Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Progression and Regression of Desktop User Interfaces



As this Gregorian year comes to a close, with various new interfaces out now, and some new ones on the horizon, I decided to recap my personal experiences with user interfaces on the desktop, and see what the future will bring.

When I was younger, there were a few desktop environments floating around, and I've seen a couple of them at school or a friend's house. But the first one I had on my own personal computer, and really played around with was Windows 3.

Windows 3 came with something called Program Manager. Here's what it looked like:




The basic idea was that you had a "start screen", where you had your various applications grouped by their general category. Within each of these "groups", you had shortcuts to the specific applications. Now certain apps like a calculator you only used in a small window, but most serious apps were only used maximized. If you wanted to switch to another running app, you either pressed the alt+tab keyboard shortcut to cycle through them, or you minimized everything, where you then saw a screen listing all the currently running applications.

Microsoft also shipped a very nice file manager, known as "File Manager", which alone made it useful to use Windows. It was rather primitive though, and various companies released various add-ons for it to greatly enhance its abilities. I particularly loved Wiz File Manager Pro.



Various companies also made add-ons for Program Manager, such as to allow nested groups, or shortcuts directly on the main screen outside of a group, or the ability to change the icons of selected groups. Microsoft would've probably built some of these add-ons in if it continued development of Program Manager.

Now not everyone used Windows all the time back then, but only selectively started it up when they wanted something from it. I personally did everything in DOS unless I wanted to use a particular Windows app, such as file management or painting, or copying and pasting stuff around. Using Windows all the time could be annoying as it slowed down some DOS apps, or made some of them not start at all due to lack of memory and other issues.

In the summer of 1995, Microsoft released Windows 4 to the world. It came bundled with MS-DOS 7, and provided a whole new user experience.


Now the back-most window, the "desktop", no longer contained a list of the running programs (in explorer.exe mode), but rather you could put your own shortcuts and groups and groups of groups there. Rather running programs would appear at the bottom of the screen in a "taskbar". The taskbar now also contained a clock, and a "start menu", to launch applications. Some always running applications which were meant to be background tasks appeared as a tiny icon next to the clock in an area known as a "tray".

This was a major step forward in usability. Now, no matter which application you were currently using, you could see all the ones that were currently running on the edge of your screen. You could also easily click on one of them to switch to it. You didn't need to minimize all to see them anymore. Thanks to the start menu, you could also easily launch all your existing programs without needing to minimize all back down to Program Manager. The clock always being visible was also a nice touch.

Now when this came out, I could appreciate these improvements, but at the same time, I also hated it. A lot of us were using 640x480 resolutions on 14" screens back then. Having something steal screen space was extremely annoying. Also with how little memory systems had back at the time (4 or 8 MB of RAM), you generally weren't running more than 2 or 3 applications at a time and could not really appreciate the benefits of having an always present taskbar. Some people played with taskbar auto-hide because of this.

The start menu was also a tad ridiculous. Lots of clicks were needed to get anywhere. The default appearance also had too many useless things on it.

Did anyone actually use help? Did most people launch things from documents? Microsoft released a nice collection of utilities called "PowerToys" which contained "TweakUI" which you could use to make things work closer to how you want.

The default group programs installed to within the start menu was quite messy though. Software installers would not organize their shortcuts into the groups that Windows came with, but each installed their apps into their own unique group. Having 50 submenus pop out was rather unwieldy, and I personally organized each app after I installed it. Grouping into "System Tools", "Games", "Internet Related Applications", and so on. It was annoying to manually do all this though, as when removing an app, you had to remove its group manually. On upgrades, one would also have to readjust things each time too.

Windows 4 also came with the well known Windows Explorer file manager to replace the older one. It was across the board better than the vanilla version of File Manager that shipped with Windows 3.

I personally started dual booting MS-DOS 6.22 + Windows for Workgroups 3.11 and Windows 95 (and later tri-booted with OS/2 Warp). Basically I used DOS and Windows for pretty much everything, and Windows 95 for those apps that required it. Although I managed to get most apps to work with Windows 3 using Win32s.

As I got a larger screen and more RAM though, I finally started to appreciate what Windows 4 offered, and started to use it almost exclusively. I still exited Windows into DOS 7 though for games that needed to use more RAM, or ran quicker that way on our dinky processors from back then.

