Design

Admitting to being a techie – I have often overlooked design. In fact, I have often explained to (potential) clients, using the analogy of a ferrari that we make the engine and everything else work while somebody else makes it look gorgeous. For me, how something looks was largely irrelevant – as long as it worked well.

This explains why, for a long time, I used a fairly bland desktop environment. My desktop itself was just pure black with no wallpaper. Ironically, I would remove all the icons, so it would be pure black and nothing else.

This should have tipped me off on my own desire for design. I thought my desire for black stemmed from the “good old” days of DOS when the screen was black and my love for the linux terminal. As an aside, I used to reconfigure the terminal windows in X to have a white on black background as well – so much better for the eyes. In fact, I still don’t understand why everyone uses a white background for terminals and such like. Paper was white because that was easier. There is really no reason for the screen to be white too…

Now, this was before I bumped into Enlightenment (at this time, it was E16) and to put it bluntly, I was captivated. This this was absolutely gorgeous. Fairly unusable since I was used to GNOME and of course Microsoft Windows. I thoroughly enjoyed this until it became more of a distraction…

I ended up reconfiguring GNOME to be prettier – in fact, I had the Mac OS X theme for a while which I enjoyed.

I then dabbled with E17 and it was absolutely gorgeous – E16 paled in comparison. I ran into a bug where some java applications would jump a few pixels when changing the decorations. This was a real pain since I was developing a Java application at the time. I spent an entire day trying to “fix” this before I realised that it was E17 screwing it up and not my code… 😦

More recently, I thoroughly enjoyed Compiz with the shaky windows and such like – I just always wished that I could actually throw a window and watch the momentum carry it that extra distance.

Nevertheless, this bridged the gap enough to E17 to keep me happy for a little while.

Last week, I dabbled with E17 again to see if the issue with Java was resolved. To my surprise E17 had changed more or less completely – it was bridging the gap between a window manager and a full fledged Desktop environment.

However, there was a problem. It looked like I couldn’t get it back to its old glory of absolutely fantastic graphics without some effort in configuration. One other issue I ran into was that maximising a screen would fill it up across both my monitors. Another thing I could configure but then, it all seemed like too much effort.

E17 gives me the feeling that this is where user interfaces will end up – it automates so many of the things that makes it quicker to do anything. However, it still lacks some of the “basics”.

E17 is a very good example of a UI that tries to conform to what I call the “Invisible Interface” which I will be writing about later.

To bring it all back to now, I found it a hassle to go through all the available themes for WordPress for the Company Blog as well as my own.

I used to take great pleasure in going through dozens or hundreds of themes and picking ones that I liked but after doing it a few times (for Firefox, Thunderbird, my phone, GNOME, GDM and my flat), it gets a bit repetitous.

Now, for a wish. A website that pulls in all the different themes for all over the world for everything. A one-stop-theme shop. Here, I could go through and pick a general theme that I liked and download it for all the applications, my phone(s), mp3 players (and of course, taking it to the next level, all the gadgets at my flat).

That gives my life more uniformity. Perhaps this is something that Designers could take on… Say Hugo Boss, and design something that even matches your clothes, shoes, hair – everything.

That way, you could have your own unique branding… and while you are at it link it into Gravatars and you are also instantly recognisable

Now for the issue of privacy – I think I best leave that for another day.

Evil Linux

I received an interesting link in my email this morning. The story (which thinks that sauce and source are the same thing btw)  covers a school in the United States that has banned the use of Linux because “anything that wasn’t Windows was illegal and immoral.”

I could only ponder about the sheer stupidity of this teacher and wonder about the next generation of students brought up under this ignorance.

I grew up with Microsoft, with DOS 3 as my first Operating System and went through DOS 5, 6, Windows 3.1, 95, NT, 98, & ME.

I also played around with BeOS, and various versions of Mac.

I was then introduced to Linux turned into an open source zealot and wiped out my Windows installation in anger. Since then, while my primary operating system is Linux, I still have Windows running on my Laptop and have both Windows & Linux on my home computer.

