7 Improvements The Linux Desktop Needs

Tuesday Jun 17th 2014 by Bruce Byfield
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What improvements to the Linux desktop would you add to this list?

In the last fifteen years, the Linux desktop has gone from a collection of marginally adequate solutions to an unparalleled source of innovation and choice. Many of its standard features are either unavailable in Windows, or else available only as a proprietary extension. As a result, using Linux is increasingly not only a matter of principle, but of preference as well.

Yet, despite this progress, gaps remain. Some are missing features, others missing features, and still others pie-in-the sky extras that could be easily implemented to extend the desktop metaphor without straining users' tolerance of change.

For instance, here are 7 improvements that would benefit the Linux desktop:

7. Easy Email Encryption

These days, every email reader from Alpine to Thunderbird and Kmail include email encryption. However, documentation is often either non-existent or poor.

But, even if you understand the theory, the practice is difficult. Controls are generally scattered throughout the configuration menus and tabs, requiring a thorough search for all the settings that you require or want. Should you fail to set up encryption properly, usually you receive no feedback about why.

The closest to an easy process is Enigmail, a Thunderbird extension that includes a setup wizard aimed at beginners. But you have to know about Enigmail to use it, and the menu it adds to the composition window buries the encryption option one level down and places it with other options guaranteed to mystify everyday users.

No matter what the desktop, the assumption is that, if you want encrypted email, you already understand it. Today, though, the constant media references to security and privacy have ensured that such an assumption no longer applies.

6. Thumbnails for Virtual Workspaces

Virtual workspaces offer more desktop space without requiring additional monitors. Yet, despite their usefulness, management of virtual workspaces hasn't changed in over a decade. On most desktops, you control them through a pager in which each workspace is represented by an unadorned rectangle that gives few indications of what might be on it except for its name or number -- or, in the case of Ubuntu's Unity, which workspace is currently active.

True, GNOME and Cinnamon do offer better views, but the usefulness of these views is limited by the fact that they require a change of screens. Nor is KDE's written list of contents, which is jarring in the primarily graphic-oriented desktop.

A less distracting solution might be mouseover thumbnails large enough for those with normal vision to see exactly what is on each workspace.

5. A Workable Menu

The modern desktop long ago outgrew the classic menu with its sub-menus cascading across the screen. Today, the average computer simply has too many applications to fit comfortably into such a format.

The trouble is, neither of the major alternatives is as convenient as the classic menu. Confining the menu into a single window is less than ideal, because you either have to endure truncated sub-menus or else continually resize the window with the mouse.

Yet the alternative of a full-screen menu is even worse. It means changing screens before you even begin to work, and relying on a search field that is only useful if you already know what applications are available -- in which case you are almost better off launching from the command line.

Frankly, I don't know what the solution might be. Maybe spinner racks, like those in OS X? All I can say for certain is that all alternatives for a modern menu make a carefully constructed set of icons on the desktop seem a more reasonable alternative.

4. A Professional, Affordable Video Editor

Over the years, Linux has slowly filled the gaps in productivity software. However, one category in which it is still lacking is in reasonably priced software for editing videos.

The problem is not that such free software is non-existent. After all, Maya is one of the industry standards for animation. The problem is that the software costs several thousand dollars.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are apps like Pitivi or Blender, whose functionality -- despite brave efforts by their developers -- remain basic. Progress happens, but far more slowly than anyone hopes for.

Although I have heard of indie directors using native Linux video editors, the reason I have heard of their efforts is usually because of their complaints. Others prefer to minimize the struggle and edit on other operating systems instead.

3. A Document Processor

At one extreme are users whose need for word processing is satisfied by Google Docs. At the other extreme are layout experts for whom Scribus is the only feasible app.

In-between are those like publishers and technical writers who produce long, text-oriented documents. This category of users is served by Adobe FrameMaker on Windows, and to some extent by LibreOffice Writer on Linux.

Unfortunately, these users are apparently not a priority in LibreOffice, Calligra Words, AbiWord, or any other office suite. Features that would provide for these users include:

  • separate bibliographic databases for each file
  • tables that are treated like styles in the same way that paragraphs and characters are
  • page styles with persistent content other than headers or footers that would appear each time the style is used
  • storable formats for cross-references, so that the structure doesn't need to be recreated manually each time that it is needed

Whether LibreOffice or another application provides these features is irrelevant comparing to whether they are available. Without them, the Linux desktop is an imperfect place for a large class of potential users.

2. Color-Coded Title Bars

Browser extensions have taught me how useful color coded tabs can be for workspaces. The titles of open tabs disappear when more than eight or nine or open, so the color is often the quickest visual guide to the relation between tabs.

The same system could be just as useful on the desktop. Better yet, the color coding might be preserved between sessions, allowing users to open all the apps needed for a specific task at the same time. So far, I know of no desktop with such a feature.

1. Icon Fences

For years, Stardock Systems has been selling a Windows extension called Fences, which lets icons be grouped. You can name each group and move the icons in it together. In addition, you can assign which fence different types of files are automatically added to, and hide and arrange fences as needed.

In other words, fences automate the sort of arrangements that users make on their desktop all the time. Yet aside from one or two minor functions they share with KDE's Folder Views, fences remain completely unknown on Linux desktops. Perhaps the reason is that designers are focused on mobile devices as the source of ideas, and fences are decidedly a feature of the traditional workstation desktop.

Personalized Lists

As I made this list, what struck me was how few of the improvements were general. Several of these improvement would appeal largely to specific audiences, and only one even implies the porting of a proprietary application. At least one is cosmetic rather than functional.

What this observation suggests is that, for the general user, Linux has very little left to add. As an all-purpose desktop, Linux arrive some years ago, and has been diversifying ever since, until today users can choose from over half a dozen major desktops.

None of that means, of course, that specialists wouldn't have other suggestions. In addition, changing needs can make improvements desirable that nobody once cared about. But it does mean that many items on a list of desirable improvements will be highly personal.

All of which raises the question: what other improvements do you think would benefit the desktop?

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