company's marketing goals.

Xfce, LXDE, and MATE continue to refine the traditional desktop-laptop interface for Linux users. My experience has been that even beginners take to these UIs without training. While some argue that it's "intuitive" to hover the cursor over an invisible hot spot, click a hidden button, or type arcane application names into an empty box, desktop users find old-fashioned roll-over menus quick and self-explanatory. And these interfaces don't require new machines with high-end graphics.
Everyone's needs are different. The good news is that now we have more interfaces than ever from which to choose.

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Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who supports databases and operating systems.

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