The New Era of Computing
For the first time in decades, the major players in the computing industry are making sweeping changes to the core of how we interact with computers. Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Canonical are reinventing the graphical user interface, leaving the desktop metaphor behind, and moving into a newer, and hopefully simpler, age of computer interaction.
We have Apple to blame for this. In January 2007, when the iPhone was introduced, the public got the first glimpse of what the future might hold. The iPhone was like nothing that had come before it, a simple, hand-held computer that just worked, and worked well. The iPhone brought the concept of touch interaction into the mainstream, and changed users expectations of how computers should work. Apple, already on a popularity upswing after the success of the iMac and iPod, rocketed past it’s competition over the next few years to become one of the most successful businesses in history. The popularity of the iPhone was followed by the success of the iPad, a device who’s story is still being written. The iPad’s popularity has been growing exponentially, and there is no end in sight.
Apple’s success with the iPad and iPhone has prompted a sleeping giant to wake. Microsoft, a slow, stodgy, and entrenched giant, but a giant none the less, has revamped both their mobile and desktop operating systems into something completely new, the Metro interface. To Microsoft’s credit, Metro is a refreshingly new experience, an unexpected turn from the company who brought the Windows desktop to almost every computer in the world. Metro is designed for touch, like iOS, but integrates well with a keyboard and mouse as well.
Microsoft’s aim is to have a single, unified experience across all devices, PCs, tablets, and phones. To do so, they’ve scaled the Windows Phone interface up to the desktop, the opposite of what they did with Windows Mobile before, which was the Windows desktop scaled down, start button and all. Metro is compelling on a number of levels, primarily because there is very little to learn to use it. Big tiled buttons, unified color schemes, and a reduction of user interface elements all combine into a less complex user interface.
So, where does this move to mobile leave Linux? Android and iOS follow each other fairly well, but Android does not currently scale up to the desktop. Most Linux distributions have not abandoned the desktop metaphor, and have done very little to modernize the interface. The notable exception to this is the Ubuntu Unity interface, which I’ve written about before. Unity is different, but it is not yet better than what has come before. It is built on top of the existing interface, where the major competitors to Linux have rethought the entire interface from top to bottom.
Linux has always been a bit of a follower in user interface design. KDE and GNOME were both reimplementations of concepts that were already popular. However, change is in the air, and the open source community has the chance to completely rethink what it means to use a computer, and how the computing part of the computer can be abstracted away from the user, opening up open source to a whole new market. Android, iOS, and even stodgy old Windows each show how powerful a simple interface can be, so where can we go with the Linux desktop?