Monday, August 20, 2001

Why Gnome and KDE are misguided Back in 1987, John M. Carroll and Mary Beth Rosson published "Paradox of the active user". The Apple Lisa had just been introduced, and researchers were interested in observing how normal people used computers. Carroll and Rosson studied users and observed that 1) people don't read manuals and 2) once they figure out how to achieve an effect, they will not change their protocol even if doing things a different way would save the time and effort. This behavior is paradoxical because automating repetitive tasks, and using pre-built shortcuts would save users time overall.

This paradox is killing computer productivity now. In the pre-network days, the value of a PC rose when you bought a printer for it. Before, all you could really do was play games, but now you could type letters, create spreadsheets, and basically use the computer to do useful tasks because you could share the results. This has all changed in the network world, the value of the PC is now determined by the speed of the Internet connection it has. I care about checking my email, not printing things out.

Unfortunately, all the basic PC software comes from the pre-network age, where the computer was a machine that converted bits (digital data) into atoms (paper) through a printer. Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and much of Access are all built around the idea that bits are most useful when converted to atoms. Outlook, even though it was built for email, betrays its paper-centric heritage through it's obsession with formatting, inability to pipe plaintext in (or out), and general, monolithic architecture. In the PC world it was OK for a program to be aggressive in what it tries to do and conservative with what input it accepted. In the networked world, exactly the opposite holds true. But because of the active user paradox, most people have no idea how unproductive they are on their computers. They're like frogs in boiling water.

Who knows how to organize workflow and use a computer in the networked world? Unix users, of course, whose design philosophy, toolset, and culture grew out of the Internet itself, instead of having connectivity features bolted on. Small, stable programs passing plaintext between each other works well over a network, creating flexible, powerful, and simple systems. Unix has great text editors (better than desk top publishing packages), email clients (better than personal information management applications), search tools (grep vs. Windows search), and file management (standard Unix heirarchy vs. Windows Explorer). In short, email, list-servs, bulletin boards, and a simple (plaintext) file heirarchy searchable with grep are better tools in a networked environment than Microsoft's paper-era suite. Moreover, the Unix environment also gives users many tools to automate away repetitive tasks and capture productivity (and competitive advantage) over those who don't. Windows has yet to offer a decent text editor.

The great irony is that just as Microsoft is bolting on more and more network features onto it's paper-centric PC system, the Unix world, which has already figured out how to operate in a networked environment has forgotten its heritage and is struggling to recreate the tired old desktop suite on Linux. While Linux may need the equivelent of Word to grow in today's desktop market, it's ludicrous for them to forget all the tools needed to operate in a networked environment. Unix users have already done all the intellectual heavy lifting in this area, and should port that thinking to the GUI instead of creating shadows of paper-era applications.

Mark Hurst developed a system he called the "Good Easy" that basically took the Unix design philosophy and ported it to a Mac OS 9 GUI (he calls his idea behind this "bit literacy"). Basically the Good Easy consists of five key applications (email, browser, calender, text editor, and file manager) that swap plaintext between each other (using cut and paste). This Unix pipe-style feature is created by tying each application to a function key and using those to switch between them. When using the system, I literally do not notice what program I was in at any particular moment, I just use the system to get my work done (does any of this sound familiar to Unix folk?) Also, there is a universal spell checker, a text expander (that expands character combinations to longer text strings, e.g. turning "za" into "zimran ahmed", "dt" into today's date etc.), quick-key creator (to automate away repetitive tasks), and search (Sherlock in OS 9 is better than search in Windows Professional, and "find" in the BBEdit text editor is grep).

This system is tied together by a culture that understood how to use the programs as a whole, the technology is simple. Everything is kept in plaintext (email is piped through the text editor to strip out the line breaks and then saved), folder heirarchies are kept flat, and there is a careful naming convention. User created files are kept seperate from application executables, which reduces backing up to dragging a single folder from the desktop to a networked drive. This should all sound familiar to Unix folk, but I noticed it was difficult for Windows people to embrace. They did not understand why plaintext was important, could not shuffle text between applications well, and happily let email pile up in their client instead of moving it to their harddrives (where it could be searched). And forget about automating away repetitve tasks using the text expander and quick-key creator--way too difficult, no matter how much tedium it saves you.

Unix people have already figured out how to manage workflow in a networked, digital environment. Businesses that learn these lessons will have competitive advantage over others. The fact that it seems to be forgotten on Gnome and KDE is a crying shame. You don't have to operate at a command line level or be a programmer to enjoy the productivity benefits Unix offers. A pity this isn't reflected in the GUIs being built.
Link to this column
Configure the Good Easy on your Mac OS 9 (Mark did some great work here)

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