Have we already reached Desktop nirvana?

Recently I’ve been taking a look at Windows 7 and though I don’t want this to turn into flame war, I have to say I’ve been less than impressed with the latest offering from Microsoft. They have fixed one bug that annoyed me to distraction, but other than that, I really can’t see what all the fuss is about. However I don’t want to get bogged down by this. What I really want to talk about is the way that the desktop has changed over the last two decades.

The interest sparked off from the fact that I spent a considerable amount of time tuning Windows 7 to look and feel like my current Windows XP setup. I then realised that I had done the same on Windows XP to make it look like 98. But why? Is it because I am an old fuddy duddy now? Is it because I am unable to embrace change? Is it because I can not take the time to learn something new? I hope not!

I’m forced to think about the other side of the fence, the Linux world. I have used a large variety of Linux distros, Ubuntu, Fedora, RedHat, CentOS, Knoppix, BackTrack, Foresight and Puppy, to name the ones I have used regularly. I have had no problem adjusting to these, and to newer versions of these. So what’s the problem with Windows 7? Why do I constantly feel the need to live in days gone by? I guess the ultimate question is in the title of the post. Did we already hit a desktop Nirvana?

This is all very interesting. Going all the way back to Windows 3.1, and the change we encountered moving to Windows 95. The difference was vast. It changed the entire way we used the desktop. Now let’s move from Windows 95 to 98, no real major differences in the design of the desktop or layout, again from 98 to XP, save for a few updates to the startbar and grouping. Now we go from XP to 7, and I have to say for me it’s kind of more of the same. There is nothing really new, the groupings work a little differently, but I missed having the text labels for programs. I usually work with more than 40 windows open at a time, call me messy, but it’s just how I work. The nature of my work means I flit from task to task all day every day.

So have we seen the last of the desktop development? Of course not! I’m not for one minute saying that there will never be any more advances in desktop development. What I am saying is that all of the “nice” new features, the ring switching, the window previews and all just “nice to have” eat resources. We should be making improvements to the desktop that both offer us better workflow, more enhanced capabilities, but without the need for a machine that is three to four times as powerful as it’s predecessor. I still recall that the compiz engine when it first came out, at the time when I bought a GeForce 7300 GT OC, still ran acceptably on an old MX440. I was stunned.

You have to wonder about the real motivations for change here. Call my cynical, but the Linux desktop seems to move and evolve with the demand from the users. We ask for things to change, and when that volume hits a critical mass, change happens. OK, it’s not always this way, and sometime design leads take the bold decision to try something new, but for the majority it seem to me that this is how the development happens. Now let’s take a look at the Microsoft way of thinking and it’s a little different, but then so is their business model. They thrive on people buying new versions of the software, so it’s in their best interest to get people “hooked” on these new features.

Microsoft sell training, they sell certifications, and so a portion of their revenue is directly dependent on how good a job they do at changing things sufficiently enough to require more training. Look at the shift from Office 2003 to Office 2007. As I said, call me cynical, but this change in thinking also benefits the PC manufacturers also. It enables them to push bigger better and faster machines, which ultimately will all run at the same speed, once they become loaded with the next generation of system hogging operating systems.

I digress. Apologies. Going back to our idea of a desktop nirvana. The ultimate root notion of a desktop hasn’t changed in many many years. True, the mobile market is starting to make us rethink things, but it is still rooted in the idea of windows, files, folders, icons and desktops. It amazes me that in all this time we have not really come up with a single new methodology for using a computer that has been accepted and implemented. Cue some references to project X, Y and Z. I understand people have probably tried, but I’m forced to consider the fact that for the foreseeable future, the desktop is as good as it gets. Yes, we’ll get things like wobbly windows, snappy left and right thingies and the like, but the fundamental desktop model doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere just yet.

