Although changes made to Linux desktop environments over the last decade have given innovation a bad name, some, like KDE’s Activities, show promise.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how the user revolts against GNOME 3, KDE 4, and Unity had resulted in a dislike of innovation on the Linux desktop. Nothing could have proven my point better than the comments on the article. Almost universally, innovation is considered the opposite of usability. However, I can’t help thinking that this position is a false dichotomy. In fact, I can think of at least one example of successful innovation that is already widespread.
Many of the comments on my last article seemed full of false dichotomies. One comment asked why developers felt the need “to scramble things up and remove features people use, and move things to different parts of the system all in the name of ‘innovation.'” Another characterized innovation as “tinkering with looks, and trying to become the next iOS or Android/tablet UI.” One commenter spoke for many of the others when defining innovation as “change for change’s sake …just to get something ‘new,’ or to make things look flashier instead of actually making things better, more functional, more usable.”
Where these comments come from is not hard to guess. The user revolts, after all, were caused largely by large mis-managed releases. KDE Plasma was released before it was ready for general users. GNOME 3 was designed by developers who thought they knew better than users about how they wanted to work. Unity was imposed by Canonical without consultation from the Ubuntu community, which suddenly found its control lost to newcomers who often lacked diplomacy.
Moreover, just to make matters worse, responses from developers sometimes show a disinterest in feedback from everyday users. “If you have a complaint, code something yourself” was an all too common reply to complaints. The reply was valid enough in 2000, when developers and users tended to be synonymous, but by the time of the user revolts in 2008-12, Linux’s growth in popularity had made it callous. Others besides developers had a stake in Linux by then.
Under such circumstances, aversion to innovation is hardly surprising. But what doesn’t follow is that innovation is something to be avoided. What if innovation actually gave more choices in your work-flow? What if it made your work easier? In addition, what if it was available but could be ignored in favor of a traditional desktop? Surely, in such circumstances innovation could be acceptable or even welcomed?
Innovation Done Right
Fortunately, we do not have to speculate about the answers to such questions. We have an example that is already installed on thousands of desktops: KDE’s Plasma.
Yes, you read correctly.
Plasma was ineptly and prematurely introduced in KDE 4.0, but the design was an example of the way innovation should be done. Unlike GNOME 3, upon installation Plasma does not restrict users’ choices. If anything, it overwhelms you with choices, allowing you to work exactly the way you want. Consequently, your work is easier. Moreover, Plasma installs as a traditional desktop by default. The customization is only there if you want it.
Since only about a third of desktop Linux users run Plasma, a quick rundown of what is available in Plasma seems in order. A partial list of of Plasma’s most innovative features would include desktop effects that are more than eye-candy, hot spots on screen edges, desktop widgets, and above all else, multiple desktops called Activities.
Of all these features, Activities are probably the strongest example of successful innovation.
Of all these features, Activities are probably the strongest example of successful innovation. Multiple desktops, they provide the advantages of multiple monitors with less effort, making them ideal for those with limited budgets or a lack of physical desk space. They can be organized in any way you choose, so that you could have an Office and Home desktop or separate desktops for video editing and programming, or one full of widgets for monitoring your hardware. Instead of a clutter of icons or a menu, you can place only the icons required for a particular purpose on one, which makes applications easy to find on the desktop. Add the right widget to the panel, and each of these customized desktops is a single click away. Alternatively, you can scroll from one Activity to another. Names and wallpapers can be customized to make each Activity easy to recognize at a glance. In short, Activities are an expansion of the traditional desktop. They are quick to set up, and easy to switch between. Instead of enforcing a particular work-flow or organization, they offer multiple choices.
I have been using half a dozen task-based Activities for over nine years, and the reduction in the time I spend locating and launching applications continues to astound me. To give you an idea, my Activity called Writing contains the following icons: Bluefish and LibreOffice, a link to my income and article folders, and the URLs for an online thesaurus, rhyming dictionary, and Old English dictionary — all the tools I need for all the kinds of writing I do, with each one-click away. I can find what I need and return to writing with a minimum of distraction. The ease of use is so great that when I use other desktops, I feel seriously handicapped and slowed.
Plasma’s Model for Innovation
Sadly, amid the current fear of innovation, KDE continues to de-emphasize Activities — the chief reason I use Plasma in the first place. Personally, I am amazed that KDE developers regularly ignore Plasma’s strongest features. This neglect is particularly ironic because if more innovation on the Linux desktop were like Plasma, innovation would have a better reputation.
What Plasma does right with Activities can be summarized in three short points:
- It extends the traditional desktop. It doesn’t replace it.
- It offers a demonstrable advantage – either convenience or efficiency.
- It can be ignored if a user prefers.
When innovation does return to the desktop, I believe that any new feature will only be accepted if it follows the same principles.