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Journal jawtheshark's Journal: The sad state of software and user interface 26

I'd like to start off with stating that I'm not against change. I've used so many user interfaces over the years that I adapt quite quickly. I'm also not against software upgrades, just not the way it's been done by all major players (including open source software) in the last ten years.

Let me start off with an example: Unity. I switched to Ubuntu 11.10 (from the 10.04 LTS) and I gave Unity a shot. I'm fine now with it, but I had to do something I have done many times before. Shut down my "what I know" mode, and adapt myself to the new paradigm. The way I did this was tell myself: it works in a different way, let's just play it with its rules. As a relatively quick learner that works. I had to do this before, back in my OS X period. Coming from a Linux and Windows (NT4) background, I really had to start from a clean slate. Unity was easier in the sense that I tried using it as Mac OS X with the dock on the side and stop using maximizing windows. Doing that works surprisingly well. It works, and apart from a few annoying bugs (?), I most certainly cope. (Why does Firefox insist on starting maximized for example. The auto hide function of the dock should be disabled too, just make sure no windows are under it and you're fine.)

A radical change in using Unity is also depending on your keyboard to search for applications you want to run. Especially those you run rarely. The most important stuff I have in my dock, but I don't see why I'd need to waste space for the nvidia-settings application which I run each morning to turn on my second screen at work. So, I end up typing "nv" each mording in the Dash Home.

Now, of course you have the people saying "just change distro" or "just change your desktop environment". Often the first implying the last. Obviously, I can do that. In 2000 I ran Peanut Linux with WindowMaker on my Toshiba Satellite 210CT. For us Geeks nothing has changed, I can take Ubuntu, drop LDXE on it, or take Debian and select E17. I don't even need to change distro to do that, I know how to do that myself. Thing is, changing disto is easier. It also is not a solution: neither changing distro nor changing desktop environments. So I prefer Gnome2 over Unity. Fine, but Gnome2 will disappear because they moved on to Gnome3 and I don't think the fork, made by some group, will live.

What's the point, you ask? The point is that I'm a nerd, I have lived more years with computers in my life than without. The problem is that I am the support guy and as a support guy I don't want bleeding edge. I want stability, evolutionary change and a predictable roadmap. I want to run the same system so I can support those who actually need support, which would be my mother and my mother in law who are both 10.04 LTS users. Do you have any idea what it means to switch over users like them from Gnome2 to unity? It isn't going to be pretty. You say Mint? Fine... Gnome3 with extensions to make it look like Gnome2, but it ain't Gnome2. It also adds an enormous workload upon installing the machine, if you don't go with defaults. Instead of an hour for installation, plus setting up a few programs, I need to change the distro on a fundamental level, making my installation time much longer. This is also why people change distros, and not desktop environments. Ease... Plain and simple.

This summarized what is so wrong with desktop environments: Maturity is considered a bug, not a feature. Let's see Gnome2 is stable, well known and actually works without too much glitches. We can't have that. Throw it away and start from scratch with a new paradigm, full of bugs and with no clear roadmap. From my point of view that is simply not acceptable for the end-user.

Oh, and don't think this is unique to Linux. I give you Windows XP. Say what you want about XP, but from the user point of view, the user interface is well known. From the system administrators point, it is also well-known, easy to secure and thus mature. Let's skip Vista, and go directly to 7. The interface is even more condescending and you have to change your way of working, just like on the Linux Desktop Environments. Instead of using the mouse to start program (which, like it or not, normal users do!), you have to use the search function in the start menu. Also, one of the things you could easily do in Windows XP was show the hidden files and still have a quite oversee-able home directory. Try that in 7, it becomes a mess and it's not something you want to have activated when normal users use it. (desktop.ini? What's that file, I'll just delete it) There are so many hidden folders and hard-links, it's not pretty (Do note the dotfile frenzy in Linux is no shred better). Windows 7 is the first Windows, I actually put the "hide hidden files" in enabled state.

In a similar vein: want to move your My Documents folder from your fancy-ass quick-but-small SSD to spinning rust disk? Without re-installation, it's not possible. Without re-installation, you're doomed to move every "Subfolder" of you home manually. Why? Under XP it was Properties of your My Documents folder and set it to the new location.

These changes are completely unnecessary and change for the sake of change. Yes, I understand that we can't keep XP with the advent of 8GB++ RAM Machines, but really?

