Tag Archives: Linux

Saving PC sales

So today I’m reading that Dell may be stepping away from the consumer PC arena. What could a prospective PC retailer do to save sales?

While I’ll be ranting about Canonical, Ubuntu, Linux and GNOME a lot, please note that this is just a mention of a possible platform a device maker could have opted for. Same goes for Dell: I’m talking about them, but it mostly applies to others. And what I’m talking about is that people want an integrated (but powerful) solution that ‘just works’.

Figure out that people want the sleek and fancy. Steam is fancy. App Store is fancy. iTunes is fancy. Intel AppUp from 2011 was decidedly not fancy, and in fact, it was a prime example of the “old” way of doing things one the PC: let’s just pack random garbage in front of the customer and hope he’ll not only bite it, but happily chew it. (Just remember all the “photo handling” software that shipped with your digital camera, or “antivirus protection” demo software shipping with your shiny new PC.)

Thankfully, the latest version of AppUp from 2012 is a bit fancier, although still somewhat weird.

Figure out that people want to do things differently. How happy are users with the operating system you’re shipping? I personally like Windows 7 a lot lately (more on that later). But how integrated it is with your product? What does your product do? Is it just another box? Admittedly, it may be a neat, shiny box, but what does it do? Oh — this thing on it isn’t your product? Uh-huh, so you’re just another box-maker?

Hint-hint: end users like custom (but usable) stuff. At one point, aforementioned Dell has promoted Ubuntu on its machines. What they haven’t done is sit with Canonical and decide how to make Ubuntu the operating system for their machines. Not only that — they should have thought about how to make Dell’s laptop the machine for running Ubuntu.

Dell and Canonical could have figured out what exactly people want and how they want it done. In my previous life as a Linux user, I was quite “needy” and I desired customizability, shunning Ubuntu for Debian. But that’s not what people want. People want stuff to “just work”. I want it too nowadays. I also want a company to figure out how the user interface should work, and make it work that way instead of me. I want them to figure out what is the best way for me to achieve my goals.

And then I want them to proscribe that as sacred rules to developers on their platform. Then I want them to justify why those sacred rules exist. (The way NSDocument class works in Cocoa frameworks has recently allowed Apple to introduce “recent files” list for an application in Lion’s Expose for an application’s windows, as well in the Dock icon menu.)

I want those sacred rules to be sane and enabling to the developers, instead of arbitrary decisions slapped together by a bunch of monkeys. (And I’m not pointing fingers at a single platform or library here — but pretty much at most platforms and libraries out there.)

Figure out that people want to do stuff with their machines. After securing a deal with Canonical, Dell should have attempted to secure a deal with, for example, Adobe to port at least their flagship product Photoshop to Linux (or more specifically Ubuntu). There are bound to be many, many hurdles along the way. But instead of toying with The Gimp and waiting for them to actually make a tool that is usable by real people, getting Adobe to bring their product over would make the platform (and products) stand out and appeal to an audience. And if Adobe doesn’t want to cooperate, invest those profits in your long-term gain: look at Photoshop and replicate it under Linux, including keyboard shortcuts and whatnot.

Go and fix OpenOffice’s interface, or at least lift what you can in designing an office suite that works and looks as an office suite should. Or write your own — Apple surely did with iWork, and they worked on that even before iPhone and iPad were insanely profitable like today. Compared to today, iPhone was only mildly popular.

Can you see the big picture now? Can you see how a platform could have and should have come together to save, for example, Dell?

As Apple has built their OS on the strong base of BSD userland and Mach kernel, Dell and Canonical could have delivered integrated products based on GNU userland and Linux kernel. They should have worked on securing partnerships to deliver key products to what was (and is) a nascent desktop environment.

Apple did not use window compositing to bring you toys like a 3D cube, but to bring you tools to switch between windows and apps. Dell and Canonical should have and could have slimmed down Compiz. GNOME 3′s window manager is a nice experiment in this direction, but on the first look at it, it lifts off of Apple so blatantly in some ways that I can’t help think they should have and could have done better. It could have and should have been better than what Apple does.

Figure out how to cut the stuff out. As mentioned, I personally like Windows 7 a lot lately, but it hasn’t struck the good balance between exposing whatever a power user needs and hiding anything that a common user doesn’t need. It’s still too complex for a common user, and at the same time, any attempt at simplification and hiding stuff just means the actual stuff you need is now hidden behind menus and behind more menus and behind more menus. See: attempting to configure just slightly more complex wi-fi setup in Windows 7. Something is seriously wrong if it’s easier to change resolution and color depth in Windows 95 than it is in Windows 7.

Compiz needed to be cut and configured to sane defaults. Or it should have been thrown away and a custom manager should have been written.

As long as we stick to the UNIX principles wherever possible, I can take your window manager and throw it away. Or I could write my own settings app. But if you do a good enough job, I will not want to.

I currently am not inclined to go away from Mac, and the amount of customizations I do is minimal. Some people use custom app launchers, I’m satisfied with launching apps through Dock or Spotlight.

