July 29, 2005

Linux not ready for the desktop part 4: helping regular people feel at home on linux

In my original article, I said that "Linux must feel comfortable to Windows users. Most people using computers today have been at it for a while now and they've been at it on Windows. Don't mess with their basic understanding of how things work."

First, it's important to clarify that I am definitely not saying that Linux should be (or even could be) a Windows clone. Just as Firefox is not and should not be an IE clone, Linux needs to be its own while also being as comfortable as possible to Regular People coming over from Windows.

A fine corollary can be found in our move from the legacy Mozilla Application Suite to Firefox. When Mozilla was being developed, a major focus was to appeal to the existing user base which was mostly Netscape Communicator 4.x users. Those users were comfortable with the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+L to focus the addressbar. IE has always used the Alt+D shortcut to focus the addressbar and a non-trivial number of IE users had complained that that simple little shortcut habit was causing them pain when they moved to Mozilla. Mozilla refused to change so as not to "break" the Communicator users. By the time Firefox was born, the pool of Netscape Communicator, Mozilla 1.0, and Netscape 6/7 users that were potential Firefox converts probably numbered in the low millions (if that.) The pool if IE users that were potential Firefox converts, on the other hand, numbered in the hundreds of millions. We added the Alt+D shortcut for focusing the addressbar. Was this a critical change? Probably not. Was it important enough that by doing it we made millions of IE users a bit comfortable on Firefox and so more likely to stick with Firefox? Absolutely.

I bring this up because I took quite a bit of heat for suggesting that something like the reversed positions of OK and Cancel buttons in the common dialogs on Linux should be changed to accommodate the much larger potential audience of Windows users. Is it absolutely critical? No. But I argue that, like that Mozilla shortcut key, there isn't sufficient benefit to being different to warrant making Regular People feel even a little bit uncomfortable when making the decision about whether or not to save a document. And I'm also not saying that Linux should be as inconsistent as Windows is. This is a great opportunity to take what Regular People are comfortable with (the Windows button ordering) and improve it by doing it consistently across all dialogs. Linux can be comfortable for Regular and better than Windows.

In addition to the OK and Cancel buttons being reversed, I also mentioned the issue of the Linux clipboards. While it may be that having two distinct clipboards is a useful feature for some people, it will be disconcerting to most Regular People and I'm arguing that it's not worth it if it makes Linux's largest potential audience feel even the least bit uncomfortable. This is also not some kind of horrible deal breaker for getting Regular People to use linux, but when you add up a lot of these minor discomforts, it makes for something that feels overall too foreign and uncomfortable. That's to be avoided if you want those people to hang around long enough to appreciate all of the benefits of the Linux desktop.

Other more serious examples of unnecessary divergence from the Windows desktop with little (or no) benefit to Regular People include the Gnome change to what they called "spacial Nautilus" - stripping Nautilus of the file browser and moving to a paradigm with multiple open folders on the desktop, and the main panel move from the bottom of the screen to the top. Both of these chances are very jarring to Windows converts and are of questionable value to most Regular People. If the feature, once adjusted to, offers a far superior experience then maybe it would be worth it. If you can't say for certain that it does offer significant value, then there is no good reason to break the habits of Regular Users and give them something uncomfortable.

I'm sure there are more examples, both minor and major, of differences between Linux and Windows - changes that don't offer significant benefit but do make Linux uncomfortable to Windows users. I'm not cataloging every issue here because I simply don't have the time.

How does Linux improve here? The challenge is to find those areas where it's valuable to change and make the transition as easy as possible (through good documentation, intuitive or easily learned UI, etc.) and to find those areas where change doesn't offer enough benefit and make those areas as comfortable as possible. It is not necessary to be a clone, but it's foolish to deviate from what Regular People expect when the value of that deviation isn't extremely high.

I'll have at least two more posts on this topic (hopefully before OSCON) where I'll summarize my four main points, and hopefully be able to further respond to some of the comments and criticism. Stay tuned.

Posted by asa at 10:43 PM