Then Windows 4.10 / Internet Explorer 4 came out which offered a couple of improvements. First was "quick launch" which allowed you to put shortcuts directly on your taskbar. You could also make more than one taskbar and put all your shortcuts on it. I personally loved this feature, I put one taskbar on top of my screen, and loaded it with shortcuts to all my common applications, and had one on the bottom for classical use. Now I only had to dive into the start menu for applications I rarely used.

It also offered a feature called "active desktop" which made the background of the desktop not just an image, but a web page. I initially loved the feature, as I edited my own page, and stuck in an input line which I would use to launch a web browser to my favorite search engine at the time (which changed monthly) with my text already searched for. After a while active desktop got annoying though, as every time IE crashed, it disabled it, and you had to deal with extra error messages, and go turn it on manually.

By default this new version also made every Windows Explorer window have this huge sidebar stealing your precious screen space. Thankfully though, you could turn it off.

All in all though, as our CPUs got faster, RAM became cheaper, and large screens more available, this interface was simply fantastic. I stopped booting into other OSs, or exiting Windows itself.

Then Windows 5 came out for consumers, and UI wise, there weren't really any significant changes. The default look used these oversized bars and buttons on each window, but one could easily turn that off. The start menu got a bit of a rearrangement to now feature your most used programs up front, and various actions got pushed off to the side. Since I already put my most used programs on my quick launch on top, this start menu was a complete waste of space. Thankfully, it could also be turned off. I still kept using Windows 98 though, as I didn't see any need for this new Windows XP, and it was just a memory hog in comparison at the time.

What was more interesting to me however was that at work, all our machines ran Linux with GNOME and KDE. When I first started working there, they made me take a course on how to use Emacs, as every programmer needs a text editor. I was greatly annoyed by the thing however, where was my shift highlight with shift+delete and shift+insert or ctrl+x and ctrl+v cut and paste? Thankfully though I soon found gedit and kedit which was like edit/notepad/wordpad but for Linux.

Now I personally don't use a lot of windowsy type software often. My primary usage of a desktop consists of using a text editor, calculator, file manager, console/terminal/prompt, hex editor, paint, cd/dvd burner, and web browser. Only rarely do I launch anything else. Perhaps a PDF, CHM, or DJVU reader when I need to read something.

After using Linux with GNOME/KDE at work for a while, I started to bring more of my work home with me and wanted these things installed on my own personal computer. So dual booting Windows 98 + Linux was the way to go. I started trying to tweak my desktop a bit, and found that KDE was way more capable than GNOME, as were most of their similar apps that I was using. KDE basically offered me everything that I loved about Windows 98, but on steroids. KWrite/KATE was notepad/wordpad but on steroids. The syntax highlighting was absolutely superb. KCalc was a fine calc.exe replacement. Konqueror made Windows Explorer seem like a joke in comparison.

Konqueror offered network transparency, thumbnails of everything rather quickly, even of text files (no pesky thumbs.db either!). An info list view which was downright amazing:
This is a must have feature here. Too often are documents distributed under meaningless file names. With this, and many other small features, nothing else I've seen has even come close to Konqueror in terms of file management.

Konsole was just like my handy DOS Prompt, except with tab support, and better maximizing, and copy and paste support. KHexEdit was simply better than anything I had for free on Windows. KolourPaint is mspaint.exe with support for way more image formats. K3b was also head and shoulders above Easy CD Creator or Nero Burning ROM. For Web Browsers, I was already using Mozilla anyway on Windows, and had the same option on Linux too.

For the basic UI, not only did KDE have everything I liked about Windows, it came with an organized start menu. Which also popped out directly, instead from a "programs" submenu.

The taskbar was also enhanced that I could stick various applets on it. I could stick volume control directly on it. Not a button which popped out a slider, the sliders themselves could appear on the taskbar. Now for example, I could easily adjust my microphone volume directly, without popping up or clicking on anything extra. There was an eyedropper which you could just push to find out the HTML color of anything appearing on the screen - great for web developers. Another thing which I absolutely love, I can see all my removable devices listed directly on my taskbar. If I have a disk in my drive, I see an icon for that drive appearing directly on my taskbar, and I can browse it, burn to it, eject it, whatever. With this, everything I need is basically at my finger tips.

Before long I found myself using Linux/KDE all the time. On newer machines I started to dual boot Windows XP with Linux/KDE, so I could play the occasional Windows game when I wanted to, but for real work, I'd be using Linux.

