Computers · Operating systems


tagsI write plenty of tedious posts about computers and technology, and I usually tag them according to what they’re about.

As I write this, the tag cloud for this blog looks like the picture on the left—Apple and Microsoft loom large, Nokia and Oracle get a look in, and there’s no reference to Linux at all.

But Linux is the main operating system I use, and it has been for the last 15 years or more.

I never write about it because, like the boy in the German child joke, I’m content with it. I write about things that fascinate me, and there’s nothing less fascinating than a system that does what you expect it to, again and again.

Although I also develop software for Windows, OS/X, and Android among others, Linux is my home platform.

I like that it gives me a sense of independence from any particular platform I might deploy to. I like that it allows me to make my own decisions about the type of desktop environment I choose. (Never trust an OS that won’t allow you to change the system font.) I like the transparency of the development environment, and I appreciate being given the opportunity to find out how anything in it works—even though I don’t take as much advantage as I might.

So far, using mostly Linux has been a fine way to observe developments in other operating systems, from just enough distance not to get too caught up in any one of them.

A touch of froth

A jolt, though, comes with the arrival of touch interfaces. I’m not the only one to be surprised to find how pleasant a touch screen is to use with a laptop. For me, Apple had it wrong: though familiarity means I still prefer a mouse for detail work, I’d rather have a touch screen than a trackpad.

Maybe I just haven’t used touch screens enough to become really fatigued. But I wonder whether the research might not have underestimated how fatiguing the crabbing action of using a touchpad is. I don’t think “I’ve been waiting all my life for this touch screen”; I think “thank goodness I don’t have to use the touchpad”.

I’ve heard it remarked that innovative input devices interest consumers in a way that novel output devices seldom do. There are many examples of new input devices becoming mainstream, sometimes in wildly popular ways: the joystick, the mouse, the D-pad, the touchpad, gaming controllers with accelerometers and gyroscopes, computer vision devices (the Kinect) and so on. Meanwhile various innovations in output (such as 3D and very high-resolution screens) have appeared repeatedly and been largely ignored—unless they came in packages that were attractive for other reasons, such as the LCD display with its slender physical dimensions.

So, over the years I’ve taken quite good advantage of the ability to pick and choose my desktop interface on Linux. Like all self-regarding programmers, I’ve used my own window manager. I’ve used KDE, until I switched away when KDE4 arrived. Then I used GNOME, until I switched away when GNOME 3 arrived. Right now I’m using XFCE4. But it’s not at all touch-friendly, and nor are any of the applications I use. This one has so far completely passed me by.

In short, then, those Ubuntu and Gnome people that I’ve probably been rather rude about might have had a point. There was some reason to be piddling about with the basics of the user interface after all. I need to start finding out whether Linux, other than Android, can work well in the touch screen world.

3 thoughts on “Linux

  1. You say “how fatiguing the crabbing action of using a touchpad is”. What touchpad are you referring to? I utterly hate using any touchpad other than those on macs. They’re an exercise in frustration and certainly lead to the “crabbing” you mention. But I really like the MacBook touchpads, particularly once I learned the gestures. I bought a MagicPad for my desktop mac and now use that as my primary pointing device. I tried pairing it with Ubuntu but couldn’t get it doing anything useful beyond point and left-click. So back to a mouse on my Ubuntu Unity setup.

    1. Any touchpad! I actually prefer smaller ones, such as everyone seems to be trying to eliminate from PCs these days, because you have less far to move to cover the same territory. But something about the repetitive grip/ungrip needed for any touchpad makes my wrist complain. I’d rather extend my elbow and stretch out a bit.

      (Might have something to do with placement in front of the keyboard, i.e. rather close to the body — I’ve never seriously messed with a separate touchpad on the right.)

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