New Desktop Interface Flops

It's not just Windows 8 Metro, other new interfaces, like Linux's GNOME 3.2, stink just as much.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

If GNOME 3.2 is the future of desktops, you can keep it.

If GNOME 3.2 is the future of desktops, you can keep it.

If you follow my work, you won't be surprised to know that I really dislike Windows 8's proposed new interface, Metro. That's not because I hate everything from Microsoft. It's because I hate anything that's a bad design, and it's not just Microsoft that's guilty of that. So are open-source groups such as GNOME.

Unlike my colleague Ken Hess who hates just about all the newest interfaces, I do like some of the new ones... in their place.

For example, he really dislikes Ubuntu's Unity desktop. I don't. In fact, I rather like Unity/... in its place. Mind you, I don't like it that much for me, but at least I can see what Ubuntu is trying to do with their interface and I think they're successful in reaching that goal.

What I mean by that is I'm a power user. I want a graphical user interface (GUI) to either help me reach deep into a system so that I can tune it just the way I like or, at the least, to get out of the way so I can get to a command line interface or shell so I can easily adjust the system. Unity doesn't do that. But, then Unity isn't meant for power users. It's mean for new PC or tablet users who want to easily do a relatively few tasks: get on the Web, play music, and so on. For them, Unity is great. For me, or Ken, not so much.

Welcome to Ubuntu 11.10: Oneiric Ocelot (Photo Gallery)

My problem with Metro and GNOME 3.2 is that not only can I not figure out what audience they are meant for, neither one does a good job of delivering the goods to any user I can imagine.

Let's get down to brass tacks. An interface is meant to make it easy for you to get work done. Pretty simple right? So, why does Microsoft feel the need to dump decades of design work on a perfectly usable system that almost everyone on the planet can use for one that seems designed for use by mildly concussed kindergarteners?

Yes, I know Metro is meant to be a touch interface, but guess what; most of us are still going to be running Windows on PCs for years still to come. And, besides while touch is indeed great for tablets and smartphones, I find it a heck of a lot easier to do work with a keyboard and a mouse than I do with a keyboard and a screen I need to smudge up with my fingerprints every minute or two.

What's even more annoying is that Metro requires me to relearn how to use Windows for no real gain in ease of use, flexibility, or power. It's not quite change for the sake of change. Microsoft wants Metro to be its universal interface. But, I do think Microsoft is throwing out the baby of its hundreds of millions of Windows desktop user for the very small chance that Metro is going to matter on tablets and smartphones.

GNOME 3.2 is, if anything, even more annoying. GNOME was always the 'simple' Linux desktop interface. That was fine. We learned how to work around it, and what GNOME 2.x did well, it did very well indeed. But, GNOME 3 made simple into stupid. I'm not the only one who looked at GNOME 3 and say this that GNOME 3.x sucks dead gophers through rusty tailpipes, Linus Torvalds agrees that GNOME 3.x is a flop.

We're not the only ones. I find it noteworthy that Mint Linux, my own current favorite desktop Linux distribution is only reluctantly abandoning the no-longer in development GNOME 2.32 for GNOME 3.2, They're not doing it though by forcing users to move to GNOME 3.2 though. They're too smart for that/ Instead they're retrofitting GNOME 3.2 with Mint Gnome Shell Extensions (MGSE), "which is a desktop layer on top of Gnome 3 that makes it possible for you to use Gnome 3 in a traditional way."

Wow. Just wow. The interface is so annoying that at least one major Linux distributor, perhaps the second most popular after Ubuntu, feels the only way they can get people to use is to twist it in looking and acting like classic GNOME.

Why do I say this? Well, for starters, I liked the GNOME 2.task bar and application launcher. If I wanted icons that run down one side of the display, I'd be using Unity, which at least includes other tools to make them more useful.

I also like to be able to turn off my PC without any fuss or muss. On GNOME 3.2, and I'm not making this up, I have to:

  1. Click on My Name at the Top Right Hand Corner
  2. Press and Hold the ALT key, which makes the Power Off appears over the Suspend menu option.
  3. Click on the Power Off, which triggers a Pop-up Menu.
  4. Click on the Power Off option from the "Hibernate | Reboot | Power Off"

It's enough to make me want to just jerk the power-cord right out of the wall.

When I look at Metro and GNOME 3.x I see two fundamental design mistakes. First, their creators are no longer listening to their audience. Did anyone outside of Microsoft ask for big tiles in place of icons? I don't think so. Was there a memo that people didn't want menu-bars anymore? If so, I never saw it.

Second, both groups seem to have forgotten that it's not about creating new interfaces for the sake of being novel, creating interfaces is all about making life easier for users. These new interfaces get in the way of users.

Here's what's going to happen. Windows 8 will be a non-starter. Windows users will stick with Windows 7 they way they stuck with XP when Vista first smelled up the joint. Linux users will use programs like MSGE; switch to more desktops such as LXDE that can be customized to look and act like GNOME 2.x; or switch to GNOME's long-time rival, KDE. If GNOME's developers don't rethink their basic design, their interface will be just interesting bit of open-source history.

Related Stories:

Can Ubuntu Linux win on smartphones and tablets?

Ubuntu Linux 11.10: Unity comes of age (Review)

Welcome to Ubuntu 11.10: Oneiric Ocelot (Photo Gallery)

Windows 8: A bad bet

I hate Unity. I hate GNOME. I hate Windows 8. The ultimate desktop search continues.

Editorial standards