Stupid Users or "The User, Stupid"?

by David Penn

Despite the increasingly manifest reality that the Linux operating system will find its happiest home in the server and embedded markets, the effort to make Linux personal computers continues unabated. Whether by pre-installing Linux on boxes made by others or by designing easier and easier ways for ordinary end users to install and use Linux on their own, developers in the Linux community are determined to create a Linux PC that, as the saying goes, even your grandmother could operate.

So, who better than veterans of Apple Computer and America On-Line to spearhead an effort to lower the Linux bar even further for those who want to, but believe they can't, jump over to the other side?

Eazel is the name of the latest company to join the Linux/desktop/GUI fray. A start-up founded by former executives and evangelists from both Apple Computer and America On-Line (two companies simultaneously praised and ridiculed for the ease-of-use they have brought to the personal computer and the Internet, respectively), Eazel is in the process of developing a graphical user interface which they believe will help bring hundreds, if not thousands, of additional "average computer users" to the world of Linux.

Linux already comes with either (or both) of two popular graphical user interfaces: KDE and GNOME. A variety of other interfaces are available, although some are more obscure than others. Additionally, both Corel and MandrakeSoft have released versions of Linux that have been touted especially for their ease of use.

But for the end user who may opine "I don't care what GUI you put on it! Just save me from a world criss-crossed with command lines!", the discussion and comparison of graphical user interfaces affords an opportunity to understand more about the thinking that goes into designing ways to make working with personal computers "easier". After all, one end user's ease can quickly become another end user's agony. More than simply counting "yeas" and "nays" on a feature-by-feature basis, those trying to please as many of the people as often as they can may first have to go in a direction that, in the short term, pleases very few end users at all.

From the point of view of Linux and the desktop, there is little that's more important than, as Mike Kuniavsky recently put it, "the user, stupid". While it is true that Linux will ultimately be to the desktop what Tang was to early manned space flight (i.e., a tactical rather than strategic relationship), it is equally true that "the desktop" is largely the platform from which both learning Linux and developing Linux takes place. So it is not surprising that the development of Linux GUIs veers between the feature-laden and the lean 'n mean. But even here, Linux has advantages over, for example, its Apple- and Windows-oriented peers. At least, those working with this open-source operating system have the option of choosing the GUI that best fits their computer use, as well as configuring and customizing that GUI until it is a virtual tailor fit.

An excellent discussion of the current progress and relative merits of the two primary Linux GUIs, namely KDE and GNOME, is provided in the Linux Journal's February issue, which focuses on Linux on the desktop. One of the pieces, KDE--The Next Generation by Kalle Dalheimer, looks at the coming release of KDE 2.0 and the increased Java support, customization options and multimedia applications of the new version. The article GNOME, Its State and Future by George Lebl, Elliot Lee and Miguel de Icaza, discusses not only the development of GNOME as a desktop environment since the release of "October GNOME", but also the developer environment of the GNOME project, and how the effort to "make UNIX attractive and easy to use" has led the GNOME development team to spend as much time in developing libraries and tools for application development within the desktop environment they are building.

And for an introduction to the subject, I strongly encourage you to read Linux Journal Editor in Chief, Marjorie Richardson's article, "Linux on the Desktop" which, among other things, weighs in on the KDE vs. GNOME debate and the value of choice.

N.B. Biz Soup for this week has been canceled. Information on upcoming programs will be available soon.

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