User friendly Free Software Desktops (was: Very Worried at MS .net)

Josef Dalcolmo dalcolmo at
Wed Jul 18 10:14:52 UTC 2001

The discussion about GUIs may be important, however user friendliness is not 
just a GUI issue. I try to make here a point as a normal, non-expert user. As 
far as the GUI aspects go, there isn't much difference between MSWin and 
Gnome/Enlightenment or so - at least from the user perspective. But from a 
System usability perspective is there is a HUGE difference. I am personally 
using Debian, and I am not a programmer. I spend about 10 times as much time 
on figuring out how to configure something in Debian than in Windows (X setup, 
networking even, PCMCIA, printing to name a few). I had to back down from 
trying to install Woody twice, because the new XFree4 server doesn't support 
my video card yet (Rage mobility P). That backing down was all but simple.

When installing Debian, I never know which packages of many equally appealing 
ones I should use. Choice is nice, but it takes a while to figure out which 
packages are ancient, which new, which ones have the features I need, which 
ones work together which which others. And then, the HOWTOs are not even 
linked into the online help system on Debian, although that is what I need to 
read all the time. Some of the HOWTOs are outdated, even to the point of 
giving wrong info. Some do not apply to Debian (like the kernel compilation 
one) but there is no hint to that in the HOWTO, only a README somewhere else, 
where I had to stumble across it.

SuSE seems to have taken this issue seriously, with YaST, but unfortunately 
with a proprietary solution (and perhaps not really the right way too. Certain 
conf files, when edited manually are simply overwritten by YaST. I don't think 
that is the right way to do it).

As a user, my main concern is also with the question: how do I do this or that 
on my nice new Linux system, and where do I find the info I need. The info may 
be there, but is outdated, often written for experts, multiple locations with 
incompatible system references etc. Compared to Win2000, there is a world of 
difference!. The Help system there is really good, and points you as a 
non-programmer user rather quickly to the solution.

As a user I am also forced to use MS Word files, because my colleagues use it. 
So, rather than telling them: use Tex, I need to run that other OS in 
parallel, with no way to drag-and-drop between it and my Linux applications. 
That is one of the main reasons why many of my colleagues do not use Linux but 
Windows, even though they dislike Windows and the Company behind it. Win4Lin 
is a so-so solution to this (no drag and drop with Linux based software), but 
again a proprietary one (and the company hasn't even bothered yet to support 
Debian). If the .net technology (or dotGNU) will allow Windows apps to be run 
under Linux, than that will give many a path towards Linux.

Linux has the disadvantage of many competing, incompatible distributions with 
many pieces of documentation. Although it is possible to configure a nice, 
more or less uniform system, it is by no means an easy task. THIS is where it 
needs improvement (especially Debian), not the GUI (although it would be nice 
if ALL major applications were cut and paste compatible and would print in a 
uniform fashion.

There was also a time when installing a package on Linux was more 
straightforward than on Windows (configure, make). Since the advent of the 
Windows installer this is the other way around. Nowadays I have always to 
worry if I have all the libraries I need as well as if they are all compatible 
with my system. With Debian that seems to be solved, but the fact is that 
2.2R3 uses a lot of rather old libraries already, and the newer ones are not 
necessarily compatible with my system. Again, OK for an expert, but far from 
it for a normal user.

- Josef

lord_inh at said:
> Bernhard Reiter wrote:
> On Tue, Jul 17, 2001 at 10:11:34AM +0100, markj at
>  wrote:
> > > What we need to really start focusing on is coming up with new
> ideas for
> > > improving user friendliness IMHO.
> Ever checked out XFCE and Gnustep?
> >
> Gnustep aims to recreate the features of the most user- and
> developer friendly system I have ever seen. The project is almost
> ignored in the public, but they make steady progress.

> This is the thing. They're mostly copying Apple, not providing the
> sorts of major new innovations we need in order to outdo Microsoft,
> Apple, and BeOS in terms of useability. We do need to imitate the
> successful GUIs, but we also need to introduce brand new ideas of our
> own. 

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