June 10th, 2020

Hard Stare

The state of the desktop art

(Repurposing a couple of Reddit comments from a chap considering switching to Linux because of design and look-and-feel considerations.)

I would say that you need to bear in mind that Linux is not a single piece of software by a single company. Someone once made the comparison something like this: "FreeBSD is a single operating system. Linux is not. Linux is 3,000 OS components flying in close formation."

The point is that every different piece was made by a different person, group of people, organisation or company, working to their own agenda, with their own separate plans and designs. All these components don't look the same or work the same because they're all separately designed and written.

If you install, say, a GTK-based desktop and GTK-based components, then there's a good chance there will be a single theme and they'll all look similar, but they might not work similarly. If you then install a KDE app it will suck in a whole ton of KDE libraries and they might look similar but they might also look totally different -- it depends on how much effort the distro designers put in.

If you want a nice polished look and feel, then your best bet is to pick a mainstream distro and its default desktop, because the big distro vendors have teams of people trying to make it look nice.

That means Ubuntu or Fedora with GNOME, or openSUSE with KDE.

(Disclaimer: I work for SUSE. I run openSUSE for work. I do not use KDE, or GNOME, as I do not personally like either.)

If you pick an OS that is a side-project of a small hardware vendor, then you are probably not going to get the same level of fit and finish, simply because the big distros are assembled by teams of tens to hundreds of people as their day job, whereas the smaller distros are a handful of volunteers, or people working on a side-job, and the niche distros are mostly one person in their spare time, maybe with a friend helping out sometimes.

Windows is far more consistent in this regard, and macOS is more consistent than Windows. None of them are as consistent as either Windows or Classic MacOS were before the WWW blew the entire concept of unified design and functionality out of the water and vapourised it into its component atoms, never to be reassembled.

Don't judge a book by its cover -- everyone knows that. Well, don't judge a distro by a couple of screenshots.

As for my expertise -- well, "expertise" is very subjective! :-D You would easily find people who disagree with me -- there are an awful lot of strong biases and preconceptions in the Linux world.

For one thing, it is so very customisable that people have their own workflows that they love and they won't even consider anything else.

For another, there is 51 years of UNIX™ cultural baggage. For example in the simple matter of text editors. There are two big old text editors in the UNIX world, both dating from the 1970s. Both are incredibly powerful and capable, but both date from an era before PCs, before screens could display colours or formatting or move blocks of characters around "live" in real time, before keyboards had cursor keys or keys for insert, delete, home, end, and so on.

So both are horrible. They are abominations from ancient times, with their own weird names for everyday stuff like "files" and "windows" -- because they are so old they predate words like "files" and "windows"! They don't use the normal keyboard keys and they have their own weird names for keyboard keys, names from entire companies that went broke and disappeared 30 or 40 years ago.

But people still use these horrible old lumps of legacy cruft. People who were not yet born when these things were already obsolete will fight over them and argue that they are the best editors ever written.

Both GNOME and KDE are very customisable. Unfortunately, you have to customise them in the ways that their authors thought of and permitted.

KDE has a million options to twiddle, but I happen to like to work in ways that the KDE people never thought of, so I don't get on with it. (For example, on a widescreen monitor, I put my taskbar vertically on the left side. This does not work well with KDE, or with MATE, or with Cinnamon, or most other desktops, because they never thought of it or tried it, even though it's been a standard feature of Windows since 1995.)

GNOME has almost no options, and its developers are constantly looking for things they don't use and removing them. (Unfortunately, some of these are things I use a dozen times a day. Sucks to be me, I guess.) If you want to customise GNOME, you have to write your own add-on extensions in JavaScript. JavaScript is very trendy and popular, which is a pity, as it is probably the worst programming language in the world. After PHP, anyway.

So if you want to customise GNOME, you'd better hope that someone somewhere has programmed the customisation you want, and that their extension still works, because there's a new version of GNOME every 6 months and it usually breaks everything. If you have a broken extension, your entire desktop might crash and not let you log in, or log out, or do anything. This is considered perfectly normal in GNOME-land.

Despite this, these two desktops are the most popular ones around. Go figure.

There was one that was a ripoff of Mac OS X, and I really liked it. It was discontinued a few years ago. Go figure.

Rather than ripping off other desktops, the trend these days is to remove most of the functions, and a lot of people like super-minimal setups with what are called "tiling window managers". These basically try to turn your fancy true-colour hardware-3D-accelerated high-definition flat-panel monitor into a really big glass text terminal from 1972. Go figure.

There used to be ripoffs of other OSes, including from dead companies who definitely won't sue. There were pretty good ripoffs of AmigaOS, classic MacOS, Windows XP, Acorn RISC OS, SGI Irix, NeXTstep, Sun OpenLook, The Open Group's CDE and others. Most are either long dead, or almost completely ignored.

Instead today, 7 out of the 8 leading Linux desktops are just ripoffs of Windows 95, of varying quality. Go figure.