Friday, 18 November 2011

What's Wrong With Gnome 3

In a word: EVERYTHING*!

Oh, I know full that Gnome 3 is better from the point of view of  software development practices.

Of course it is.

But that is not - and should not - be the point. It is also not - and should not - be the point that it is somehow more approachable for new users. Which is not to say it should be outright hostile, either - of course. But surely it should also be sensible in the way it presents the common tasks and addresses the common needs - past the first five minutes one spends in front of it?

The case in point here is the new Activities view which replaces the old (and tried and tested, I'd say as well) way of having quick, easy, and obvious access to various things you are working with. What's wrong with having a string of buttons in a taskbar telling you which applications and/or windows you have open, all just a click away from being presented right before your eyes? On the other hand, I can tell you exactly what's wrong with the Activities view, which requires you to click on the Activities button to get the following view of the same set of things:

Can you already guess? No? Let me tell you:

I tend to already know, roughly, what I have going on in various windows. I do not have any need to have them all presented rudely into my face to be able to pick one I want to work with right now. There is no need to spend time and effort scanning the whole screen - which may be quite large - in order to pick out the desired window. Not to mention the content of the desired window may have changed in the background making it all the harder to recognise when presented as above. Also, what happens when there's a lot more windows to show than the five in the screenshot above? Do they overlap or are they reduced in size? I don't know as I gave up on Gnome 3 before I could try, but I can tell you that in both cases it becomes even harder to pick the one you want.

No, sorry. I would much rather stick with the taskbar and a list of buttons on it for each window I have open, with an option to have related windows stacked onto a single button. In practice it takes much less time and mental overhead.

And then, we have very iLike application menu:

Sure, it looks very cool. Very much like what you have on your (i)phone. But I'll bet you it is actually something you hate on your phone - the way in which you have to scroll and try to figure out which icon does what (a lot of them look very similar, don't you think?). Oh, there are application names there, too. But look how small and hard to notice they are? What on Earth was wrong with a nice hierarchical menu with small icons (to help you make out various applications visually) alongside relatively same sized application names (to help you ensure you're selecting the right thing)? 

Sure, these days you can have hierarchies and folders in phone-style menus, but there's a crucial difference: once you entered the sub-folder in such a menu you have lost the view of the level above. In a typical Gnome 2 - or even if you want Windows XP - style start menu, while you're browsing the sub-folder with apps you have the view of all the folders in a level above so if you make a mistake - and you will - you can move over to a different one in a single click. In a phone-like menu, you need to click a special button to go back, then hunt again for a different sub-folder. If that's not wasteful of your time I don't know what is.

So, the two things I am (and you are!) likely to do - a lot, are much more of a pain in Gnome 3. Yes, they look nice and modern, but, frankly, I value my time and effort much more than I value eye candy. And that is why I played around with Gnome 3 - and also with it's much improved variant in Linux Mint 12 - and promptly gave up.

My advice: XFCE is the way to go!

I will continue to support Linux Mint in the hope of them either making good progress on LXDE and/or XFCE editions, or managing to wrestle Gnome 3 into submission and efficient way of working.

*EVERYTHING = things that really matter, stuff that you use day in and day out, most of the time you look at your screen.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Tablet FAIL

OK, it's high time I listed all the reasons current (and foreseeable) crop of tablet computers is even more useless than a recent poll in the UK shows.

So, without further ado, let me take you through a number of use cases...

1. Watching Video

This is one of the most often cited things a tablet computer is supposed to be good at.

But is it, really?

If you want to watch video at home you are most likely much better off doing on a TV screen, no? I mean, it's much bigger, it's in front of a comfy sofa, you don't need to cradle it in your own arms... Need I say more?

Even if you want to watch a film in the loo your large screen mobile phone is probably better suited to the task - witnessed also by the fact that an alarmingly large percentage of them are already covered in poo.

I will give you that, if you are rich enough to travel First Class (which you may be, if you already own a tablet computer, and especially if it is an iPad), it may make sense on public transport. Excluding the Tube, of course, where you'd probably soon not have to worry about the space you need as your prized tablet will be stolen at the next stop.

So, no, sorry: not really something to give you your money's worth.

2. Listening to Music

Included here for completeness. Even the original Sony Walkman was decidedly tiny compared to any tablet computer you care to name (or own). On top of that, tablet computers do not make a good Ghetto Blasters either. Not for very long, in any case.

3. E-mail

Ah! You may say. What's wrong with doing your e-mail on a tablet computer? Surely it's good enough for that.

Well, if you said reading your e-mail I might have agreed (but see below). However, unless you are the only person in the world who has people writing to them, but does not need to reply with more that yes or no - ever, then I'm afraid you're out of luck. Just try composing any reasonably long and/or complex e-mail response on a keyboardless tablet. No? I didn't think so. And if the correspondence requires both reading and editing documents (text, spreadsheet, presentation) then you're doubly out of luck (again, see below).

Oh, I'm sure you can augment your tablet experience by adding a keyboard, maybe even a mouse, and a stand. But then is that a tablet any more? Sounds to me more like a decomposed laptop, but with the added pain of not really being able to compose it anywhere you like. I bet even long haul flights would whizz by if you had to assemble your tablet-cum-workstation, then tear it down again. Even in First Class.