Then KDE 4 comes out, and basically half the stuff I loved about KDE was removed. No longer is it Windows on steroids. Now KDE 4.0 was not intended for public consumption. Somehow all the distros except for Debian seemed to miss that. Everyone wants to blame KDE for miscommunicating this, but it's quite clear 4.0 was only for developers if you watched the KDE 4 release videos. Any responsible package maintainer with a brain in their skull should've also realized that 4.0 was not ready for prime time. Yet it seems the people managing most distros are idiots that just need the "latest" version of everything, ignoring if it's better or not, or even stable.

At the time, all these users were upset, and all started switching to GNOME. I don't know why anyone who truly loved the power KDE gave you would do that. If KDE 3 > GNOME 2 > KDE 4, why did people migrate to GNOME 2 when they could just not "upgrade" from KDE 3? It seems to me that people never really appreciated what KDE offers in the first place if they bothered moving to GNOME instead of keeping what was awesome.

Nowadays people tell me that KDE 4 has feature parity with KDE 3, but I have no idea what they're talking about. The Konqueror info list feature that I described above still doesn't seem to exist in KDE 4. You can no longer have applets directly on your taskbar. Now I have to click a button to pop up a list of my devices, and only then can I do something with them. No way to quickly glance to see what is currently plugged in. Konsole's tabs now stretch to the full width of your screen for some pointless reason. If you want to switch between tabs with your mouse, prepare for carpal tunnel syndrome. Who thought that icons should grow if they can? It's exactly like those idiotic theoretical professors who spout that CPU usage must be maximized at all times, and therefore use algorithms that schedule things for maximum power draw, despite that in normal cases performance does not improve by using these algorithms. I'd rather pack in more data if possible, having multiple columns of information instead of just huge icons.

KHexEdit has also been completely destroyed. No longer is the column count locked to hex (16). I can't imagine anyone who seriously uses a hex editor designed the new version. For some reason, KDE now also has to act like your mouse only has one button, and right click context menus vanished from all over the place. It's like the entire KDE development team got invaded by Mac and GNOME users who are too stupid to deal with anything other than a big button in the middle of the screen.

Over in the Windows world. Windows 6 (with 6.1 comically being consumerized as "Windows 7") came out with a bit of a revamp. The new start menu seems to fail basic quality assurance tests for anything other than default settings. Try to set things to offer a classic start menu, this is what you get:


If you use extra large icons for your grandparents, you also find that half of the Control Panel is now inaccessible. Ever since Bill Gates left, it seems Windows is going down the drain.

But hardly are problems solely for KDE and Windows, GNOME 3 is also a major step back according to what most people tell me. Many of these users are now migrating to XFCE. If you like GNOME 2, why are you migrating to something else for? And what is it with people trying to fix what isn't broken? If you want to offer an alternate interface, great, but why break or remove the one you already have?

Now a new version of Windows is coming out with a new interface being called "Metro". They should really be calling it "Retro". It's Windows 3 Program Manager with a bunch of those third party add-ons, with a more modern look to it. Gone is the Windows 4+ taskbar so you can see what was running, and easily switch applications via mouse. Now you'll need to press the equivalent of a minimize all to get to the actual desktop. Another type of minimize to get back to Program Manager to launch something else, or "start screen" as they're now calling it.

So say goodbye to all the usability and productivity advantages Windows 4 offered us, they want to take us back to the "dark ages" of modern computing. Sure a taskbar-less interface makes sense on handheld devices with tiny screens or low resolution, but on modern 19"+ screens? The old Windows desktop+taskbar in the upcoming version of Windows is now just another app in their Metro UI. So "Metro" apps won't appear on the classic taskbar, and "classic" applications won't appear on the Metro desktop where running applications are listed.

I'm amazed at how self destructive the entire market became over the last few years. I'm not even sure who to blame, but someone has to do something about it. It's nice to see that a small group of people took KDE 3.5, and are continuing to develop it, but they're rebranding everything with crosses everywhere and calling it "Trinity" desktop. Just what we need, to bring religious issues now into desktop environments. What next? The political desktop?

17 comments:

l0ner said...

KDE4 act the way you wrote it because it's more touch-screen oriented, rather than targeting classic desktop usage.
Rebranding of trinity is actaully a necessity. Without it there will be an awful lot of voices about it beind old, outdated and being a stab in the back to kde4. Besides with time it will grow to be something else, hopefully really more powerful, with it's roots it kde3.5. I believe the dev team didn't want to redevelop a wheel when there was already one.

insane coder said...

