Friday, August 08, 2008

IBM Executive To Linux Desktop Developers: 'Stop Copying Windows'

IBM, whose decision to back Linux years ago was a driving force in its adoption by business, called on developers of the open-source operating system to make it more "green" and to stop copying Windows, if they want to see Linux on the desktop.

Bob Sutor, VP of open source and standards at IBM, told attendees of the LinuxWorld Conference in San Francisco, that what the open source community needs to make Linux popular as a desktop OS used by consumers and businesses are "some really good graphic designers."

"Stop copying 2001 Windows. That's not where the usability action is," Sutor said during his afternoon keynote.
- Information Week

Wow ! I suspect most reactions are going to be predictable. The real problem though, might be that "some really good graphic designers" are not the only factor that could result in a great Linux desktop. Linux development is now heavily influenced by corporations that are not known for any great user facing design efforts. Great UI work does not seem to lend itself to the kind of distributed development style that has made many open source projects successful. Successful open source projects which are usable by the ordinary user are few and far between. Good UI requires a different mindset as John Gruber explained once in an excellent post:

UI development is the hard part. And it’s not the last step, it’s the first step. In my estimation, the difference between:

  • software that performs function X; and
  • software that performs function X, with an intuitive well-designed user interface
isn’t just a little bit of extra work. It’s not even twice the work. It’s an entire order of magnitude more work. Developing software with a good UI requires both aptitude and a lot of hard work.


It’s not something every programmer can learn. Most programmers don’t have any aptitude for UI design whatsoever. It’s an art, and like any art, it requires innate ability. You can learn to be a better writer. You can learn to be a better illustrator. But most people can’t write and can’t draw, and no amount of practice or education is going to make them good at it. Improved, yes; good, no.

Conversely, some people who are good UI designers aren’t programmers. But the rock stars are the guys who can do both, and they are few and far between.

If there’s a glib, nutshell synopsis for why Linux desktop software tends to suck, it’s this: Raymond and his ilk have no respect for anyone but themselves.

They have no respect for the fact that UI design is a special talent.

They have no respect for the fact that good UI design requires a tremendous amount of time and effort.

And, most importantly, they have no respect at all for real users. The idea that GUI software needs to be designed for “dumb users” — which is Raymond’s own term, and an indication of what he really means when he refers to dear old A.T. — is completely wrong.

Great software developers don’t design for morons. They design for smart, perceptive people — people just like themselves. They have profound respect for their users.


Movies are collaborative art, but require strong direction. So it is with end user software.
Gruber's post is so good, that I run the risk of reproducing it in its entirety.


Anonymous said...

Your comments about becoming good at something are fixed-mindset. Dr. Carol Dweck's "Mindset" is worth reading.

Anonymous said...

I also wish Linux developers would not try to imitate Windows so much. For instance, as far as system administration goes, the best user interface I know of are text files plus really good documentation. OpenBSD is so much better than Linux with Gnome or KDE in this respect. One really does not need to be an expert to use a text editor and understand clear, well-written instructions. By assuming that the computer will be administered by the proverbial "grandma", we have ruined it for average users, let alone technically inclined ones.

Rams said...

anon 1:
I heard Carol Dweck on a podcast once and listened again recently. I am very impressed.

But, please note that "fixed-mindset" remark is made by John Gruber, not me.

I suspect that the half baked UI designers in the FOSS community have such bloated egos that they may not even be aware of it. You cannot get into a growth mindset unless you admit you have a problem.

anon 2:
"By assuming that the computer will be administered by the proverbial "grandma", we have ruined it for average users, let alone technically inclined ones."

Great observation and completely true.