Are Mobile-Style Interfaces Leaving Desktop Users Behind?

Tablet-like user interfaces may be opening up a niche for less graphically focused desktop operating systems

Microsoft certainly made a big splash with the early preview of Windows 8 it offered this week, and it's easy to see why: the new platform looks to be a surprisingly radical departure from the traditional Windows paradigm.

There are clearly going to be lots of improvements in Windows 8, but the change I find most interesting is the operating system's touch-enabled, mobile-style Metro interface, which reminds me a great deal of Ubuntu Linux's Unity.

Both Unity and Metro borrow heavily from the mobile world, and for that reason seem likely to appeal to an increasingly mobile-minded world of consumers. As I've said before about Unity, this is a good way to attract mainstream users, particularly when you're trying to help them get used to something new.

What I'm not so sure about, though, is whether these types of interfaces are right for the desktop, and especially for the power users who--“post-PC era” notwithstanding--do still tend to spend most of their time there.

You can, of course, still use the traditional desktop in Windows 8, and you can install something else on Ubuntu. The fact that these new-style interfaces are increasingly becoming default, though, is making me wonder if in all this focus on “post-PC” and multiplatform computing, there may be a growing niche for a less graphically focused alternative for desktop power users.

Producers vs. Consumers

This is not to say that operating systems like Windows 8 and Ubuntu don't offer features for power users; they both clearly do. Touch, however, is not particularly well-suited for long periods of time at the desktop--my arms hurt just thinking about it--and the mobile-style interface often feels like it's being forced to fit, in my opinion.

Then, too, there's the difference between content consumption--visiting Facebook and watching YouTube videos, for instance, both of which are easily done within the mobile paradigm--and content production, which tends to be done on desktops and requires much more involved interaction with the computer.

I don't have any statistics to offer about Unity, but I do know that a significant contingent of longtime Ubuntu users have protested vehemently the fact that it has been made the default. Now that Windows is heading in a similar direction, I think there may be growing demand for a desktop operating system that isn't based on the mobile paradigm.

'Configurable to the Last Detail'

Diversity, of course, is a hallmark of Linux, which is available in flavors for just about every taste and purpose. Some distributions--like Ubuntu and Linux Mint--are designed with ease of use at the forefront, while others target different niches and needs.

Arch Linux, for example, eschews the popular graphical installer in favor of a text-based one, and it focuses primarily on simplicity, as a recent report on The H points out. The base system includes only the fundamental necessities; from there, it's up to users to customize it however they want.

“Arch Linux defines simplicity as without unnecessary additions, modifications, or complications, and provides a lightweight UNIX-like base structure that allows an individual user to shape the system according to their own needs,” the project team explains in its description of its philosophy. “In short: an elegant, minimalist approach.”

Lower system resource demands are one consequence of that focus on simplicity; so too is better user control, the project team asserts.

“The base system is devoid of all clutter that may obscure important parts of the system, or make access to them difficult or convoluted,” the description adds. “It has a streamlined set of succinctly commented, clean configuration files that are arranged for quick access and editing, with no cumbersome graphical configuration tools to hide possibilities from the user. An Arch Linux system is therefore readily configurable to the very last detail.”

No. 6 and Growing

There are, of course, numerous other Linux distributions as well, many of them with a similar focus on higher-end users--Arch certainly isn't the only one, and it won't be the right one for everyone.

Arch does currently occupy DistroWatch's No. 6 spot for popularity among Linux distributions, however, and it's on the rise. Ubuntu, Mint and several of the other top distributions, by contrast, are on a downward trend, at least according to today's statistics.

The bottom line, though, is that the increasingly mobile-style, touch-enabled operating system may be leaving some desktop power users behind by removing a degree of user control and taking up considerable resources for features they don't need. I won't be at all surprised to see alternatives like Arch continue to gain ground.

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Katherine Noyes

PC World (US online)
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