Linux, user interfaces and copying Apple

Bob Sutor of IBM thinks that Linux needs to make innovative user interfaces, pointing to Apple as proof that charting your own path is beneficial. Apple, however, has certain aspects of its business that simply do not apply to Linux, making it harder for the business-focused operating system to achieve much market traction with a trend-breaking user interface.
Written by John Carroll, Contributor

Bob Sutor, IBM's VP of open source and standards, recently declared at the Black Hat Security Conference in Las Vegas that the open source world needs to create new and innovative user interfaces distinctive to Linux desktops if they want to pose a greater challenge in the desktop space. He also stated that they have to clone less the look and feel of desktop Windows, even going so far as to state they would do better to clone the look and feel of Mac applications if they are writing applications for the traditional desktop PC. That last part sounds a bit odd. I'm not so sure that it would be wise to make desktop PC apps that look like Mac applications any more than it would be wise to make Mac applications that look like PC applications. It's like speaking Japanese in France, and is more likely to confuse non-technical users than "wow" them with your design innovation skills.

The notion that Linux should chart its own user interface path makes more sense to me, however. I recently purchased a MacBook Pro for my wife, which has given me more chance to play with the Mac user interface and features up close. As I've indicated in previous posts, I'm far from impressed with the development APIs in the Mac world. In fact, I would go so far to say that I feel like I have stepped 10 years back in time when I start to mess around with XCode and the Cocoa APIs (not that that will stop me, as I am an old C++ hand (and Objective-C is just another language), but I'm not going to pretend that the Mac development experience is on par with that of a company who specializes in APIs and platforms).

But, as many a Mac fan is sure to point out, a Mac is not first and foremost a development platform. It's prime orientation is around the creation of a great user experience that is easy to use and doesn't get in the user's way. That is certainly the case with our new MacBook Pro. Besides being a beautiful piece of hardware engineering (a fact that is obvious when you first get it out of the box), the way that Apple guides you in its out-of-the-box experience is second to none. The user interface is, of course, spectacular. Small touches are stand-out features in a Mac, such as the ability to graphically scan through the contents of a folder - a feature I'd heard about in blog posts, but after using it a few times, must agree is the most functional "3D interface" I have ever seen in computers.

But the point of this post wasn't to gush about our new Mac. Rather, Apple has shown that it is completely possible to challenge Microsoft dominance with a user interface that charts its own path. What matters is that the user interface is well designed and effective...

...or is that all there is to it? Obviously, I don't think so.

There are certain aspects of the Macintosh experience that simply will not apply to Linux. It's worth remembering that, for years, the market share of an Apple Macintosh remained under water, shrinking slowly but inexorably against the ever ballooning market share of Windows. Jobs halted that slide by injecting new life into the Mac user experience and hardware design, but even so, it remain pegged at around 3-4% for a very long time.

That all changed with the popularity of the iPod. The iPod gave a whole new slant to the Apple brand that associated fun and cool things with Apple as a company. This put a new shine to the company's desktop computer division (the much ballyhooed iPod "halo" effect). Granted, the overhaul over which Jobs presided to the guts of the Mac operating system made it ready to withstand the attention that the iPod's success generated, but even so, iPod was the shiny eye-catching detail in the Apple product landscape that caused people start to reconsider the Mac as a platform. Add to that a set of stores which are inevitably placed in the most fashionable locations in any city, an ad campaign that is second to none, and now an iPhone that has changed what a smartphone user interface is supposed to look like (though its success was also linked to the previous success of the iPod), and you have a combination of factors that has turned a user interface that is different into a competitive advantage.

Linux is more associated with servers and businesses than Apple, which means they will have a harder time making people pay much attention to their UI innovations, at least in the desktop computer world. That, however, is not so much the case in mobile phones, which is why the Android user interface innovations are so important. The demonstrations I've seen are quite impressive. Further, there is no real standard for mobile phone user interfaces (though Apple has made it practically a requirement that they include support for touch screens, which the Android interface does).

Mobile phones are a wide-open market, and Linux has everything to gain by providing innovative user interfaces coupled with a completely open platform that is, in many cases, free to use.

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