KDE 4 being more touch screen oriented is great. So where's the version for those of us using a mouse?

This is the same thing as Microsoft thinking that what works for phones should be used for classic desktop.

KDE 4 was a stab in the back to those of us who actually used KDE 3 functionality. It's still KDE as well. If a re-branding was necessary, something without the religious symbolism would help. It'd be hard to convince Muslim or Jewish institutions to use Trinity Desktop.

HeTo said...

The start menu [in Windows 95] was also a tad ridiculous. Lots of clicks were needed to get anywhere.
Not really clicks, just hovering was enough.

Nowadays people tell me that KDE 4 has feature parity with KDE 3, but I have no idea what they're talking about. The Konqueror info list feature that I described above still doesn't seem to exist in KDE 4.
I never used Konqueror much as a file manager in the KDE 3 times. I used it as a web browser and as it didn’t really support a different set of settings for web browsing and file management using it for file management was cumbersome. For example, I want my web browser to open new tabs for URLs opened elsewhere, but if I set up the settings like that, opening a location from the desktop opens that location as a new tab in the web browser. Therefore I was actually quite happy to adopt Dolphin as my file manager when it appeared.

You can no longer have applets directly on your taskbar.
I just don’t know what you’re talking about here. Well if you define taskbar as it’s defined in KDE you can’t, since taskbar is the plasmoid that displays running applications – but neither could you in KDE 3. If, however, you want to add widgets in a Plasma panel, just unlock if it’s locked (right click->Unlock widgets), click the kidney at the edge of the panel, click Add Widgets in the panel that drops down, and drag what you want in place.

For some reason, KDE now also has to act like your mouse only has one button, and right click context menus vanished from all over the place.
I don’t know where you don’t find right-click menus but found on KDE 3, I find right-click menus pretty much everywhere. The only exception is right-click menus on menu items, at least in the Konqueror Bookmarks menu, now (KDE 4.4) Konqueror seems to have those too for menu items but not submenus. I wouldn’t immediately blame the KDE developers for that, either, for all I know the new Qt version might not support context menus on submenu items.

For me, the only feature that was in KDE 3 that I used and isn’t in KDE 4 is having a shared menu bar along the top of my screen, and on my current screens I probably wouldn’t even use that anymore if it were available. (Of course this doesn’t mean you don’t find features missing, just explains why I’m using KDE 4.)

I do agree on the general gist of GNOME 3 and Windows 8 fixing the fundamentals of the UI when it isn’t broken.

l0ner said:
KDE4 act the way you wrote it because it's more touch-screen oriented, rather than targeting classic desktop usage.
I don’t see anything touch-screen oriented about the desktop version of KDE 4, could you elaborate?

insane coder said...

Hi HeTo,

I understand the desire to split Konqueror the browser and file manager. However I never found Konqueror to be the browser that excelled. Initially JavaScript support was lousy, and when it finally became decent, FireFox just seemed a whole lot more capable.

If you used the file manager though, they removed a lot of it out of KDE 4.

>>You can no longer have applets directly on your taskbar.
>I just don’t know what you’re talking about here.

The keyword here is "directly". You can have applets, but they're not direct in the sense that they existed in KDE 3. The Storage Media applet in KDE 4 only works as a drop down. In KDE 3, its contents were displayed directly on the taskbar.

>I don’t know where you don’t find right-click menus but found on KDE 3, I find right-click menus pretty much everywhere.

Say for example right clicking a shortcut on your taskbar to bring up the context menu and select move. Now you have to enter some whole other mode just to move something.

l0ner said...

If a re-branding was necessary, something without the religious symbolism would help. It'd be hard to convince Muslim or Jewish institutions to use Trinity Desktop.
It is actually a reference to KDE3.5 since it sounds like Threenity. Not a religious one. I've never made a connection before You've pointed it out. Besides it's only a name IMHO. And a name shouldn't be something one fights over.
Hopefully there will be statement in the Trinity FAQ that clarifies that.

l0ner said...

Say for example right clicking a shortcut on your taskbar to bring up the context menu and select move. Now you have to enter some whole other mode just to move something.
When I pointed it out some time ago on the KDE4 forums one of the devs responded to me You're not using the plasmoids the way they were meant to use.

insane coder said...

