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The StartX Files: Building the Perfect Desktop - page 2

Right Down to the Nitty-Gritty

  • December 26, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt

This week, I acquired my first digital camcorder. I am very excited about this new device, as I am always looking for ways to get pictures of my immediate family to the rest of my kin scattered around this nation of ours. If I were living in the 1950s, I'm sure I would be one of those guys dragging out the 8mm projector every chance I got at a family get-together.

Instead, in these modern times, I have been content to pull still images from my digital camera (a Kodak DC290) and flood e-mail inboxes of pictures of my kids doing adorable things. (How my family feels about this is something I have never really asked; though so far they have been tolerant.)

On my Windows and Mac machines, I just pull the pictures down with the software that came with the camera and store them in a central repository on my Linux box. That's because if I want to do any photo-manipulation, then the GIMP is where I want them to be. (Plus, there's more room on my Linux machine.) In the early days of my digital camera use, I would do this almost exclusively, since I couldn't find software to pull in my pictures directly to the Linux box.

Then I discovered gPhoto, a great command-line application that will talk to over a hundred models of digital cameras, including mine. Now, I could hook up the camera to the USB port and boom! Photos galore.

Since gPhoto is a CLI app, it is preferable for me to slap some kind of GUI on it, which I found in kamera, one of theKompany's applications that has been donated to the KDE project. Kamera is very cool: it acts as a module for Konqueror and essentially lets you view and manipulate the contents of the camera's storage medium as if it were just another folder on your screen. (For the GNOME users, there's GnoCam, which is very similar.)

Now, without trying to take anything away from gPhoto, which is an excellent product, I have to say that if a beginning or casual user were given the choice between setting up this software on Linux or installing something similar on Windows, you are going to see a lot of these users just chucking it and using Windows. Because, even though the documentation on the gPhoto site does a great job in explaining how to download source and binary code for the gPhoto 2.0 beta, it still does not provide the user with a GUI way to manipulate their photos.

And with my new camcorder, I may have to do the same thing again to pull the movies down from it. (Though dvgrab looks interesting...)

Many of you might be thinking "so?" And you might be doing this with no sense of malice or cynicism. Because we, the technically gifted, don't think there's anything wrong with getting the core command-line application first and then running a separate GUI application atop it. We do it for gPhoto, we do it for cdrecorder, we do it for lots of Linux desktop apps. It's just all a part of using Linux and X.

And here is where I have the problem. Linux users can easily run around and say: "look, what we have on the desktop is practically as good as what you have. So take your evil, monopolistic OS and stick it--" Well, you get the idea. And it is as good as Windows or Mac OSX--for us. We, who are undaunted by compiling source code to load a new application on our computer, think that many of the X desktops are just fine. Unfortunately, we are not the only type of user out there in the big, wide world of IT. In fact, people like us are a pretty small minority.

This is something that is very easy to forget. Most of us, as geeks, tend to hang out with like-minded folk. Most of my friends, for example, are at the very least computer-literate to the point where they can do basic administrative functions on Windows. And, were they to be exposed to Linux, I am reasonably sure that they could pick it up without too much trouble. But, let's face it, these are the people I have chosen to hang out with and you would expect that we would share common interests or mindsets. I am sure this is a situation that is familiar to many of us. And, because many of our friends and colleagues are like us, we can easily fall into the trap that says "hey, if we can do this, anyone can."

There is an old saying, "you can choose your friends, but not your family." This is a maxim that I can apply to my argument here. If you want to get a better picture of how diverse technical talent (or lack thereof) can be, take a look at your family. Then you will see that there is a huge amount of people out there who not only think computers are really difficult to manage, but (blaspheme!) they have zero interest in even attempting to learn about them. They only use a computer, in many cases, because they have to. With this in mind, do we honestly believe that Linux has the best desktop offerings for them?

Absolutely not. These people aren't stupid, mind you; their minds are just tuning in on something else. Art, sports, cooking, business... they may be brilliant in their fields, but utterly inept in front of a monitor.

It should be noted that I do not think that Windows is really the best desktop for these folks, either. Macs come close, just because its interface is self-contained and pretty low maintenance. In my opinion, this is a vast market place that Microsoft, Apple, and all of the Linux distros have yet to effectively tap.

If you were to ask me which was the best desktop for every user, I would be hard pressed to reply. I do not believe that any desktop is right for every type of user. Linux desktops are good for the technically minded, those who revel in tweaking, poking, and prodding something until it works just so. Windows is better for those people who just want something that works. And I have yet to figure out what Mac users are all about.

There are a few applications, such as StarOffice, that tend to buck the Linux trend and try to provide all-in-one features in a single package. And these, typically are the ones that get body-slammed by the hard-core Linux users who want nothing that even looks like a Microsoft app on their machines. StarOffice, it seems, is a cross-over hit--one that can work at least marginally well for more than one user type.

Now, we have to ask ourselves an important question: stipulating that we want Linux to have a strong desktop (and not everyone would agree with that), what kind of user are we going to make this desktop for? So far, we have made it mostly for ourselves. If we want to be more inclusive, then we are going to have to move in directions that will begin to shadow other operating systems' desktops. Is that what we want?

I put the question to you, good reader. For whom should the Linux desktop be built?

Available from: http://www.sun.com/staroffice/6.0beta/ (until Dec. 31, 2001)
Version reviewed: StarOffice 6.0 Beta, Calc component
License: Proprietary
Cost: Free

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