Operating Systems and Usability for the New User

My 71 year old father expressed interest in a computer. He is a retired truck driver who has never sat in front of a computer.

Having an under-utilized Mac Mini, I could have given that to him with either Leopard or Vista installed. Or I could have taken an old computer laying around the office and put Linux Mint on it.

I sat him down in front of Vista and taught him about the common widgets, basic mouse usage, and other tasks. We went through creating files, transferring photos, deleting files, watching DVD’s…. When he showed undue interest in web ads, I thought I can’t really send a naive user home with a Windows computer, not when he lives 700 miles away and I would be called in to solve problems.

So I sat him down in front of Leopard. While I didn’t need to worry about drive by downloads, he was thrown into confusion by the numerous modal operations that the Mac utilizes.  He had questions like why does the garbage turn into a triangle when I click on some things but not on others, what does it mean and how do I know what it will do?  He found the dock much less user friendly than the task bar, why does clicking there start a program but clicking here just fans out more choices, how do I know what to choose?  I couldn’t convince him that the downloads icon was not a camera.  In general, he was much more confused sitting in front of Leopard.

So, setting the Mini aside, I pulled out a computer that would otherwise end up in a landfill and installed Linux Mint on it.  I found it much easier to get him used to the start menu and taskbar than I did the application folder and dock.  Of course he is a novice and has lots of confusion, but he has no problems importing photos from a camera, launching programs, and navigating his home folder.  Since he had no mouse/keyboard experience I set him up with the Gnome Games package to get used to using the mouse.

Does he still get confused sometimes?  Surely.  Will I have to hold his hand for a while?  Surely.  Is Linux the right choice for everyone?  Obviously not.

But for first time users, Linux offers the ease of use for first time users that Windows enjoys and it offers the safety and security that OS X enjoys.  For me it is a no brainer, I’m sending Dad home with a linux box.

One problem that surfaced on all three desktops is when to click and when to double click and how to know the difference?  Good question for which I had no easy answer…you just have to learn.  This is a usability issue that needs addressed by all three desktops.

Your mileage may vary.  But for me, placing a first time computer user in front of the big 3 desktops, Linux was the way to go.  Also Linux Mint comes with all the codecs, so unlike Vista and Leopard, it just works.

Welcome to the computer age, dad.


Leopard Released

One more post on Apple’s new OS.  It is out in Australia…releases moving Westward with the Sunset…it gets here in about 11 hours.

I won’t be running out to upgrade today…probably won’t upgrade for a while.  If my Windows partition quits working at the end of the month, that may force me to upgrade.

But the point of this post is that I wish to say that Leopard seems like a much more worthwhile upgrade than Tiger was.  I mean, I still despise Steve Jobs and his sanctimonious attitude, but Leopard seems like a solid upgrade.

Sanctimonious: holier-than-thou: excessively or hypocritically pious

Can a Leopard Change its Spots?

In less than a week Apple will release the next version of its operating system.  The faithful are predicting huge success….300+ new features!!  Oh joy.

The faithful are bashing Vista as a has-been wannabe.  Leopard, they say, is everything that Vista pretends to be.  Only idiots are using Vista…all of the intelligentsia are on Macs.  yes…Yes….YESSSSS!!!!!

You know the drill, we go through it every year or year and a half.  But I have a different take on it.

How’s this: The greatness of a new technology is not measured in the froth that it creates upon release, but in the degree to which it remains meaningful  five years later.

Haven’t we heard it before?  OS X 10.3 was heralded as oh so much more advanced than XP…you remember don’t you?  Where is the so-called Panther now?  Less then four years after release and it won’t run modern software.  But it was revolutionary, they tell me.

Maybe it is a Microsoft plot to make Apple look bad?  Maybe Balmer sabotaged Panther, or maybe bribed Adobe?  That must be it.   Except…

Except even Apple knows that it is out-dated crud, they don’t even support it on their own software.

But it was revolutionary, very advanced…it was the best ever.  Except it wasn’t…

It was hype….

…and so is Leopard…

Some flashy modal features do not a quality OS make….

I’ve been hearing it for years….first OS X was the best thing ever.  Then 10.1 was the best thing ever.  Then 10.2, and so on…

But they have already been relegated to the dust heap of history…long live  Cheetah ….Puma ….Jaguar ….Panther ….Tiger ….Leopard ….Calico?

And don’t bash me as an MS apologist…I am more than happy with my Linux Mint…elegance without the hype.

The perennial anti-fanboy

In the past 10 days I’ve been accused in forum posts of alternatively being: (1) A MS fanboy, (2) An Apple fanboy, and (3)An opensource fanboy.  But still, I see myself as the perennial anti-fanboy.  In my estimation all of the leading desktop OS’s–XP/Vista, OS X 10.X, and GNU/Linux–leave much to be desired.

With a 2.5 GHz processor and 1.5 GB of RAM, why should XPs interface be so slow–why does my hard drive grind?

How could I be a fan of the crippled hardware that OS X runs on?

How could I be a promoter of GNU/Linux when the sound sucks!  Frequent crashes and buggy behavior all linked to the sound in pretty much every Linux distro I have ever used.

They all pretty much suck.  Am I the only one that notices?  How does every geek get attracted to one or another and then go and convince themselves that somehow their chosen OS is a good one?   Of course they know that the other two suck, but they get deluded by their personal choices–they invent a reality to fit their views–classic case of distorted reality due to self-delusion.

