Category Archives: Desktops

Annoying by design

Microsoft claim that their UAC secur­ity prompts in Vista are designed to annoy you. I’m try­ing hard to take them ser­i­ously and to not laugh them off… but did they really think it’d work? OEMs and users have been dis­abling it in droves. Other users have prob­ably taught their muscle memory to auto­mat­ic­ally click the Continue/​Allow but­ton without the slight­est acknow­ledge­ment or thought. I think Microsoft need to get their act together when it comes to UIs. Some of their recent efforts have been frus­trat­ingly incon­sist­ent.

A major reason given by Microsoft in their UAC scan­dal was to encour­age developers to avoid priv­ilege elev­a­tions as much as pos­sible. A noble cause, espe­cially in the security-​​inexperienced world of Win­dows devel­op­ment, albeit poorly executed. It reminds me of Apple’s per­petual oppos­i­tion to the multi-​​button mouse. One stated reason is to enforce more ‘sane’, ‘usable’ and con­sist­ent UI design, and over­all I think they’ve done well. They don’t ban multi-​​button mice (‘XY-​​PIDSes’?), but given the simple one-​​button default there’s less need for them. I might prefer using a con­ven­tional 3-​​button scroll mouse, or even Apple’s own Mighty Mouse (a cleverly-​​disguised multi-​​button mouse), but I don’t lose any func­tion­al­ity by not using them.

It goes to show how much the graph­ical inter­face can be influ­enced by its phys­ical input, some­thing a lot of us don’t acknow­ledge in today’s world of >100-​​key QWERTY key­boards, multi-​​button mice and multi-​​finger touch­pads. The real innov­a­tion in that space seems to be hap­pen­ing in the mobile and embed­ded sec­tor, the iPhone being a good example. Play­ers of games on both desktop com­puters and games con­soles might notice the dif­fer­ence in ‘look and feel’ between games designed for keyboard/​mouse versus con­trol pad. Par­tic­u­larly for action and strategy games, ports from desktop to con­sole (or vice versa) often aren’t suc­cess­ful. The soft­ware was designed with the assump­tion of par­tic­u­lar input devices, and any­thing that devi­ates from this will also alter the feel of the game.

LotD: Your Win­dows licence fees paid to make this


I have been com­pletely floored by Ubuntu’s new Migra­tion Assist­ant. It’s cer­tainly some­thing that we have needed in the FLOSS world for a long time. Any­thing we can do to reduce migrat­ory hurdles is by all means welcome.

To play devil’s advoc­ate, how­ever, I’d like to point out a defi­ciency of such migra­tion tools. To take an estab­lished example, wit­ness Moz­illa Fire­fox on Win­dows. When you first start it, you are greeted with a friendly wiz­ard to port set­tings and book­marks from Inter­net Explorer. If, like most people, you allow it to pro­ceed, it will replace the carefully-​​selected default Fire­fox book­marks (not to men­tion the awe­some BBC Head­lines live book­mark) with those from IE. The res­ult can be a cluttered, advertising-​​laden (Win­dows Mar­ket­place, any­one?) mon­stro­city that has lost the sim­pli­city and ori­ginal intent of the product being loaded.

The Ubuntu Migra­tion Assist­ant poten­tially raises this application-​​level mis­de­mean­our to an OS-​​level atro­city. As this review of the util­ity demon­strates, even the Tele­tu­b­bies wall­pa­per of Win­dows XP can be migrated with ease, not to men­tion the afore­men­tioned book­marks. This can ruin the inten­ded look and feel of the OS, thus pre­vent­ing the user from exper­i­en­cing the OS in a clean, ‘pristine’ state.

Is this a good or a bad thing? I’m not sure, but what I do know is that the design­ers of this tool should be care­ful to select default set­tings which do not unne­ces­sar­ily alter the user exper­i­ence. Tread care­fully.

LotD: Linux Genu­ine Advant­age

Sydney Moodle Conference

I wrote this back in Octo­ber, and for some silly reason I for­got to post it. Bet­ter late than never, I say. emoticon

It seems that every couple of weeks I’m at some kind of FLOSS-​​related event. You just can’t keep me away from them! They may require a lot of work, but it cer­tainly feels reward­ing to get the word out. This is espe­cially so in regards to the edu­ca­tional sec­tor. Chil­dren are our future, and they are gen­er­ally more will­ing than your aver­age adult to learn new and dif­fer­ent things. It is an educator’s job to impart know­ledge, and it is the duty of any respect­able edu­ca­tional insti­tu­tion to facil­it­ate a free and open flow of know­ledge. What bet­ter way to achieve this than with free software?

This concept was not lost on the eduact­ors, par­ents and stu­dents at the Sydney Edu­ca­tion Expo in June, and I’m proud to say that we man­aged to rep­lic­ate that suc­cess at the Sydney Moodle Con­fer­ence on Octo­ber 1415 (Sat­urday and Sunday). Once again, I manned the Linux Australia/​SLUG stand, join­ing Pia Waugh, Lind­say Holm­wood and Andreas Fisc­her. The SLUG Com­mit­tee stopped by for a while, too.

Whereas most people at the Edu­ca­tion Expo were unfa­mil­iar with FLOSS, many of the attendees of the Moodle Con­fer­ence had some idea about it. Moodle itself is avail­able under the terms of the GPL, and many com­pan­ies and schools have become part of its user/​development/​support com­munity. All we had to do was to remind them that we rep­res­ent the under­ly­ing FLOSS con­cepts that have made Moodle so great, and that Moodle func­tions in con­cert with other FLOSS pro­jects such as Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP.