But in case I want to move away, I’m hoping GNUstep takes off and provides a viable way for people to port their OS X apps to other platforms. I hope for a healthy GNUstep ecosystem where people are free to share code, but also to sell the fruit of their labors.

But I am not really interested in moving away right now, because Apple delivers a good, complete, healthy ecosystem today, along with an integrated hardware+software stack where things like driver issues are rare and shocking events happening mostly to early adopters — definitely they are not common daily appearance for most users.

To save your sales, deliver a healthy, integrated hardware+platform+applications ecosystem. For a corporation as big as Dell, any investment into their own platform would have been an investment into long term future. It would have been diversification and it would be a way to stay unique long-term. And not doing a good job on creating a platform when you’re a multi-billion dollar company, especially in cases where you can already take other people’s work, should be inexcusable. In fact — I’m not sure if not even attempting to do it may be an even greater sin.

Make yourself stand out with an outstanding product that “just works”. Half-assed experiments with Linux just because it’s Linux and “free” won’t save you and will flop.

Delivering a complete product starting with a laptop designed around a platform (which may be based on Linux), and delivering a complete platform designed around your laptop is a good way to start.

Why GNU/Linux is not successful on desktops

I used Debian for a long time. I used it as a desktop OS. I did a lot of development and tinkering. I don’t have time for tinkering anymore, and I was lucky enough to get a Mac.

I was inspired to write this short outline of my views why GNU/Linux is, sadly, not right for an average user on the desktop, by a tweet from @ivan_gustin (retweeted by @ambivalentcase) that mentioned Linus Torvalds’ thoughts on the same subject from LinuxCon Europe 2011.

Let me point out: I WANT STRONG LINUX. I want freedom, I want power. What I don’t want is ground slipping below my feet.

Technical issues

Torvalds is spot on here. You can’t give the end-user a machine that might or might not work. Things are extremely improved here, and were already good back in 2006.

Greatest issue, however, are regressions and constant feeling of land moving under user’s feet. I can’t in good faith press that “update” button and be nearly certain that the machine will work after the update is performed. Ubuntu is doing very well here if you update within the same release. Next release may or may not work. However, I have had almost no upgrade of a graphics card driver that didn’t require some sort of tinkering in console afterwards and messing with Xorg.conf.

Linux is awesome because it recognizes almost every piece of software that you throw at it.

User interface keeps changing

Look at OS X Tiger. Then look at OS X Leopard. Then look at OS X Snow Leopard. Then look at OS X Lion.

If you go from one version to the next one, you get the user experience that is different, but not very different. Apart from performance issues, what was a major adoption blocker for Windows Vista? A radical reworking of the UI.

People don’t like changes to UI that are forced on them. If I just want, for example, a better mail client that let’s-say comes with Ubuntu 11.04, why am I expected to get used to Ubuntu Unity? If I just want the terminal to keep working and be improved, why do the GNOME team force me to upgrade not just the terminal, but the entire desktop, if I want a complete and integrated user experience? Oh, and that new desktop environment in GNOME 3 is, of course, completely different from GNOME 2.

And GNOME 3 and Ubuntu Unity are just reruns of the KDE 4 saga.

KDE 4 decided to make everything modular. GNOME 3 and Ubuntu Unity decided to develop a UI that is usable on both tablets and desktops. What happens next? Someone bright decides that desktop users must use a media center-like interface?

Features that disappear

I really don’t like it when a package suddenly gets removed from Debian. Remember XMMS? A beautiful clone of Winamp whose only flaw was that it was written with GTK1. Someone thought it was a good idea to rewrite it as a server that plays the music, and a client that controls the playing and called this XMMS2. End-user’s client was, of course, seriously flawed and buggy, and its only boon was that it was written with GTK2. (That didn’t help it, because it was unskinnable and it was ugly.) Debian removed original XMMS because it was “unmaintained”. Great move!

Same thing happened to BitchX. Users who realized this were directed to use other command line IRC clients, such as irssi, which is far less usable and far uglier. At least to me.

Things changing, changing, changing, moving around, breaking down

I’m not exactly a kid anymore. I don’t have time or will to continuously tinker with stuff I already tinkered with. I just want things to work.

I don’t want to worry about packages conflicting.
I don’t want to worry that after an upgrade, a package will be removed due to a conflict.
I don’t want to worry that after an upgrade, my graphics card and my wireless card suddenly stop working because, hey, the kernel was upgraded and previously installed modules no longer work with the new kernel.
I don’t want to worry that after an upgrade, I will have to relearn basically everything because some dimwit decided to “fix” what was not broken: the previously extremely usable UI.
I don’t want to worry that after an upgrade, no icons appear on my desktop.

Applications and features

Hello. Meet my friend, Anna. She’s a graphics artist. She heavily uses Photoshop on a Mac. She needs, at the very least, effects applied on layers. She also needs to work with other designers’ PSD files.

What option does she have on Linux? GIMP? Seriously?

