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A Few Words


The Linux Desktop: Test Drive or Paradigm Shift?

— Brian Sorrell, August 2004.

Linux does not lend itself to a "test-drive". Those who want to get a peek at the desktop or fiddle with a few new and free applications typically end up looking for the ways that Linux is like Windows. However, the shift to Linux is not simply a shift to an alternate, cheaper, stabler and more secure version of the Windows experience. A successful shift to Linux depends largely upon a paradigmatic change in our conceptions of how we interact with a computer.

The way that one interacts with a Linux machine differs from the way that one interacts with a Windows machine. For one thing, there is the mysterious and legendary command line — which is almost nothing like DOS. More importantly, there is a diversity of available display managers, as opposed to the single display manager shipped with a Microsoft operating system. This emphasizes the point that one should be careful not to confuse the look and feel of the display manager with the operating system.

A UNIX vocabulary differs from a Windows vocabulary in this respect. Linux, properly speaking, is the name given to the kernel. A piece of software called a window server, combined with another piece of software called a display manager, all running separately from the kernel, provides a graphical mechanism for interaction with the machine. In a Linux environment, in order to interact graphically with the computer, one uses an X server, like XFree86 or X11R6, in conjunction with a display manager. This is the X Windows System, or simply X.

The display manager can take numerous forms. It can be extremely simple and speedy, or it can be complex and "full-featured". Examples of simple and speedy display managers are Fluxbox, Sawfish and IceWM. More full-featured display managers include KDE, Gnome, CDE and XFCE. We might call any of these a "digital desktop" environment. It is valuable to emphasize the merits of slimmer, cleaner, configurable digital desktops, for they make no effort to coddle or placate users who are mesmerized by Microsoft's simplified and compromised digital desktop paradigm.

To envision one way in which Linux might be able to win digital desktop battles, one can compare a digital desktop to a physical desktop, and map those comparisons on to Linux and Windows.

Productivity on the digital desktop depends on proximity to the physical desktop. For example, my physical desk has lots of space because I have lots of stacks of books, articles and papers. I don't retain a scattering of office supplies, food wrappers or pictures of Summer vacation. Rather, I try to keep the surface clear, austere and simple to navigate. This promotes clutter reduction and provides plenty of open space for grouping and organizing related projects.

For these purposes, Fluxbox is my digital desktop of choice. I prefer it because, by default there are no icons and there is no mysterious "Start" button. These are counterparts of the facts that my physical desk is not strewn with staplers, broken pencils and crusty coffee mugs and that it is stripped down of unnecessary gadgets and accessories.

Fluxbox, like most X display managers, offers multiple desktops, an innovation not to be found in the Windows world (although some have tried, clumsily, to implement it as a sort of add on). At the bottom of my Fluxbox digital desktop, there are two arrows and a label. They identify and allow me to scroll to separate digital spaces that are uncluttered with clusters of unrelated open windows. I have five digital desktops, which in the physical world would be akin to having five distinguishable areas where I tend to group and pile related things. Multiple desktops allow me to open a group of applications in one area and with a click, shift to a clear, separate area. The applications on each desktop continue to run, unfazed by the view that I have chosen. A feature called the "slit" allows me to see a minimized version of the inactive desktops, including minimized versions of the contents of the various open windows.

Furthermore, Fluxbox allows for "tabbing" windows. This means that I can grab one window and pile it on top of another window. The names of the applications show up as tabs in the window's title bar. I can strategically stack the windows like I stack papers on my physical desk, then flip through them later at my leisure. And, I can drag a window from desktop to desktop, like arranging my stacks of books and papers.

If I want to use an application, I right click to bring up the menu that I tailored to my specific needs. Right clicking, then, is like opening a drawer where I keep my most useful tools and widgets. Importantly, I decide what goes in the drawer, what the drawer looks like, whether the drawer can be held open, and so on. The behavior and contents of the drawer are entirely in my control.

The significance of this kind of deeply configurable digital desktop is that it can be customized to closely match a user's physical needs. This inevitably contributes enormously to the possibility of true user productivity.

Contrastingly, the Windows digital desktop rendered in physical space would be a weird thing. This is the case because the current Windows desktop is still a direct inheritor of the original Windows desktop, which was arguably little more than a typewriter-replacement.

First and funniest, to do absolutely anything, including turn off your desk lamp, you would have to press the "Start" button installed in the bottom left corner. The bottom left corner would not be too far from the bottom right corner — it would be a very small desk, with just about enough room for a few pencils, a stapler and maybe a single-extension, rotary-dial telephone. You would not be allowed to look anywhere but straight ahead. There would be one sheet of wide ruled paper in the middle, but you would not be allowed to move this piece of paper. Your pencils would not be sharpenable, so if they went dull you would have to buy new ones. If you wanted to get sharpenable pencils, you could only get them if you purchased an upgraded desk.

Every once in a while, your lone piece of paper would burst into flames and you would lose all of your notes and have to start over. The unexplainable combustion would be written off as a lesson about the gravity of saving one's work. Starting over would start by pressing the "Start" button, obviously.

Sometimes, you would use the stapler and the phone would immediately ring. It would be a prescription-pill-consumption marketing firm who got your number from the stapler, which is mysteriously connected to millions of phones all over the world. Disconnecting from these phones would require removing the staples from the stapler. Your single-extension, rotary-dial telephone would sound a busy signal for the duration of the staple extraction process.

Periodically, one of your desk's legs would rot off, eaten through by an unseen wood fungus. The leg would have to be replaced, or you could hire a carpenter to disinfect the wooden components of the desk every couple of days. Alternatively, you could rebuild the whole desk when too much rot had built up.

The desk would have no drawers and no locks. This would be in the interests of keeping your life convenient — no need to remember a key to open the desk. Unfortunately, however, your desk would be bolted to the floor in a high traffic area known to be frequented by miscreants of a criminal disposition. For a fee, you could hire a security guard. For a higher fee, you could hire one who promises not to doze off or get unwittingly sucked into the enticing criminal underworld.

These playful observations aim to point out that one of the fundamental values of the digital desktop is its capacity to emulate the physical desktop. The proximity of the digital desktop to the physical desktop can be used as a measure of productivity. The most productive digital desktop is flexible and configurable and has features much like a time-tested physical desk — like drawers and locks and an inbox and outbox and places to stack papers and store staplers and most importantly, good old fashioned elbow room.

The Linux Paradigm Shift, with respect to the digital desktop, involves these sorts of considerations. Linux has been ready for the desktop for years. However, most digital desktop users are not ready to recognize the constraints and deficiencies of Microsoft's myopic vision. When users stop looking to the Linux desktop as a cheap clone of the Windows desktop, then they will be able to begin a new exploration of how life on the digital desktop has evolved — while they were stuck in traffic on a protracted Windows test drive.

© 2004 Sorrell