Reinventing Simple

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

May 30, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

The days when Linux applications were small and simple are long gone. With Firefox and LibreOffice installed on most desktops, the community has embraced monster-sized apps so unreservedly that you sometimes need to look twice to see what operating system you are using. In fact, the complexity has become so great that simplicity is being reinvented again and again -- by adding complexity.

I made this observation while looking at Author, the still-in-development module for serious writers in Calligra Suite. Scanning Planet KDE a few days ago, I noticed a blog entry by Inge Wallin announcing that Author now included a "distraction-free mode."

Judging from the screen shot, distraction-free mode displays no menu, icon, or status bar, and no tools, either. The idea, Wallin writes, "means that we disable most UI elements and lets the user focus totally on the contents."

According to Wallin, "this was one of the most asked-for features" to include in Author." He seems to be right, too, considering the enthusiastic responses the announcement got from one or two commenters. One commenter even suggested that distraction-free mode didn't go far enough -- it should also have the option of not displaying pages, to remove yet another distraction.

Reinventing the wheel
Now, I'm a bit of a Calligra Suite fan. Although eclipsed by LibreOffice and OpenOffice, and perhaps slowed in development by the politics surrounding its calving off from KOffice, Calligra Suite boasts a highly usable GUI. It is also one of the few efforts to give any thought to what a modern office suite should look like, an exercise that has already produced BrainDump, a mind-mapping module, and Flow, the best diagramming app I've seen for free software. And while I've never met Inge Wallin, he has never been less than courteous and helpful to me in his role as project communicator, and no doubt is simply reporting the news without necessarily endorsing it.

In other words, I'm disposed to cheer for Calligra Suite's progress. However, I'm not exactly in control of when an observation strikes me. Despite this pre-disposition, my first reaction to distraction-free mode specifically and Author in general is a Gordon Ramsay-like, "Really?" complete with raised eyebrow and skeptical silence.

Part of my reaction is my feeling that a professional writer ought to be able to produce under any circumstances. Personally, I write most of my articles in Bluefish because most of my editors either want HTML tags or completely plain text, but I'm perfectly comfortable using anything from Vi to LibreOffice. During occasional blackouts, I've even written by hand. If I'm ready to write, I don't notice menus and iconbars, and have no temptation whatsoever to format as I work, aside from the automated formatting that my template does. To me, it's a sign of the wannabe to obsess over the tools instead of the content.

Of course, work methods differ, and I respect that. But somehow, I just can't grasp the idea of firing up an office suite, and then almost immediately shutting down most of its features. The idea seems even more bizarre considering that Calligra Words has one of the cleanest, least-distracting interfaces of any word processor.

You want an uncluttered interface for writing? What's wrong with Vi? Joe? Or any of a dozen text editors for the desktop and the command line that allow you to turn off? Hardware resources are hardly strained these days, but using extra resources to recreate what can be had  with smaller, dedicated apps strikes me as roundabout and inelegant.

Perhaps Calligra Suite's developers are so absorbed by their own development plans that they temporarily forgot that they are part of a larger ecosystem of applications. But, whatever the reason, distraction-free mode goes against two basic Unix and Linux traditions: keep things simple, and don't reinvent the wheel.

These traditions aren't unbreakable, of course. But in this case, the only reasons I see for breaking them seem to be unnecessary ones.

Compounding complexity for simplicity's sake
Nor, to be fair, should Calligra Suite or Author be singled out for such a shortcoming.  As Linux becomes increasingly mainstream, these root principles seem starting to be forgotten increasingly often.

Consider, for instance, the number of GUIs inspired by those on mobile phones that are finding their way on to tablets, workstations, and every laptop in between. Canonical and Ubuntu in particular must have spent millions of dollars on Unity, producing a desktop that replicates the simplicity of the window managers that people have using for over fifteen years, but with considerably greater overhead. You can say much the same about GNOME-Shell.

Or consider the spread of cloud services. Apparently developed for no better reason than because someone could -- and not to solve any pressing need -- cloud services require whole new levels of complexity to provide the same security that local networks already provide. It is only when convenience is valued over basic security principles that such added complexity to make things simpler even makes sense.

Calligra's distraction-free mode is minor compared to trends like these. But it is still a symptom of the times, and of how unnecessarily complex keeping things simple has become. Such examples suggest that, after providing an alternative philosophy to that of proprietary software, free software is drifting too far from the attitudes that have made it successful in the first place.

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