The Age of the Icon Is Full Upon Us

Posted by albinard on Aug 14, 2011 7:50 PM EST
original story; By Emery Fletcher
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It is pretty clear that whether you use Apple, Linux, or Windows (to be scrupulously alphabetical about it) you are going to be at least offered – and more likely stuck with – a highly iconified desktop in any current or future offering of an operating system. It doesn't seem to matter whether you're using a phone, a tablet, or a Real Computer.

Let me be specific: by Real Computer, I mean a desktop or laptop that contains enough hardware, software, and adequate storage to perform efficiently the tasks which until now have been regarded as necessary functions for a computer: calculations for business or science, extensive word processing, data storage, image manipulation – the whole nine yards.

In the name of reducing user confusion, almost all current OS developers, commercial as well as open source, have apparently decided simultaneously and en masse to offer only a single control system for running every size of digital device, whether it be a desktop, a tablet, a phone, or even a wristwatch. In that way, their thinking goes, even the most befuddled user will recognize a familiar system, no matter if glancing at a 1.4-inch wristwatch screen or standing transfixed before a giant multi-screen monitor.

If you look at the Linux blogs and forums and news sites you can tell that a lot of people who run Linux don't like that idea. I suspect that's because that same lot of people run Linux in order to get work done, rather than to absorb entertainment passively. If you use a computer to generate something, you are bound to be more interested in how well the tools work and how easy it is to get to the tool box than in how pretty the toolbox looks.

Clearly, not everyone thinks this way, especially those who are interested in marketing products to the maximum number of people. Tablets are Big these days, so are phones. You want to get your product shown to the greatest number of people? Make it the face of the phone, the face of the tablet. Desktops? Laptops? Yeah, it'll sort of run on them too, with a certain amount of effort on the part of the user – that way you won't have to support two different versions of the same thing (right, Mr. Shuttleworth?).

So far that's been my standard rant, but let me pull a bit of a switch and say it just might not turn out as badly as I've thought, at least where Ubuntu is concerned. Right now Ubuntu is at the beginning of a major change in direction, a massively different approach to arranging the graphical user interface. Until now, access has usually been via a foldout menu with descriptive words arranged in alphabetical order. Quick-launch was available for things you use on a daily basis: just drag-and-drop an item on a panel.

For someone coming to the system for the first time, descriptive words are essential; they are useful too when you want to bring up some more obscure functionality you've never used before. But realistically, how often do you read all three words, Synaptic Package Manager, when you use it? The words become no more than an image in your mind, a sort of three-element icon that has a familiar look and a familiar place on the folded-out System > Administration list. Besides, you can easily put an icon on the panel for it while you're setting things up.

When that thought struck me a while ago it brought me up short and got me reconsidering my hostility to the changes being enforced in Ubuntu 11.04. No, I still don't like them, but I have to admit they are really just a first shot at a new format. What will they be like a few months from now, when Ubuntu 12.04 comes out? As the next Long Term Support version on which some high Shuttleworth hopes have been placed, I would expect that it will be tested more carefully for stability and usability before it is released. Will the new form integrate better with Wayland managing the desktop? Will it be easier to adapt it to Real Computer use? Will it be more configurable?

To be fair, I'll give it a chance. I'll even go so far as to start adapting my own habits of computer use to the desktop as it is now. Instead of being my usual iconoclastic (literally) self, I have put launcher icons on the Totem Pole for things I use at all frequently. In a way, I guess that makes it display MY totemic identity, showing what kind of a user I am. I would like to be able to shuffle the icons a bit more freely, but at least I need to hit Search a lot less often.

I will wait, with unaccustomed patience, for Ubuntu 12.04 to show me whether I'm going to stick with the distro that so easily brought me from Windows to Linux two years ago or migrate to a distro with a less mandatory form of presentation. Goodness knows, there are plenty.

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Crunchbang Debian qlue 0 1,421 Aug 14, 2011 9:09 PM

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