But maybe this is all stemming from the fact that the whole files and folders, the root method by which we store information needs an overhaul.  It’s based heavily on the model of an office in days gone by, where you would have reams of paper files, in folders and that made sense, whilst we were still in a transitional period.  Now though, it’s causing issues.  People can’t get to their information quickly enough.  I personally want a tag based file system.  I want to be able to write in something like, “iso, 6 months ago, ubuntu” and for it to instantly bring back an iso image of ubuntu that I had 6 months ago.  What I don’t want however is a tracker system that has to use up system resources to keep an index of the files.  I want this built in.  I want the world I know.

Let me know what you guys think?

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    • Simon RIdley
    • February 7th, 2011

    Hi Pete

    I read your article with interest as this is something I have been thinking about myself recently.

    I have to admit I was surprised to hear you spent some time making Windows 7 look like XP, conversely there are countless posts on the net of ways to make XP look like W7!

    Personally I found Windows 7 a refreshing OS to use coming from the now ancient feeling XP. Sure it’s not a massive leap forward but it feel more refined and they have made a few small changes and improvements that make day-to-day usage much more efficient.

    One feature that is a favourite of mine (and something I wouldn’t like to say was borrowed from OSX in case it was done elsewhere first) is the ability to bring up the Start Menu and simply begin typing the name of the program you want. This quickly creates a list of suggested programs that most of the time has the one you wanted already highlighted and ready to launch at the press of the Return key. This seems to learn your most used program should more than one have a similar name.

    As an example, now I can launch notepad with just a few key presses – Windows Key, n, o, t, Return. Much easier than scrolling up through the Program Files, Accessories (and always having to expand those because you didn’t want to see the full list did you? Yes I did!)

    This is just one of many little things which make me a happy user. I know I have been recommending to people to upgrade to W7 and will continue to do so.

    One of your points has reminded me about a discussion I had a while back. You talked about newer iterations of Windows not being as big a leap from the previous version – and the fact we haven’t yet left behind the tried and tested files and folders system – do you think in general that we have stopped pushing the boundaries?

    Take travel for example – in space travel we haven’t landed mankind on a planet further than Moon and how long ago did we achieve that milestone? Passenger planes are getting slower since we retired the Concorde. We haven’t come up with any fancy new form of travel at all we are using the same old methods we have for years.

    I can think of many other areas where we, as a race, seem to have been standing still for some time. Sure, we refine and improve upon the technologies we have but that’s not progress is it? Perhaps we have reached the limits of what we can do and if that is true it’s very sad indeed!

    Would be interested to hear your thoughts

    Oh and an on topic question for you, have you tried OSX (more specifically particular Snow Leopard) and if so how did you find it versus Windows or your Linux distro of choice?

    • The quick search you mentioned is actually something that I have found useful. Before that I used a piece of software called Colibri which used ctrl+space to initiate, and then did pretty much exactly the same thing, but with some other very useful functions. To be honest though I have it installed, you are right, the quick search bar does go a long way towards replacing my previous app.

      It’s an interesting point you bring up about pushing the boundaries. We certainly seem to be pushing the boundaries of some developmental areas, such as medicine, but others, such as transportation, do seem to have stagnated. However it’s not fair to say that the areas are totally stagnant. I think the problem is that once we find model that works, we end up sticking with it and optimising.

      On further reflection, maybe that’s the way to go, maybe we should fully exhaust an idea before moving on to the next one. In this way, do we ensure that we are squeezing every last bit of ingenuity out of the idea before we discard it? It’s very interesting to consider just why we haven’t revolutionised things further. Maybe another aspect of it is financial. If you think about it, most businesses are content with making money, and not redefining things every decade. Granted there are some exceptions, but redefinition is a risky proposition. Sink several million dollars into an idea that fails and you’re in big trouble.

      Now that we are in such a financially reliable marketplace, the model of redefinition is going to be one that’s hard to foster. With companies constantly fighting each other for the top spot, no one is willing to take large risks to redefine the way we think and work. So where does this leave us? Universities and educational establishments are the ones doing the research, pushin gthe limits and coming up with cool stuff, then often, before they’ve had time to really hone it, a company will buy out the idea and commercialise it, all with the hope of getting the next quick buck.

      Well am I wrong?

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