The benevolant overlord interface

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about computer interface design. That’s probably because Gnome and Canonical have also been doing that for the last couple of years. I’ve spent quite a lot of time using both Gnome Shell and Unity recently and I feel like they each bring a sort of personality to my computer.

Gnome ShellGnome-shell watches over everything I do. It’s quietly waiting in the  background and at moment’s notice it will shout my windows into parade form and stand by awaiting orders, like a high-ranking general to a despot in his final years. “I await your orders, Sir, although I strongly recommend you do what I have already decided.” In practice I don’t find the expose overview very useful, maybe because I’ve never been a Mac user so I’m not used to it. Most of my windows are grey and white and look basically the same. A “show icons in the overview” extension would probably help (in fact, I seem to remember this happening at some point).

Canonical's UnityUnity is more of a young child stood next to me, who has coloured my application icons in different colours for reasons that I don’t understand, and proudly presents them to me on a tray at irregular intervals (and on a random choice of monitor). The launcher is perhaps the drowsy, overgrown teenage sibling. The dog has helpfully dragged all of my menus to the top of the screen, which is a well-meaning gesture for netbook users but unfortunate with an extra monitor that’s vertically above my laptop screen.

I feel Gnome Shell is a good interface for a laptop, but the design is poor for more technical users who use multiple monitors, or multiple terminal windows. Unity’s seems designed to fail in any situation – too slow and complicated for a tablet or a netbook, unusable with multiple monitors, and rather distracting in every environment as the panel slides in and out unpredictably. How about the old Windows 95 / Gnome 2 interface? I guess I’m so used to it that a character doesn’t really come out of it at all. It’s a grey-looking middle-aged fellow who knows exactly what his job is and does it the same way he’s always done.

This post was brought to you by a major electronics manufacturer based somewhere in Asia.

Gnome shell future plans

Gnome 3 is just around the corner, and I’m writing this from it now thanks to Debian unstable. Things are working pretty well, which is a vast improvement on just a couple of months ago when bugs in the r300g driver prevented me from running it at all. I’m very impressed by how everything has come together and how many bugs have been fixed in all levels of the stack to make it all work.

Other than the system monitor there’s not a whole lot of stuff I miss from Gnome 2. However, there’s lots of room for improvements now that the basic system is working.

* Tracker and Zeitgeist integration is in the works. This is major stuff that will really make the shell rock.

* A system monitor. It would be nice to have a little CPU & memory usage profile in the top bar that would open the system monitor. I’d be very surprised if it didn’t appear as an extension before too long.

* I like Ubuntu’s idea (I think it’s theirs 🙂 of putting ‘now playing’ stuff in with the volume control. This would make it a lot easier to do things like pausing music to watch a video, and keyboard shortcuts could even be included in the shell to change tracks etc. (Songbird on Windows does this, Meta+left/right changes songs and up/down the volume and I used to find this great when working with music playing on shuffle).

* Another great addition would be an indicator to monitor the state of all tasks going on in the system. This would include filesystem operations, downloads, slow things going on in applications and also background tasks like tracker indexing. Some work exists on this front, but there’s a lot still to do to make this happen in the Shell.

* Less obstructions when I want to turn my computer offwould be nice 🙂

I’m sure there’s be plenty of these lists appearing in the next few months. I guess I just wanted to get mine out first. But I do know that I’m excited for the next few years, and with the new centralised and extensible nature of the shell it will be easier than ever to turn some of these ideas into reality.