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Jon Peck [opinions]

Has the free desktop revolution arrived? [ubuntu] [interfaces] [desktop] [experience]

An oft-trumpeted home triumph in technology discussion sites isthe conversion of friends or loved ones to a GNU/Linux desktop. “Iwas tired of fixing Windows on my kid's/grandmother's/in-law'scomputer, so I set up a Linux desktop. They love it! It's so easyto use, and I don't have to do anything to maintain it! No ad-wareor viruses, and best of all, it's free!” It sounds almost too goodto be true.... has the free desktop revolution arrived? I recentlyfound myself in a position to find out first hand.

Earlier this week, my wife's Windows XP computer began to randomlyshut down and had difficulty turning on. I didn't have the time toproperly troubleshoot the hardware issue, so I supplied her with anaccount on my Ubuntu desktop as a stop gap.

She was already familiar with several of the applications, such, Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird, so she was already familiar with portions of the system. I copied herbookmarks from a backup and set up her email, so after some briefinstructions, she said she was comfortable enough to have a go at italone.

Later, I asked her to describe her first experience with aGNU/Linux desktop environment. Overall, she found the system to besimple and fast; it reminded her of the Mac interface, which shelikes. However, it was harder to find things at first. “I don'tknow where to go to find Photoshop... I didn't recognize the programnames.”

I checked the Applications menu; while one could easily findprogram categories, picking the right program could very easily beintimidating. Just by reading the title and looking at the tool tip,how can you tell the difference between Democracy TV and VLC? They're both described as multimedia players, but they'refundamentally very different.

Later that day, she called me into the office. “I can't get theCD-ROM drive to open.” That's odd, it was working before. I triedopening it myself, first by pressing the button (no response), thenby right-clicking on the CD icon on the desktop and selecting eject. I got an error saying that my account was the only one that couldeject the disc. I switched back to my account, ejected the disc, andreturned. Now, the drive worked as expected.

There's a fine line between security and usability, and I feel itwas crossed. Having to switch users to eject a CD just isn'tintuitive. I hadn't put the CD in during the session; it was in thedrive when the machine booted. I had initially signed in, then latershe switched users to check her email and get some work done. Noapplication was accessing it; it was just sitting there, inactive.

These avoidable and very minor issues marred an otherwise positivefirst-time experience, which indicates further improvements to theuser interface need be made. Distributions like Ubuntu desktop arebeing marketed as fairly easy to adopt, and for the most part, I feelit's an accurate portrayal. As for a revolution, not exactly, but it's well on it's way. My wife's final words on the subject: “Ihope you put [Ubuntu] on my computer after you fix it.”


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