Sunday, November 13, 2005

Thoughts on Apple, Microsoft and the current state of Linux

I've been developing a Ruby on Rails application lately, doing so primarly on a PowerBook G4 running OS X (Tiger). As my first foray working on a Mac, it's been an interesting experience, one that I'm (somewhat) happy to continue.

Prior to OS X, I had occasionally played around with various *nix environments, but had yet to fully configure a development environment on any of them. I'm still far from a linux system administrator professional, but I feel what I have learned thus far, and what I will learn over the next few months, will only serve to help me professionally. The benefit of having your testing and development environment so closely mirror your production environment is a huge time saver, especially for those of us fairly new to server administration.

Still, as I work on this Mac, a couple of things come to mind:

  • While good, the Mac interface doesn't stand out as being leaps and bounds better than Windows from a productivity and usability standpoint. It certainly feels more "grown up", but as far as productivity in a Windowed environment, I'm positive I can be as fast, if not faster, on PC. Granted, I've been Windows user for over 10+ years, and I've only been on a Mac for 2 months, so that speed may differential may change in favor of OS X over time.
  • There are very little proprietary, closed source applicatations on either Mac or Windows that use regularly. The first two that come to mind are Microsoft Visio on the PC, and Omnigraffle on the Mac. I may dabble in graphic programs occasionally, but I am by no means a graphic designer. Other than diagramming software, there's essentially no program that I use that can't be replaced with open source software(OSS) or free web services.
  • As a software developer, my main comfort of the Mac is the stability and power of a *nix core underneath a beautiful interface. Frankly, though, if Windows was built on top of *nix variant, I would have no problem switching back to a Windows based system (and probably would).
  • Finally, now that I've seen what is possible from a visual interface and interaction standpoint using a *nix system, I'm somewhat bothered by the idea of paying for an operating system. From seeing what is possible on Mac OS X, and with the operating system as a platform becoming less significant due to the webs potential, it's become clear to me that Microsoft is going to be under significant assault over the next few years.
  • Linux is nearing significant threat levels, and while it's still mostly in the server and enterprise arenas, I'm sure it is on everyone's radar. Apple continues to chew away at Microsofts market share, and the *nix community is benefitting from better software and better compatibility, or at least easier ports. Also, Apple, directly and indirectly, benefits the open source community by the addition of such tools as SAMBA and Apache, and many others bundled right into the OS, thus giving these tools a wider audience and user base.
So that brings me back to my final point. While Google maybe the realization of everything we had thought the internet should be, Apple is slowly turning OS X into the realization of everything we had hoped an OS to be, save for one little detail:

It is not free, and it is likely that it will never be free.

It's interesting to think that of all the mind boggling brilliant contributions the open source community has contributed to Linux over time, there's been a distinct and noticeable lack of clear direction in designing a clean, attractive and highly usable user interface. Sure, we have organizations like KDE, Gnome, and others trying to standardize a human interaction model for Linux interfaces, but they all stand out for their lack of innovation, and somewhat bulky, Windows like interfaces.

It's time to rethink the standard interface on Linux. Windows is due for a significant overall next year with release of Vista, and it's learning quite a bit from OS X. The several major Linux distributors such as Novell, RedHat, and Ubuntu, as well as the consortium of developers who make up KDE and GNOME would be well advised follow that lead. Why base your user interface on a second place interface (Windows) when their is a clear leader such as Apple to base your starting points?

The Linux community may not have the resources necessary to do full scale, cohesive HCI and usability research and development on the scale of Microsoft or Apple, but it certainly start to make better decisions based upon the success and failures of both companies.

Which brings me to my final thoughts on this matter. I was browsing the Ubuntu community forums the other day, and came across a post pointing to Gnome-look.org. It's essentially a site that allows members to post user created themes and mockups for review. The site got me to thinking, I've been searching for an open source project to join, and I think I've decided what I want it to be.

I'm going to begin taking my user experience design skills to the Linux community.

I'm going to start from scratch. I'll most likely use either a basic Debian distribution, or perhaps just start off with Ubuntu. However, over the course of the next year, to two years, I'm going to start doing user research in my spare time, the primary focus being to attempt to rethink and challenge the common conceptual models that exist in Windows, Linux, and to a lesser degree, OS X.

It's also going to be directly tied into another project / weblog that I plan to launch in the couple of months, preferably before the end the of the year.

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