Once again, users and developers all around the Linux desktop community have been provoked by controversial comments from Linus Torvalds, creator and long-time maintainer of the Linux kernel. Back in October, Linus dubbed GNOME 3 an “unholy mess”, referring to one of the changes as “crazy crap” and demanding “I want my sane interfaces back”. Since then he has gone even further, contending that “for some people, a stable, flexible functional desktop environment is far more important than the latest eye candy or trendy minimalist UI design.”
Reaction from the desktop development community has been swift and mostly unapologetic. Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Canonical, responded “Once again, Linus is underestimating the importance of aesthetics in computing. You only have to look at Apple to see that people place more importance on visual beauty than the kind of efficient work processes that a flexible and reliable desktop environment enable. This is why we’re pushing our new Unity launcher as a mandatory part of Ubuntu. We’re confident that people will quickly overcome the initial shock of everything taking longer to find and access because they’ll be too busy admiring how beautiful it looks.” He then cited the latest 11.10 release as an example of this. “If you look in the release notes for [Oneiric Ocelot], you’ll see a new Alt+Tab switcher at the top of the list of highlights, and below it other radical changes such as renaming ‘Places’ to ‘Lenses’. Frankly, most people lap up this whizzbang shit, and as long as it looks cooler than their friend’s Windows 7 netbook they’ll be willing to tolerate some minor annoyances which are unavoidable when making immature software a critical component of the desktop. Sure, we could prioritise boring bug-fixing over innovation, but that just doesn’t excite the teenagers on the web forums, and we have to think about the next generation of users. Besides, if you want a dumbed down system that mostly works, there’s always Mac OS X.”
Havoc Pennington, a GNOME developer well-known for initiating the war on Linux desktop flexibility by drastically reducing the number of preferences and replacing GNOME’s default window manager, the high-performance scriptable Sawfish, with Metacity, commented: “It’s about achieving the right work/play balance. If your desktop allowed you to get stuff done too quickly, it would just increase your stress levels. Some ‘power’ users think they want to be able to stream-line their workflows, but we know better, so we are doing them a favour by making this customizability harder. After all, everyone needs basically the same things. Rather than trying to be different, these people should instead learn to enjoy the cute visuals and focus more on having fun. Life’s more than just work, work, work, you know.”
The KDE camp has been slightly less vociferous, perhaps because it’s old hat for them – back in 2008 they pioneered the concept of intrusive redesigns and ended up the wrong end of one of Linus’ rants as a result. “With KDE 4.0, we did our best to prevent people achieving real work, and I think we largely succeeded”, one of the KDE team leaders recalls. “I mean, there was a significant period of time where neither the KDE3 version of knetworkmanager nor its KDE4 rewrite worked properly, so for many wireless networks, the only way you could connect was to disable NetworkManager and write a shell-script to interface directly with wpa-supplicant and ifup. And that’s just one small example.”
Despite Torvalds’ comments, the move towards form over function has been witnessed elsewhere outside the desktop software space. For example, Apple have introduced the MacWheel, a move so bold that it makes innovations such as Unity and the GNOME Shell look positively conservative. However there is no clear industry-wide consensus; in fact companies such as Ebay and Sony are beginning to experiment with rejecting both form and function, turning conventional wisdom on its head.