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 14-15 (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 patent "for 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 debacle 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 (2006-08-13): 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.