GNOME, Unity, and mobile devices

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Mar 14, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

I've often said that recent desktop environments are heavily influenced by mobile devices. However, it was only last week, when I switched to a Nexus S phone, that I examined that claim in detail and realized that the statement was incomplete.

The fact that all three interfaces share some common assumptions is too obvious to question seriously. The relationship shows in details like menus and windows that are either without titlebar buttons and menus or else hide these items until users search for them. In Unity, it also shows in windows that be dragged up and down without scroll bars.

However, the most obvious similarity is that complete screen changes are an inescapable part of the interface. The only difference is that, on the Nexus S, screen changes are necessitated because of the smallness of the screen. In GNOME 3, the changes are part of the design, even though on a workstation or laptop, there would be plenty of room for the contents of the overview mode on the main screen. Unity is slightly different, in that the dash menu is an overlay rather than a complete screen change, but the effect is much the same, especially since the desktop in the background is blurred by default. In all three, the experience of using the interfaces is more or less identical, and more than enough to prove common ancestry.

Things Not Borrowed
What is more interesting is what GNOME 3 and Unity do not borrow from typical mobile interfaces.

I'm not just talking about the Nexus S's default animated wallpaper. Nor the icons that buzz beneath your fingertip. Both these rate high on the gosh-wow scale for new users, but neither have much to do with functionality. If anything, the animated wallpaper, and the buzzing icons (and the animations and color changes that in some cases provide an equivalent on the Unity launcher) are more distractions than additional functionality. Instead, I'm referring to more practical considerations.

For example, all three interfaces offer virtual workspace. On the Nexus S, I can't set the number of workspaces, but I can change to another space simply by sliding my finger horizontally across the screen. Neither GNOME 3 nor Unity offers similar functionality, although KDE does.

Similarly, on my phone, apps switch their display orientation almost as fast as you can reposition the device. You can change screen orientation in the System Settings of Unity and GNOME 3, but, while they were borrowing, why didn't they include this practical feature? Anyone who does page layout would welcome it, so they could switch from a full page view to a two page spread without drilling down through the menus.

Which brings up a more general point: in the name of reducing clutter, the two desktop environments bury configuration and administration controls deep in the menu. On the Nexus S, the overview of these controls is a top-level item, and always visible.

In fact, on the Nexus S, basic navigation tools -- Previous, Configuration, Search, and Home (to give them names) -- are always available. In GNOME 3 and Unity, such breadcrumbs are intermittent at best, showing up only in a few windows, such as the file manager and System Settings. More often, in the effort to provide as clean an interface as possible, Unity and GNOME 3 ignore such straightforward navigation aids.

The most I can say is that Unity's and GNOME 3's panel icons make common tasks conspicuous, just as the small toolbar on the Nexus S's home screen does. Considering that the two desktop environments have to deal with far more functionality than even a smart phone, that is no small accomplishment.

Yet, even there, the two desktop environments could do more. In their efforts to avoid redundancy, they frequently omit controls that could simplify navigation. This is a consideration throughout their designs, but shows most in their almost pathological avoidance of application icons on the main desktop.

This is a mistake that the Nexus S's interface never makes. Its Home screen is nothing more than a Favorites screen for commonly used widgets and icons. And, while strictly speaking, with its icon navigation, the Nexus S may not need the search bar across the top of the screen with the voice activation, it's still a useful tool -- and places a basic accessibility tool where it can't be missed.

As for the buttons for sliding the virtual screen on either side of the toolbar, they aren't really necessary, either. Nor is the repetition of the top-level Search icon on the configuration screen. Cynics could argue that the Nexus S designers are simply filling up unused space with such items, but if the space isn't needed for anything else, giving users alternative access is far more useful than leaving it blank.

A refinement of opinion
Phone interfaces are not especially suited to workstations or laptops. They are restricted in size, business cards to the wall posters of a widescreen monitor.

All the same, I now think that my irritations about GNOME 3 and Unity is not simply that they borrow from the interfaces of phones and other mobile devices, as I often implied. After all, the same could be said about KDE, which offers a much more successful workstation environment while being influenced by the interfaces of mobile devices.

Instead, the problem is that GNOME 3 and Unity combine the interfaces for small-screen devices with design philosophies of their own. Had they followed the same principles as devices like my new phone, I suspect that the results would still have been less than ideal on a workstation -- but far less irritating than what they actually are.

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