I can use GIMP. I like GIMP. Unfortunately, Anna cannot.

Hello. Meet aunt Silvia. She’s a 60 year old woman taught to work with Microsoft’s Word 2007 for Windows.

Can she use either Word for Mac, or OpenOffice? Let me tell you, she cannot.

You cannot force her to use it. She does not want to learn, even if she will pirate the software. (She does not understand that your refusal to install pirated Windows and Office is a moral choice. She will think you are a jerk.)

Hello. Meet Tom. Tom writes a lot of documentation. Tom got used to one thing that Macs do really well: drag and drop. He grabs almost anything, drags it, presses F3 to show Exposé, points to a window, presses space so he doesn’t have to wait for the window to be zoomed into, and drops it.

It works great with, for example, word processing.

Screenshotting is also nice. Keyboard shortcut is extremely nasty and unergonomic, but being able to get any portion of a screen, or a nice image of a window (complete with a shadow) is just a few keytaps away, and it’s integrated into what would be a “window manager” under GNU/Linux or other X11 environments. You can easily get the screenshot in a file on the desktop, or you can get it into the clipboard for quick pasting into the mail client.

And under GNU/Linux, you have to worry if dragging-and-dropping, copying-and-pasting will even work between programs under same desktop environment — situation is way worse when you have to do content exchange between different environments. Can I be sure that an image put into clipboard under Konqueror will be pasteable into GIMP or Thunderbird?

Exposé doesn’t seem useful until you realize how useful it is with drag-drop, especially when you press space. I can’t remember any use for desktop cube effect except that it made me feel warm deep inside. (Yep, I still love desktop cube. Sometimes I perform ‘switch user’ on OS X just to watch the default desktop cube animation.)

Hello. Meet me. I’m a developer, and what I’m about to say is unfair. I love Objective-C. I love the concept of building the UI in an Interface Builder. I don’t need Objective-C per se, as long as I can use similar software building practices.

Java seems awfully close.

Except it isn’t. It’s static and restrictive where it shouldn’t be.

GNUstep folks are great, and they’re doing great job. But they don’t really have the resources to build a good IDE, nor prepare good introduction for new Objective-C developers. C++ developers have the very nice Code::Blocks/, which is wonderful, until you need to develop a GUI app.

I also want to sell my software. I love doing free software/open source work, but sometimes a person has to live off something. My end users expect good quality packaging, an easy to install app, and support that will last even if I don’t update the app manually. Developer portal for Ubuntu is an excellent step forward for distribution, but building a quality .deb package is still difficult. Intel’s AppUp is confusing and little-known. I’m also from Croatia — can you folks send me cash to my country? (AppUp had issues with that — or so I’m told.)

Hello. Meet Harry. He’s a 14-year old gamer who wants to play StarCraft II, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Portal 2.

I’ve had mostly bad experiences with Wine. Sure, you can play singleplayer original StarCraft. You can even play it in multiplayer! However, what if something goes wrong? Also, have you tried playing using Battle.net?

Have you tried playing Rise of Nations? Have you tried any other old title that uses DirectPlay? Did you see how many titles work, but their installers don’t work?

What happens when Harry’s graphics card drivers don’t start? Does he want to worry whether or not he may update nVidia’s drivers? Does he want to worry where the installer will put the launch icons? What happens when the .desktop file (the shortcut for launching apps) doesn’t work? I can probably get the title to work with Wine, but will Harry be able to?

And let me tell you, Harry won’t be happy when the 60 EUR game he just bought doesn’t work and he has to tinker with the computer to get it to run.

Conclusion

Who is GNU/Linux for?

Enthusiasts and people who use computers only for Skype, surfing, mail.

That’s not the massive user base that pushes the desktops and desktop usage forward. User base that pushes desktops and desktop usage forward are home power users, gamers, business users, artists, developers. Even a person who can do word processing with one package cannot use it with another these days.

And you know what “people who use computers only for Skype, surfing, mail” can use?

A tablet or (shudder) a netbook.

Either an Android tablet, an iPad or a Chromebook will do for them.

Solution

* Stabilize the UI. (Apple faced backlash for its reworking of scrollbars.)
* Be careful before making drastic incompatibility moves. (Apple faced backlash for removing Rosetta, breaking TurboTax 2007.)
* Stabilize the ABI. (Apple often ships very old versions of libraries. Removing Rosetta allowed removal of old PowerPC-only code.)
* Help the developers. (You are a free software enthusiast and that’s fine. But don’t think everyone is. If I want to ship paid software, and I have a market, don’t lock me out.)

Don’t break stuff, don’t change stuff. Help the dev.

I admire Linux Game Publishing‘s struggle in face of licensing issues (for example, SDL’s LGPL), in face of incompatibility, in face of historic disregard for ABI. It’s difficult to package executables that are easily relocatable to different places in the filesystem – because, since the software is open source, you can simply recompile the program for the new location. (Dependency on dynamic libraries put in fixed locations is the biggest issue.)