As you probably are well aware, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems have pretty much a) revolutionized and b) utterly dominated the tablet, smart-phone, and mobile arena for some time now. They have managed to crush Palm (much sadness) and Blackberry (ha!) in their climb to the top. Windows mobile doesn’t suck as badly as it has since its inception, but it is still struggling to keep up like a child following its parents through the mall as they shop for “a new suit for mommy so she looks like an executive”.
I suppose a three percent shift in market share means something if you spend your entire sixteen hour day pouring over balance sheets.
Anyway, with Google and Apple eating up so much of the mobile pie and making such a sticky gooey mess with their tablet effluence everyone else moves into ant mode at the picnic. I would like to rant a bit about the three that interest me most out of the ant hill: Unity (from Canonical), Gnome3, and Windows 8.
What they all have in common, and what has annoyed me enough to scribble this out, is that they are all heavily geared toward the tablet and mobile markets. This is great if you are planning to get a new tablet (or similar) with Ubuntu or Windows as the operating system. They will likely make fair alternatives (in time) to those market-dominating contenders mentioned above.
The problems arise when you consider that these operating environments are also intended for use on desktops and laptops as well.
Don’t misunderstand, being able to use some of the technology which the handheld world has come to expect on your monitor will come in handy (eventually). Some of these features may even become ubiquitous (eventually). But—and this is a big but—they are not going to replace the productivity of using a standard keyboard and pointing device (mouse, trackpad, &c) in most situations (and especially not in the short term).
Apple, oddly enough, had things sorted slightly better on this front. They built a unique operating system for (first) their phones and (then later) for their tablets.
Apple’s iOS may well have made good use of some similar back-end components (kernel?) but the GUI (the graphical user interface or that thing you see and use when you use the computer) was especially crafted specifically for the handheld devices which would carry it. This was a solid move. They did not splash a layer of tablet functions over their desktop operating system, and they did not replace the desktop environment (on their desktop machines) with a mobile-oriented GUI.
By contrast, each of these others (Windows 8, Unity, and Gnome3) have chosen for whatever reason to replace a perfectly functional and customizable GUI with an environment greatly limited by the assumption of the tablet as a platform and oddly limited too by maintaining certain desktop attributes (but in a crippled and almost patchy manner).
I don’t have a real plan for laying this out so I’m just going to jump in and throw down.
First of all, two of them have hidden the power button. In Gnome3 you can get to it by depressing the ALT key while looking in the personal menu (the Suspend option changes to Power Off while depressed). In Windows 8 you’ll want to hit Windows-i to get a fly-out menu from the right side of the screen which contains a familiar power icon; however, if you want to log out you’ll want to hit the Windows key (only) and click on your user icon (which will then give you a logout option). This all makes some sense if you assume you are using a device which suspends rather than powers-off (like a tablet). Otherwise it’s just a pain in the ass.
Of course there are enthusiasts for this path in the Windows-fan camp. I found this article praising the hybridization of the Windows phone OS and the Windows desktop OS. I just can’t agree less. I do think some cross-trading in technological innovations should occur between the two disparate platforms, but a full merge isn’t even feasible let alone desirable. I predict a backlash from all regular desktop users and any mobile (laptop) user lacking a touch screen. Even some of those users who have touch screens are going to be put off by some of the difficulties imposed by the assumptions mentioned here.
At the same time I found this very critical article discussing the upcoming Mountain Lion (Mac OS X 10.8). This author finds, as do I, that the merging of desktop and mobile technologies is going in the wrong direction.
That author also (perhaps unwittingly) raises the philosophical question of who is following whom. The irony that the innovator who separated iOS from OS is now seemingly following the pack and merging these systems has not been lost.
The answer does seem to be that everyone (Canonical, Gnome, Microsoft, and even Apple of today) are all following Apple (of a little while ago). In short there was a quick spurt in innovation and it has subsided. Now everyone (including the former innovator) is chasing the status quo. Hardly inspiring.
In Windows 8, Gnome3, and Unity a press of the Super (or Windows) key will now evoke a full screen, large-buttoned environment. No more Windows menu (in Windows) and no more of the trio of menus in Gnome. Your entire screen is filled with large icon-like (buttonish) filler. If you simply begin typing, your icon choices are rapidly narrowed (hopefully toward that which you seek). The specifics of how each of these three works are slightly different but this base is the same: hit one key, start typing, then click an icon/button or hit Enter.
I suppose it could be argued that this is an attempt at hybridization. Of course what this means is that you need to type and then click large (on-screen) buttons. You don’t have to touch the button on-screen, but if that’s not the design aesthetic then they don’t need to be huge button-like icons. How do you type on your mobile device? On-screen of course. Mish-mash mess.
Windows 8 takes the matter even further by making this new area slide-able; when you have filled this area with buttons you merely slide the area to the left to reveal more buttons. This is a finger gesture (a swipe) and also not well suited to a desktop environment.
For Windows 8 many of these features can be seen currently in action in their new phone operating system. It works well in that environment, and I have little to complain about these systems within this context. My beef, as if it were not abundantly clear, is merely that these systems of interaction are best suited to mobile environments and have little functional crossover to a standard desktop environment (and only slightly better functional crossover to something like a standard laptop).
For Microsoft this is pretty typical: they bring out a real stinker OS every other release then fix it with the following release. The fact that Gnome and Canonical (and Apple) are all doing the same thing baffles me. Of course there are those who will argue that the fact they are all doing the same thing is evidence of my delusion. Only time will tell, but my guess is they will all start back-tracking as soon as the consumers who drive their respective markets begin their unique response cycles.
For Apple and Microsoft that time is yet to come. For Gnome and Unity we should see some proper grumbling (and it’s there if you choose to search) and hopefully some appropriate responses before too long.
So there it is, my predictions etched in stone. We’ll see how it fairs in history.