So, Mac OS X is immune? Fuck no! My wife's superb iMac runs Snow Leopard and I'm scared shitless to upgrade it to Lion. She is the same category of users as my mother or my mother in law. Now, I haven't touched OS X much at all, but I know one glaring change that made many users bitch a lot: the way the pages scroll. Long-time tradition is that you scroll your scroll-wheel down, and your documents goes down, scroll it up and your document goes up. Mac OS X Lion throws this out and goes for the inverse. That's like reversing break and gas pedal. Yes, I understand why, and it does make sense on a touch device or if you have that fancy new Magic Trackpad. Well, we don't... Sucks to be us, and sucks to be me to try to explain it to my wife when we eventually and inevitably will be forced to upgrade.

Of course, you say, "this is limited to operating systems", just suck it up. Nope, let me present you Firefox. Their new release cycle is insane from a supporting person like me. On Ubuntu, I best stick to what has been shipped. Let's take Windows. If you are like me, but unlike most people, I will run my users as limited users. Say what you want, but taking this stance is the best way to keep your users from getting infected with anything. The downside is: they can't install anything except for the annoying little programs that go around this and install themselves in the users home folder (Google Earth and Chrome, I'm looking at you!) This implies the automatic updates so many software companies seem to love so much (how many have you running?) will not work. So you have to disable them, which I do. It also means that you get a feature freeze which, oddly enough is very desirable. Supporting a known subset of software simply is easier. Given they run Limited User, the risk is mitigated greatly. Firefox was fine, a stable release (akin to the LTS system in Ubuntu) as the 3.6 line and anything else for those who want more. Except Mozilla wants to stop this. We all need to jump on the update-frenzy bandwagon. No! It robs us of stability and predictability. This is clear with all the extensions breaking so often. There still is no Java Console for Firefox 8, and on the Windows 7 machine I discovered this, we have the latest bleeding edge Java.

This brings me to another annoyance: System developers, especially under Windows, still have not understood the concept of multi-user machines where not all users are privileged (and heck, to the example I'll give you this doesn't even matter all that much). Imagine I set up a machine for you, we'll say Windows 7. It's for you, your kids and wife. Obviously, I want all of you to have the best surfing experience and since you are married with that Swedish hottie, and you live in Germany and your kids thus need to write German you want the English UK and US, Swedish and German dictionaries in your browser. Dictionaries are extensions and what I'll describe is true for all extensions. How do you do this? Traditionally, for such a thing, you install these things centrally (%programfiles%\Mozilla\Firefox\extensions) instead of per-user (%applicationdata%\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles\randomstring\extensions). Try it... Do it... In order to get this working you will have to install it as your user, then elevate to Admin privileges and move the raw folders to the appropriate folders. Oh, and then set the security permissions right please. If you did everything right, those extensions will now be visible for all users. Most people don't know this, so you have extensions/dictionaries installed for each of them, all in different version, all in different state of usage. From a support point of view unacceptable. From within firefox, only the per-user system is supported. There is no check-box you can check if you are in the "Administrators" group to "install for all users".

Do note that OpenOffice has exactly the same problem with dictionaries. Luckily it detects if you are the "Administrator" user and offers you the option. Not so with the "Administrators" group, unless it changed (last I tried was OpenOffice 3.2).

I realize I deviated a bit with the above, but it illustrates another aspect of what is wrong with software these days.

Please, both in the proprietary world as in the free software world: Stop changing for the sake of change, especially in GUIs. Stop forcing upgrades upon us and do a Stable/Unstable distinction (Debian really got it right, but Debian doesn't make a good deskop without a good amount of manual work. Besides, even Debian is going to switch to Gnome3 eventually). Change is not bad, but radical departure is bad. Sometimes a product is just mature, and mature doesn't mean spoiled. It means, you can depend on it being what it is and not changing radically.

Windows XP, for all its failures is unique in the sense that it gave us 10 years of software stability. That was a great period to live in. I fear however, that this is in the past and we're bound to get in a rollercoaster ride.

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The sad state of software and user interface

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  • Worth reposting ...
    • Feel free. One of the reasons I wrote it is because what you wrote in the (recent) past. Other triggers were the rant of Linus about gnome and also an article about FF 8 being forced upon users. Besides, I have been working as "that guy you call when you have problems" (~my conscious life), developer (~10 years, professionally) and system administrator (~3 years, professionally). I'm also a "user". I've seen all sides of it, I know what I'm talking about. Not everyone needs to agree, but I definitely d
  • We've had more usability enhancements in the last two years than in the previous ten. They have to try new things to get us there. I'm for it.
    • You don't support users, I gather? Or if you do, you give them complete freedom after you have done your job, actually resulting in more support calls and more work for you. If that's okay for you, that's fine. It isn't for me. My time is precious.