Hi l0ner,

I didn't notice anything at first about the name either. But I recently heard from a friend of mine who sets up computers for people; that some Rabbi hired him to setup his computer with a free operating system and office suite. He offered him a choice of desktops and showed them off, and when he mentioned Trinity Desktop, the Rabbi said no way was he sticking a Christian desktop on his computer. The name is hurting potential market share.

>When I pointed it out some time ago on the KDE4 forums one of the devs responded to me You're not using the plasmoids the way they were meant to use.

I've heard several derisive remarks as well. I don't think the KDE 4 devs appreciated the power of KDE 3.

l0ner said...

I didn't notice anything at first about the name either. But I recently heard from a friend of mine who sets up computers for people; that some Rabbi hired him to setup his computer with a free operating system and office suite. He offered him a choice of desktops and showed them off, and when he mentioned Trinity Desktop, the Rabbi said no way was he sticking a Christian desktop on his computer. The name is hurting potential market share.
That's a shame. But this kind of thinking is called fanaticism. It's the same as calling a band named "†††" "†††" as a religious one, or bunch of kids playing metal and using a pentagram for their symbol as satanists. Some people are paying too much attention to this kind of thing. More than they should. And this creates hate.

insane coder said...

l0ner: I agree with you, but in order for a project to grow, you also have to consider marketing.

l0ner said...

l0ner: I agree with you, but in order for a project to grow, you also have to consider marketing.
I know, but this name is something the creator picked a long time ago. Besides I'm not really in the position to talk about Trinity marketing. I've sent your observations to the dev mailing list together with link to Your post.

insane coder said...

Thank you l0ner.

I looked at the mailing list and saw someone propose using a Triskelion as a logo. Unfortunately, that's also seen as a religious symbol by some.

I'm not a major marketing person, but I don't know if *3* is what should be stressed either, as someone will always think of it as less than 4.

If re-branding is needed to differentiate from KDE, perhaps an entirely different route should be taken, something completely neutral.

Don't focus on the negative, "we're an older version", focus on the positives. Use names and symbols that convey this is the desktop that does things the way you want.

Remember Microsoft's campaign: "Where do you want to go today?"

How about a computer which tells a user: "How can I serve you?", "How can I assist you?", or the classic WarCraft 2 line: "Your command master?"

Imagine a logo of a person standing on a computer. Or perhaps something generic and peaceful like a waterfall.

insane coder said...

Thinking more about it don't be aggressive. Perhaps something which shows the user and computers as friends, or shaking hands or something.

A triangle unfortunately also has a religious connotation. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_of_Providence

l0ner said...

I'll mail You observations to the mailing list, and Your more than welcome to share them by yourself on the list. Any help provided (even small suggestions and opinions like yours) will be taken in cosideration.

pserru said...

Hello
I thought being alone to think like you described! I'm glad to know that this was not the case. Thank you for sharing and thank to Trinity. I had the impression that the developers of KDE (4) was too proud to maintain the version 3. KDE4 lovers say that those who dislike are in arrears!
But yes! I kept Open Suse 10.3 with KDE 3.5.10 until I have a boring machine (the very year). Unable to retrieve update 3.5.10 for "my" suse 10.3: deposit just disappeared! And anyway, 3.5.10 is much better than 3.5.7. So I found myself in an extreme confusion with the real impression of having been abandoned by SUSE / Novell / KDE. I could not live in Ubuntu, which is (at least) currently supporting Trinity. I await the update of Trinity for Open Suse. Then I'll breathe again!
Thanks again for the sharing.

insane coder said...

This link about KDE Trinity was brought to my attention: http://tech.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=2505962&cid=37929362

The Incredible Laser said...

About file managers: I always preferred krusader over dolphin which I prefer over konqueror. Krusader is not perfect, but an awesome tool with a featureset dolphin will never (be intended to) have.
As I use chromium as my browser of choice, I don't even use konqueror nowadays. I would prefer KDE switching to arora as default.
However, since 4.3, I find KDE quite stable and usable, and the new features added through updates and plasmoids IMHO show that abandoning the version 3 codebase was the right decision.

Iasho said...

Absolutely Agree,
My way through the years was similar, except for the last few - i found Xfce for my primary desktop - Yes it's a little primitive, but I don't need 3d transparent 64x64 icons and 4 layers for my background.
BTW for the Windows7 I follow these simple human steps:
1. Choose classic theme
2. Install classic shell
3. Enable Quick launch
4. Disable all desktop effects
5. Optionally disable some services

Et Voila, apart from the 600M of wasted memory everything is looking good :)