What Makes a Classic Linux Desktop 'Classic'?

Tuesday Feb 18th 2014 by Bruce Byfield
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Why are classic desktops the most popular choice among Linux users?

Based on the figures in LinuxQuestions' Members Choice Awards, 84% of Linux desktop users prefer a classic desktop. By contrast, innovations like GNOME 3 or Ubuntu's Unity lag far behind. Which raises the question: what accounts for the popularity of the classic desktop, and what are the implications for the design of graphical interfaces?

Mostly, a classical desktop is defined as whatever you point at when you use the term. In the case of the LinuxQuestions Awards, I mean Cinnamon, KDE, LXDE, MATE, Trinity, and Xfce. I include KDE because, despite numerous innovations, its interface begins with a classical desktop.

Conversely, I exclude GNOME 3 and Unity because by default they deliberately omit major elements that all the desktops include that I would classify as classical: a single screen, a menu, and applets and/or icons to customize the panel and desktop.

To be sure, GNOME 3 uses part of the panel like a taskbar to show running applications, while a classical pager for virtual work spaces can be added to Unity. Yet by a quorum definition, neither qualifies as a classical desktop -- too many expected features are missing or transformed out of recognition.

Both GNOME 3 and Unity are interesting exercises in design, with innovations that classical desktops might benefit from borrowing. But, at the risk of inviting flames from the enthusiasts for both, I think it obvious that neither attracts the same kind of loyalty as the classical desktop does in all its manifestations. Users turn poetic praising the classical desktop, describing it as the epitome of design perfection with an enthusiasm that GNOME and Unity supporters rarely match.

Why is it about the classic desktop that inspires such loyalty -- such hyperbole, I am tempted to say? Now that the age of user revolts has passed and the Linux desktop has settled down into an era of diversity, the time to ask that question seems overdue.

Intuitive Conservatism

Perhaps the most common description of a classical desktop is "intuitive." Unfortunately, that description expresses nothing except preference.

I can't help remembering the outrage when Windows 95 placed the menu at the bottom left of the screen instead of the more obvious upper right. Many claimed that the position was only chosen to avoid accusations of copying the Mac's much older classical desktop. Yet, since then, I have often heard the lower left of the screen described by some as the intuitive position for the menu.

From examples like that, I infer that intuitive is often a synonym for "familiar." Perhaps if any feature is around long enough, someone will eventually call it intuitive, regardless of how they initially reacted to it.

Still, the comfort of the familiar seems only part of the answer. Users of classic desktops are not completely opposed to change. Today, many classic desktops have abandoned the cascading menu for one constrained within a single window, and, while the change is not to everybody's taste, the objections have been relatively minor.

Nor, as both KDE and Linux Mint demonstrate, do users have any problem with interfaces that provide a classical desktop then go on to include extensions of it such as corner hot spots. As might be expected, users simply use the features they want and ignore the rest.

Dismissing fans of the classical desktop as conservative might be convenient for those who are watching their new ideas receive a chilly reception, and to an extent they may be right. Yet clearly, conservatism or habit are only the beginning of the explanation.

Screen Space, Swiss Army Knives, and Customization

At first, the idea that the desktops I have labeled classic have anything in common may seem absurd. What could LXDE with its small footprint in memory have to do with KDE and its databases? Or the GNOME 2 MATE, the GNOME 2 fork, with KDE, its long-time rival?

However, for all their differences, the classic desktops have at least three general design principles in common:

To begin with, a classical desktop makes better use than its rivals do of the available screen space on a workstation or a laptop. Pick almost any task and count the number of keystrokes or mouse-clicks it takes to accomplish, and you will find that on a classical desktop can be done with fewer than on any alternative.

Heavily influenced by the interfaces of mobile devices and, in Unity's case, of a vision of a common interface across different form factors, GNOME and Unity frequently fail to make full use of the space available on a full-sized terminal. They bury administrative apps deeper in the interface than is necessary, and they require shifts to another screen for tasks such as searching through a menu. By comparison, a classical interface places almost every utility and app no more than two or three clicks from the top, and upon a single screen.

Second, classic desktops are generalist desktops. They make few assumptions about the expertise of users or how they work -- much less about how they could work better. Instead, they provide a set of basic tools, and leave users to work how they see fit.

By contrast, both Unity and GNOME were designed with the assumption that they could improve how users worked. GNOME 3, for example, is supposed to make it easy "for users to focus on their current task and reduces distraction and interruption."

That sounds reasonable in theory. However, in practice it translates into opening most windows full-size, removing customization from the desktop, and reserving the panel entirely for system purposes, all of which makes multi-tasking vastly more difficult.

The result is a desktop that is much more efficient than a classical desktop -- but only for those whose habits happen to match those that GNOME 3 enforces. For others, it is considerably less efficient. Instead of learning a new way to work, users are likely to feel themselves working against the desktop to a much greater degree than with a classical desktop.

While a classical desktop is unlikely to be optimized for any given habits, it has the advantage of almost never being completely unsuited for any habit. In KDE's case, the interface will even provide an alternative menu or system settings dialogue window for users who dislike the default.

The difference is that of a special tool versus a Swiss army knife. The specialized tool only works well when you use it for the purpose it is intended, while the Swiss army knife, as clumsy as it can be, works well-enough for all purposes.

However, by far the most important aspect of classical desktops is that they allow extensive customization. A couple of months ago, when I asked experienced users why they chose KDE, almost all of them mentioned customization. I have often heard the same from those working from other GUIs. The situation may be different on Windows or the Mac, but Linux users apparently have a long habit of preferring to do things their way – which is as strong on the desktop as it is at the command prompt.

This preference is not exactly a revelation. Yet one of the goals of alternative interfaces -- at least originally -- has been to reduce the amount of possible configuration, subordinating user preferences to a vision of branding, or as GNOME describes it, "a consistent and recognizable visual identity." Similarly, users' preferences for widgets and desktop icons were removed or reduced in number.

Perhaps the decision to reduce customization may have spared a few new users option anxiety -- the sense of being overwhelmed by too many choices. Yet whether option anxiety is a major issue on classical desktops seems questionable, since new users can always stay with the defaults until they feel ready to explore. But, as might have been predicted, the reaction to the reduction of options were extensions and utilities that replaced much of the missing configurability. In fact, today extensions make GNOME one of the most customizable Linux desktops available.

The Flexibility of the Well-Adapted Good Enough

The classical desktop is not a particularly ergonomic interface. As the designers of GNOME and Unity observed independently, it can often be improved upon for a given sense of assumptions.

Yet, at the same time, the classical desktop has advantages that should not be thrown away without serious thought. Well adapted to its niche of traditional computing, good enough for most purposes, and highly configurable for personal tastes, the classical desktop still retains an edge over alternatives.

True, a classical desktop would hardly work as a phone interface. Yet if it is rarely ideal, it still gives readers more of what they want than anything that has been designed so far to take its place.

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