      In the journal, I have pointed out serious regressions in usability on all existing operating systems. Introducing enhancements do not mean "allow regressions". I've written corporate software for 10 years of my life and the biggest sin you could do was intr

      • I have supported users. I migrated 6K+ users to each of W98, W98SE, WXP, W7, Office 95, Office 2003, Office 2007, Office 2010. And when I say 6K+, I mean 6K+ minimum each, not in the aggregate. In most cases more than 10,000 each. In the aggregate I could claim near a million. I've been at this a long time, and I'm not a corner-store PC geek. You would have known this if you were a subscriber and were diligent. I didn't mangle every bit along the way, but was the boss responsible that that got done -

        • Crap! I meant to click continue editing so as to address your point, which is at issue with my acceptance of change. You know what? I'm going to let that go.
    • I would have to say that we should discriminate between usability enhancements and accessibility enhancements. A lot of the so-called "usability enhancements" have decreased accessibility. One example that everyone seems to have fallen prey to is wanting to use their own "cross-platform style kit" rather than the native ui/theme, to "make the user experience consistent across platforms". So what ends up happening is that layouts and fonts don't always match the underlying system mapping when you change d

    • by Arker ( 91948 )

      We've had more usability enhancements in the last two years than in the previous ten.

      Oh really?

      Name one.

  • by mekkab ( 133181 )
    You can admin all my systems, anytime.
    • I think I'll take that as a compliment :-)
      • by mekkab ( 133181 )
        It really is. I don't just want you to manager my systems, I want you to be the one who makes the decisions on how those systems are presented to me and interact with me. Its amusing; my town (population less-than- 500, yet we have our own local gov't due to being the oldest town around) had a discussion on traffic and one of the guys who works with the county traffic system said "the current system is unix and isn't user-friendly." To which I immediately thought "I've been using unix systems since 1994
  • by Arker ( 91948 ) on Tuesday December 06, 2011 @01:17PM (#38281802) Homepage

    A lot of the same thoughts I have been having, and you express them well. This has been pissing me off for decades. Everyone wants to reÃnvent the wheel, over and over again, and each time they seem to find a new way to mess it up, just for the sake of doing *something*. Maybe the old wheel could be improved upon, sure, but I havent seen any improvements that even come remotely close to being valuable enough to make up for the confusion and frustration caused by breaking things that people have learned to use and rely on.

    When it's being done by volunteers, it seems to be more a matter of people wanting to do something new for bragging rights - with commercial software the breakage is usually more controlled, and seems to be motivated more towards forcing upgrades, but either way it is a horrible waste from my perspective. Most people today use a computer as a glorified typewriter, just like they did back in '95. The software I was using then was essentially feature-complete and ran fine on the hardware available at the time. Over the intervening years what has happened? Improvements? Perhaps in some sense, but it's very hard to meaningfully improve something that already works properly. So 'upgrades' have been forced by other means - withdrawal of support, introduction of new formats whose only 'advantage' is being unreadable by older software, and of course apps often take advantage of the forced upgrade cycle of the windows OS to force users to buy new apps as well. And each 'upgrade' results in a piece of software which is bigger, more bloated, and breaks user expectations arbitrarily - yet does the same exact job as the older version was doing just fine.

    Yes, I know it wouldnt be that great from the narrow stockholders perspective if we were all still running say WP6 - but from the wider perspective that would be perfect. How much money and time could have been saved and put to productive use? How much time spent learning and relearning the quirks of each peculiar little package, dealing with the breakage each introduces, constantly having to purchase new hardware to run the newer more bloated programs introduced each cycle to do exactly the same job that the old version already covered? Calculate that across the world economy and you will get a figure to dwarf even the profits of MicroSoft.

    So far as supposed improvements in 'usability' I rarely see them. Gnome has gone from 'rough but serviceable' to 'wouldnt touch it with a ten foot pole.' KDE has done only slightly better. And I still have yet to see another window manager come close to WindowMaker for sensibility and usability.

    • This would make a worthy extension of my journal entry. I hope that the people who read my journal, also read this comment.
  • by rk ( 6314 ) on Tuesday December 06, 2011 @04:31PM (#38284312) Journal

    I've lost my tolerance for learning different ways of doing the same shit. I still love learning genuinely new things, but I no longer tolerate well changes to my experience that do nothing to make me more productive but invalidate my old knowledge.

    I think the reason developers change things is we are painfully aware of the warts and bumps in our systems, so we think "You know, if we just rewrite this from scratch, we can make this so much better*." The big thing we ignore, though, is that many of the old system's warts and bumps are actually battle scars because that code has been exposed to the real world and has been fixed of many weird edge cases. A redesign will likely introduce new edge cases, and once deployed, will need new fixes that we still haven't thought of yet.