While the three of them sometimes suck in similar ways, they also suck in different ways.  Choosing an OS is deciding which one sucks less for the way that you work and the tasks that you need to accomplish. I, for one, could never be a fanboy for any of these OS’s in thier present state.  But if you take a look at trends…Vista has many more ads hard coded into the OS than XP does…every release of iLife comes in a more and more crippled form…but GNU/Linux, at least has positive trends.  Of course much of this is due to the fact that it started this millenium far out in last place, it was much easier to make large gains.

So let me be clear, yes Linux is buggy, yes the apps crash a lot, yes the updates often hose your system, yes much hardware is unusable, yes the command line is a throwback to the eighties, yes many of its procedures are arcane, YES IT SUCKS!  It just happens to be better than the offerings from MS and Apple for my approach to computing and the tasks that I need to perform. Your milage may vary.

Why is the GUI turning into a clownish experience?

I do my best to not care much about the underlying OS. I run my computer in order to run applications in order to achieve goals. I prefer to forget about the OS and concentrate at completing tasks.

However, the major GUI’s seem to be heading toward making their respective OS’s look very clowinish…some would say outright garrish.

Window’s XP’s system notification balloons constantly intrude into my work. Not that I am opposed to system notifications…MS needs to implement an easy means to set up filters on these. XP’s giant rounded start button looks like it belongs inside a child’s game, not left as a constant eyesore on my desktop. Basically the XP default GUI with its rounded bright blue in-your-face appeal, seems as if it were designed for a clown to use during a skit about how goofy computing has become. And Vista…don’t even get me started…the best thing I can say about it is that Gates and Co. still have time for a complete overhaul of the UI. Let me illustrate my point with a single example; in the Beta 2 when you click on the clown looking button with windows logo on it, then hover over the right column, the picture at the top of the column changes. When you are hovering near it, it is somewhat useful. But when you are further away from it, near the bottom, it just becomes distractful flickering at the visual periphery. Clownish! Because we can! Not because it might be useful.
On the Linux front, Gnome seems much more clownish than KDE, with Fedora Core 5 seeming to be the most clownish of the major distros. At least with Linux you get more tweaking options, you can turn the most clownish distro into a sedate desktop with just a little work.

OS X’s (Tiger) default install with the giant dock and things bouncing for your attention is pretty clownish too. With the recent announcement of Core Animation this is only going to get worse, just as XGL (or whatever eventually catches on) is going to make things worse on the Linux desktop. I am not here claiming these technologies are bad, I am simply stating that they will be mis-used. Apple’s own use of animation in the OS is outlandish enough, let’s not bring this power to every two-bit shareware developer.

I think clownish sells. It looks good in the adverts. It looks good at the demos. As computers become “good enough” it becomes increasingly difficult to sell an OS upgrade, so they duct tape eye candy nonsense on top to make it seem new and innovative. Enough already.

In my computing experience, Windows 2000 was the first OS to become good enough on the desktop. In my mind OS X 10.3x is good enough, also. Has anything been released or announced for these products which make them more usable? Only search, and that is rather trivial.
But this is not to argue against refinement of the GUI experience, I only argue that this refinement (or even complete overhaul) of the experience should be based on usability. Usability and….well, pretty much nothing else.

Where is the innovation on the desktop? Ubuntu gets credit for using a brown theme in defiance of the blue grey/silver/undefined light-color which predominates the desktop. MS gets credit for the next Office update. Anybody else?

All I ask is for a useful platform to run my programs without making it seem as if they reside within a child’s game. Is that too much to ask?

What about the finder?

Another Apple media event…the unveiling of Leopard…but no mention of fixing the finder.  From around the globe I heard a collective scream from every mac user as Steve left the stage without mention of a finder rewrite.

This is starting to get comical…it has forced creation of a new acronym complete with wikipedia entry.  FTFF: Fix the F’in Finder!

It is so slooooow…don’t even let a network share disapear when mounted….the whole system stops….the beach ball bounces…

Since Steve didn’t mention it…it will probably remain unfixed yet again.

The fact that Apple won’t fix it leads me to think that the problem is not finder…but the underpinnings.  If it was simply the finder, Apple would fix it.  So things are broken or otherwise mucked up underneath.  Probably the same problem set that causes the beach ball at other times….

If they are not going to fix the problem then they should turn the beach ball into a pulsing Apple and call it a feature.
And that fails to mention my main beef, why is there no “refresh”?  Due to its inherent shortcomings, OS X needs this more than most OS’s…yet it is MIA.

Hey Steve, “FTFF!”

New Features of OS X Leopard

Much is made of guessing what the next OS X will contain.  Many say virtualization, some say collaboration,…rumors, damn rumors, and wild assed guesses.

I have no inside scoop, no moles at Apple breaking their NDAs, but I know the main new feature in Leopard.  Ready?

[insert drumroll]………Improved Windows Networking!  The glory, the glee, how sweet it is, improved windows networking!  Steve takes a bow to the crowd, flowers drop from the ceiling, the faithful are on their feet.  All hail, improved windows networking!

Vista beta 2 seriously breaks Apple’s implementation of Samba.

But they can’t sell a computer OS based on improved networking with the Beast.  So they will add some flash, something glitzy, something containing a buzzword or two…..how about Virtual Collaboration?

But they will fix the broken windows networking, toss it with something flashy, and…..ta daaaaa……OS X Leopard!!!!