The response was over­whelm­ing. We were pre­pared to hand out a truck­load of Ubuntu CDs, only to dis­cover that most attendees had already been sup­plied with one as part of their offi­cial con­fer­ence kit. That didn’t stop us from dis­trib­ut­ing many more, though. We had one fel­low so excited about FLOSS on Sat­urday that he brought along his laptop the next day for an impromptu Ubuntu install­fest. We demon­strated a range of tech­no­lo­gies, includ­ing Compiz and Ink­s­cape. Vis­it­ors were impressed with the ease of the Ubuntu LiveCD installer, and with how Moodle can be installed (com­plete with depend­en­cies) in only a few clicks via Synaptic.

Most inter­est­ing for me was the Live Online Event, which was a panel dis­cus­sion on-​​stage in front of about 150 people. Pia was slated to rep­res­ent the LA/​OSIA point of view, but was forced to bow out due to other com­mit­ments. Much to my sur­prise, she asked me to fill in for her. So there I was, on-​​stage, in front of well over 100 people, field­ing ques­tions while being recor­ded and streamed live over the Inter­net. I had never done any­thing like that before, but I think I went reas­on­ably well. Pub­lic speak­ing and gen­eral spoken com­mu­nic­a­tion are cer­tainly skills that I would like to fur­ther exer­cise in the future. Thanks for your sup­port, Pia! emoticon

The topic which dom­in­ated the panel dis­cus­sion, and one which I had been pre­vi­ously unaware of, con­cerned how far soft­ware pat­ents had intruded into the realm of edu­ca­tional soft­ware. Moodle-​​competitor Black­board has been issued an appalling pat­entfor tech­no­logy used for internet-​​based edu­ca­tion sup­port sys­tems and meth­ods.” I was some­what relieved to see that Mar­tin Dou­gia­mas, Moodle’s founder and pro­ject leader, was not con­cerned at all by this event, at least as far as Moodle was con­cerned. Nev­er­the­less, the spectre of soft­ware pat­ents has been loom­ing over FLOSS for some time now, and it is still very unclear if/​how the situ­ation will ever be resolved.

Microsoft: Brown is the new White

Microsoft have announced their Zune music/​video player to take on Apple’s iPod. Like Apple, they con­sider col­our to be an import­ant dif­fer­en­ti­ator in the mar­ket­place. With white hav­ing been co-​​opted by Apple, and black being the gen­eric (and hence indis­tinct­ive) hue, what does that leave Microsoft?

Appar­ently, it is brown.

Once again, Ubuntu is vin­dic­ated! What’s next, naked people?

Selling ice to an Eskimo

Steve “Real­ity Dis­tor­tion Field” Jobs has delivered his key­note address to Apple’s World Wide Developer Con­fer­ence (WWDC). It’s amaz­ing what he would have us believe. Apple has appar­ently inven­ted vir­tual desktops. What does Microsoft have to say about it, given they applied for a pat­ent on the tech­no­logy in 2004 (com­plete with images ripped out of GNOME and KDE!)? Let’s just for­get that they have exis­ted since at least 1985, shall we?

That aside, I am heartened to see that OpenDar­win did not close their doors a couple of weeks ago in vain. Apple them­selves are spon­sor­ing Mac OS Forge, and in the pro­cess they have made read­ily avail­able the source code for Bon­jour, Col­lab­or­a­tion (Dar­win Cal­en­dar Server), Web­Kit (which is really just KHTML on ster­oids any­way), Launchd and even their XNU ker­nel (minus some essen­tial pro­pri­et­ary parts). They have even licensed some of these pro­jects under the Apache Licence 2.0. I pray that this sig­ni­fies the start of a new era of col­lab­or­a­tion between Apple and the FLOSS com­munity, and not just a cheap attempt to con­trib­ute the min­imum amount required to keep the bulk of the com­munity on-​​side.

So with Tiger being favour­ably com­pared to the forever-​​delayed Win­dows Vista, what does that make Leo­pard? Mac OS just gets bet­ter and bet­ter, while the Win­dows débâcle is far from over. With screw-​​ups such as this , it’s no won­der that Microsoft feels the need to prevent/​destroy all com­pet­i­tion.


Update (20060813): Here is a much more sober eval­u­ation of the so-​​called ‘copy­ing’ going on between Mac OS and Win­dows. It puts everything into more per­spect­ive, show­ing that some of their killer fea­tures in fact ori­gin­ated else­where. It reminds me of a funny quo­ta­tion: “Mac OS, Win­dows, BeOS: they’re all just Xerox cop­ies.

As much as Paul Thur­rott likes to claim that Spot­light is a copy of Win­dows Search, Apple had the same func­tion­al­ity in the mid-​​1990s with its Cop­land Pro­ject.

Mockups & KDE4

KDE4 devel­op­ment is under­way, and users and developers are hav­ing their say on how it should look. One thing that irks me is when someone posts a mockup of some ‘new’ idea, when in fact that idea is just lif­ted from some­where else. I have no prob­lem with deriv­a­tion or inspir­a­tion from else­where (that’s how soft­ware evolves, after all), but for ghod’s sake please don’t pass off some other idea as your own.

Take for example this mockup. Look at the file browser. Can you say Win­dows Vista? Some per­son, whom I pray is not a Kon­queror developer, was so enam­oured with it that he cre­ated an inter­act­ive ver­sion.

I’m not say­ing that it is unat­tract­ive, but I don’t under­stand why this sort of blind copy­ing takes place. I’ll admit that graphic design isn’t one of FLOSS’s strong points, but with that said we do have some truly innov­at­ive and beau­ti­ful designs. Amarok comes to mind.