I have since worked with Windows 2000, XP, 2003 & Vista. I love what Microsoft does with these products. They do innovative things, pick up features from other products that are useful and try to simplify things.

My Laptop came pre-installed with Windows and I never went to the effort of installing Linux and I use my home computer to play games, which (whether I like it or not) just handles games so much better.

As per the old joke, It is the software engineers job to make software as idiot proof as possible. It is the job of the universe to create bigger and bigger idiots. So far the universe is winning.

Linux & Open Source software (in general) takes a different approach to software. It should be easy to use and manage software but it also expects you to understand (or at least think about) what you are doing or trying to do.

Microsoft seems to be under the impression that this is not necessary. The user does not need to know what they are doing – they just need to know what is to happen. e.g.

Lets take a simple operation – deleting a file. Before Windows 95, this used to be a simple, difficult to undo operation. Windows 95 brings in the concept of the Recycle Bin (or Trash), a concept that was available on the Mac platform for quite some time.

After this point, you no longer delete a file on Windows – you move it to the Recycle Bin, which will delete them from the disk when the number of files in there exceeds the set capacity.

Now, from a users perspective, what they are doing is deleting a file – in fact, thats what the menu item says – Delete. But what happens is completely different. The file disappears from their folder. What they aimed to do – “make this file disappear” has happened. However, the file has not been deleted.

Windows has effectively lied to the user since it is “smarter”. If the user later discovers that they deleted the wrong file, it can be recovered easier. However, that is not the point.

Microsoft software, are in general rife with such miscommunications. I find this fairly insulting and this was one of the main reasons that I started using Linux.  If you ask it to delete a file – it deletes it. If you want to move something to recycle bin, it can do that too.

To go back to the original point, the ignorance shown by the teacher in this school is exactly the kind that Microsoft panders to. Microsoft allows (nay encourages)  its users to be as “simple” as possible and let Microsoft worry about the rest.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that Microsoft do a fantastic job in making software accessible and easy to use but it should also help educate it users on what they are doing and help them think about what they are trying to do. Don’t pretend or try to do their thinking for them. Thats their job.

“Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish ; and you have fed him for a lifetime”

A Ubuquitous Avatar

With around 6.5 billion people in the world, there is a good likelihood that if you think up something “original”, somebody else in the world has already thought of it.

Now, take the internet with just under 1.5 billion people linked in. Now, if you think up something that would be cool or useful (especially if it pertains to technology in some way), there is a good chance that somebody else has thought about it. And if you, like me just want to use it instead of creating it, somebody else has probably gone to the effort of making it work.

For a trivial example, it would be cool if I could have just one bookmarks folder for my Firefox and have this synchronised across all my computers (one in the office, the laptop, and the one at home). Do a quick google search and Bam – there it is… Foxmarks and guess what – it does even more…

Now, this has an interesting side effect. What about all cool things we could do if only I knew what to search for in the first place… I am subscribed to enough newsletters, websites and blogs (of course) to stay apprised of a lot of things that are happening, changing and being used in the world but that still does not tell you about all the cool things that could be done.
So, when I stumbled across this tiny (pun intended) little gem of a service called Gravatar, I was intrigued and impressed. It is such a tiny, simple, straightforward little thing. It also does just one thing, but it does it well. Now what it does it do?

It allows you to set a picture as your avatar against your email address and everyone who subscribes to the service is able to associate you with this avatar.

Why is this cool? Well, we just installed WordPress for our blog and it comes integrated with Gravatar and my user account was automagically liked in to the display the picture that I had set as my avatar. Cool!

If that is not cool enough – I set my mail account to link in to Gravatar (thats actually how I stumbled across the service) and anyone else who uses the service will show up with their pre-defined avatar on my browser.

All that needs to happen now is for Facebook to integrate with Gravatar so that when I change my profile picture, it will update my Gravatar…