    * - also, we can include all those nifty features we wanted but couldn't squeeze into the last release! [wikipedia.org]

    • Yes, it might be I'm just getting old. I do understand that. 20 years ago, every new interface, every new software pack was something to be discovered. Now? Well, if it's the same old shit, just rehashed, I pass, thank you. I'd rather do something I enjoy.

      I fully understand the notion of wanting to start from scratch (I've been there so often in my developer years), but usually -at least in corporate software- you don't get the chance. I'm not saying corporate software is better, far from... Less user

  • by GeckoFood ( 585211 ) * <`moc.liamg' `ta' `doofokceg'> on Tuesday December 06, 2011 @08:23PM (#38286658) Journal

    You could not have put this any better.

    Where did the MS Ribbon Control come from? Same thing - someone decided that a simple row of buttons and a menu system is not sufficient anymore. Now the sheep follow - it doesn't "look modern" if it still has small tool buttons and no ribbon." But it really does not buy anything substantial, except a learning curve.

    I agree, not all change is bad. Sometimes a small aesthetic change is good, such as flat button bars versus raised. You have not changed functionality or the way things work.

    Sadly, you are very right - we're on a roller coaster. Just wait until Windows 8 gets here - it looks like it was based on MS Zune software.

  • When you're writing new code, life is good. Things are easy. You write the code you want, and you can write whatever new way of doing things you want, because you aren't beholden to any existing systems.

    When you start maintaining code, things get harder. You have some old interfaces that you have to keep around, and as you try to do new things, you have to translate between the old and the new. Adding new interfaces and leaving the old ones alone is your only realistic strategy. Your architecture isn't

    • You clearly have a point. It seems to be an IT mindset, though. However, consider this a bit differently. Compare it to road infrastructure. The roads are there, over time there are lot of potholes, but instead of tearing it all down and replacing it with a monorail (forcing "car upgrades"), the roads are fixed. Sometimes full stretches are redone, sometimes just patches, sometimes dangerous sinuous roads are replaced with a tunnel, but overall all changes are done relatively evolutionary.

      Would road de

      • by plover ( 150551 ) *

        Thanks for starting the car analogy. :-)

        Anyway, yes, the car-highway interface is larger than just rubber-meets-road. You have traffic controls, laws and enforcement, safety features, fuel distribution, pollution controls, etc. All these things that came along to support the rubber-meeting-the-road. So they improve some bits here and there: new fuels. High-Occupancy-Vehicle lanes. Freeways. Law changes. Pavement technologies. Tire technologies. Vehicle safety technologies. And they keep it all wor

        • Thanks for starting the car analogy. :-)

          We're on slashdot... After 24 comments without car analogy, the thread started to feel a bit uneasy. I had to fix it :-P

          We don't say "no" when the nitroglycerine arrives in mason jars stacked 20 tall, the cyanide and medicines are in identically labeled packages, or if the monkeys are left to roam free while the pistols are loaded, smeared with banana oils and superglue, and are left in an open crate.

          That made me laugh...

          I'm aware the car analogies always fail becau

  • My friend Ubuntu

    11.04 (my old desktop) vs 11.10 my laptop

    I can't load videos to my ipod from my laptop at the moment, but works from my desktop. Why? libmp4v2 has been deleted from the 11.10 repositories apparently for a licence issue. Still available in 11.04 and earlier though.
    https://answers.launchpad.net/ubuntu/+source/gnome-media/+question/180549 [launchpad.net]

    I was even less impressed by the fact that on upgrade from 101.10 to 11.04, ubuntu removed gtkpod as an installed program - no longer necessary or some such

    • About Unity: I pretty much described the "changes I made in mindset" to make it "usable". Basically, it runs down to:
      • Do not use maximized windows
      • Keep windows away from the Dash/Dock, otherwise it will autohide.

      That's it, but it's a significant change and rather annoying. I'm not here to defend Unity. I'd rather have gnome2 back, but that won't ever happen. Gnome2 will die, if not now, in a few years it will be gone.

  • I read Tycho's post today at PA and he adds some data points [penny-arcade.com] to your discussion He agrees with you adding that this issue is not limited to PCs but also exists with consoles. (The 2nd and 3rd paragraphs - the first one is unrelated)

    • That's one of the places where I'd had expected it the least. I should not be surprised though, as consoles have become less-console-like in the last few years because they could go online. The "patch later" mentality crept in.

Loose bits sink chips.