Documenting Problems That Were Difficult To Find The Answer To

Have Desktop GUIs Matured?

After watching a review of Windows 8 – and thinking about my personal experiences with Windows 7, Vista, XP, NT 4.0, Windows 2000, and Windows 95 – it occurred to me that the desktop GUI has probably reached a point where radical changes are probably inappropriate for this day and age.

Unusual Aircraft Design

Unusual Aircraft Design

When you think about other products and their development – such as the car and aeroplane – you can see that the historical development included some wild and fanciful ideas – some horribly inefficient designs – but a lot of variety. There were biplanes and triplanes, 3-wheel vehicles, thin tyres and wide tyres. Nowadays cars are pretty much the same design – 4 wheels, very similar engine types, generally similar window layout, etc. Planes are very similar to each other, too.

Isn’t this the order of discoveries? Wild experimentation until a few essentially-agreed optimisations are made – and then the process becomes more an evolution than revolution – with refinements being made.

And this is a story of the evolution of the desktop user interface on computers, too, hasn’t it! Windows 3.1 (and the Windows before it) was something radical – multiple windows giving the illusion of being able to do several things at the same time on a single computer!

Remember Windows 95 and the endless repetition of “Start Me Up” (by the Rolling Stones) adverts? Yet Windows 95 was a leap forward in usability on the desktop. Having a start button was a great idea and emulated in other desktops (such as GNOME for Linux).

Windows NT 4.0 was an advance on Windows 95 with more process protection and serious API support. But in most ways very similar to Windows 95 in terms of user interface.

Windows XP seemed to be the pinnacle of Windows desktop design. It was the most functional Windows ever released.

Then came Windows Vista. I remember just wanting to scream and curse at my laptop computer that came bundled with Vista. So many things just “didn’t work” any more. It seemed that a generation of Microsoft developers had died out and a fresh wave of kids with no idea what advances had been made in desktop design had taken control. My pet hate was the User Access Control bringing up a modal window that was hidden – and I had to learn to alt-tab to find that modal window – before I could do anything else on the computer.

Windows 7 fixed a bunch of usability problems in Windows Vista. However what happened to the Start button? When you click on “All Programs” you no longer get a large window showing all your program folders! You just get a narrow short window with a scroll bar – requiring a bunch of extra clicks and gestures to get to that program you wanted. And there’s no option to restore that useful functionality that we came to expect in 3 generations of Microsoft desktop.

Windows 8 threatens to remove a lot of existing functionality in an effort to offer a vastly different user interface. But this is like throwing away everything we’ve learned about aircraft design in an effort to appeal to travellers. Why!?

We’re in a commercial age where no profit can come out of improving desktop design. Instead the only commercial option companies have is to throw out outlandish revolutionary ideas that discard the best of what we’ve come accustomed to. It’s wrong to imply that consumers who want the old are dinosaurs – far from it. They were often early adopters who went through the pain of the past to learn what worked and what didn’t. And now they are being forced into a radical experimental phase again?!

The solution must be something like XFCE for Linux. It is a stable desktop design. With multiple desktops! Even Windows 8 still cannot offer that.

Sure; the mobile and tablet space is new. Radical experimentation is required because we don’t yet know what really works and what doesn’t. Hence we have Android, Apple, and Microsoft Mobile Windows 8 all competing in that space. Which is necessary for this early stage of such a product’s life. Because we don’t know, yet, what will win out in terms of superior design. Unfortunately design and software patents threaten to permanently hobble the mobile space from ever achieving the best in ideas as commercial giants and greedy judiciaries squabble over who has the rights to what ideas.

But Microsoft: stop retarding Windows for the desktop. I know you’re desperate for piles of more cash. I know you’re desperate for a slice of lucky Apple’s pie. And by all means go seeking the stupid consumer that needs to be a slave to fashion. But appreciate and celebrate the stability of the Windows desktop. It’s a good thing that companies want to stay on Windows XP forever. Treating it as otherwise will set us all back until we learn to adopt Linux as our desktop.

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