4. Writing

If I were cruel, I'd say: see above. But I'm not. Going to say it. However, writing anything but a (very) short text message is a pain on a touch screen. You know it. I know it. And yet we may be trying (I know I am now and again, but only on the phone). Useless.


5. Reading

Aha! Gotcha!

Erm, no. Not really. Yes, the glossies may look way better on a colour LCD than on 16-shades-of-grey eInk screen. And most current e-readers do not handle PDF files very well. But you still read quite long books? Is it very easy to hold half a kilo of a tablet for as long as it takes to read a Terry Pratchett novel? Yes, I know it's over before you know it, in a blink of an eye, and you hold your breath the whole time. But then, if that were really true, you'd be very blue in the face (if not dead), your eyes would have dried out and look like prunes, and having finished before knowing it you'd probably miss all the fun, too!

So, just be sensible and get yourself a Kindle (plus, porn is better on a laptop, trust me - leaves both hands free).


And that, dear reader, is pretty much all I have to say on the topic of tablets right now. While I'm sure I could just as easily come up with at least another five use cases for which a tablet computer is a poor fit, but I'll leave that exercise for you.

However, I'd be very much amiss if I didn't also tell you what I think would be a tablet saviour. And, believe it or not, I think it is Siri. Well, OK. Not Siri as such. Something along those lines, but way more advanced. And I mean SF advanced. Advanced to the point where I could have spoken this whole post into my tablet computer, in my broken non-native speaker accent, telling it where and how to format it, and so on, and so forth... You catch my drift. If not, go watch Star Trek, or something.

Which is not to say I won't be getting a tablet computer before I am defrosted in 2525. It just means that I certainly won't be paying through the nose, and by various limbs, for the privilege of having a slab weighing too much and capable of too little. I may even tell you which one it is once I get it. Just don't hold your breath. Unless you're being frozen for posterity at the same time, that is...

I am aware of Asus's valiant efforts with the Slider and Transformer. Still, all other non-keyboard gripes apply...

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Apple Does It Again

I am never surprised by how silly, short-sighted, and short-attention-spanned people can be, but I am constantly amazed by Apple managing to fire up everyone with things which should really elicit only a "meh... not again?!".

First, there was FaceTime. If you were born yesterday and on top of that had your ability to read up on recent history surgically removed at birth, you'd think that video calling was invented by Apple, and if it wasn't that Apple's implementation limited to its own products and an internet connection was bee's knees the world has never seen. If, on the other hand, you managed to wrestle yourself from the Reality Distortion Field, you may have noticed video calling was available on 3G mobile phones for almost a decade, was not limited to a single manufacturer, and was available anywhere you had a connection to the mobile network, i.e. wherever your phone worked at all. Meh, indeed.

Now, with the latest iPhone 4S (and I think other iPhones which can be upgraded to the latest iOS 5), we have been again showered by Apple's magnanimity and, like manna from Heaven, have been given... wait for it...


What is Siri, and why is it so hot at the moment?

As expected, it is much easier to answer the first part of the question: Siri is Apple's version of a voice control application for an iPhone. You tell Siri what you want to do, and it does it - provided it can figure out what you meant. Apparently, it works quite well, and can perform some quite clever actions. And that's all fine, good, and commendable. Nothing against doing things better.

The problem is, however, that it's one thing to do something better than it has been done before (which can only be praised), but another thing entirely when, reading reports and reviews, one gets an impression that it is, well, not necessarily the very first time in history it's been done (although some reports do leave you wondering), then that anything that went before was total rubbish, useless, or worse. Also, same as with FaceTime, one can easily get an impression Siri is a saviour of the consumer and revolutionises the way in which we use our kit.

Well, for those who had the surgery I described in the second paragraph, voice control of mobile phones has been available for even longer than video calling. It didn't even require an internet connection like Siri. Yes, you guessed it, it was built in. I should know. I used it, and more importantly, was marginally involved in the implementation of it way back in 2001 or so.

Oh, don't get me wrong. It was 2001, and it wasn't as polished as Siri is today (and for that matter, not just Siri: there are, in fact, similar applications for most any phone you care to name - and your PC). You also had to train it to your voice a bit more than you have to these days (if at all). But still, it was there, in poxy little GSM phones of yore. You could say "call Mum", and it would. Magic! But Apple Magic? Sorry, no.

To finish on a brighter note: I somehow suspect that Siri (and it's cousins on other phones), just like FaceTime before it, will die a quiet death of all technology fads that sound good only on paper - and even then only if there is a hype on the scale of what Apple can still whip up. Because, when was the last time you saw someone doing a FaceTime call? And for that matter, when was it last you ever saw anyone talking to their phone, rather than on it?


Also similar to FaceTime - and any video calling, for that matter - the user giving voice commands to his phone either looks a dork (take phone out of pocket; hold phone in front of face; tell phone "call Mum"), or is a dork (hands-free scenario: talk to a passer-by "call Mum"; talk to more passers-by "Hello Mum, you look lovely today!"). These are precisely the reasons why original video calling (a must have for a 3G phone at the time - we spent inordinate amount of time making it work well) and the original voice control (talking at your phone in public) never caught on. Technology did improve. Our needs, habits, and mores as people haven't, and I doubt they will for either FaceTime or Siri.