A critique on modern GUI design.

Don Norman, a usability design specialist, writes about how the GUI has become a very complex part of modern programs and argues that the general-purpose computer is now inappropriate, as the GUI paradigm as we know it is incapable of efficiently encapsulating all the information we require for our daily work.

I disagree. I believe this kind of approach is the easy way out. An excuse for the incapability of the IT industry to innovate, instead of perpetuating the milking of the modern society’s dependence on computing machinery through sub-par products. True, the ‘classic’, 30 year-old GUI paradigms we’ve been using in commercial products since the Apple Lisa and the Macintosh, and much later Windows, is dated. And, true, it is completely inefficient when we’re talking thousands of files, hundreds of programs and thousands of relationships, interconnections and interactions between them. But, surely, this challenge can better be solved through innovation, through revolutionary design and not by building specific-purpose computers. The latter would certainly satisfy Microsoft, where Mr. Norman works, as it would have to just sit back and continue seeing its funds increase, as people would require more and more specific-purpose computers in their daily lives, all without raising a finger. I guess companies like Microsoft – and to some extent Apple – are locked into their existing systems, their existing platforms and their existing functionality, in the same way users of their systems are locked into the commercial software they depend on and have invested in.

But, wait a minute. If the application realm that made Apple rich (DTP, early Multimedia) and Microsoft rich (Word processing, Office applications) has now been incorporated into FOSS, don’t we have an opportunity to change all this? Through innovation? Wouldn’t introducing word-processing, movie playing, emailing, games etc. machines translate into standing still for the sake of continued funding of a greedy and lazy industry?

I am no linux fanatic (in fact, I find much of it dated , incomplete, inelegant), but in the FOSS domain there is much more than just linux. A large amount of code has been poured into projects like KDE and Gnome, OpenOffice and the linux kernel, the *BSDs and Hurd. Some of it is very high quality and very modern, but a large part is either bad, amateurish attempts at something or just dated, bad designs.

GUIs do depend on underlying system functionality. FOSS could potentially be the platform for new and radically different things – its non-commercial nature can warrant the required ‘freedom’ to do this. It would take industry support, collaboration and open standards. And GNU seems like the perfect domain for this ‘revolution’ to really take place. Not as it does now – in the completely democratic, anarchic way of development – but through a mixture of casual free development by open source developers world wide and rigorous efforts by corporations embracing this model in providing guidelines and infrastructure to support it.

There has been no other time in the short history of computers when the market leaders were as fragile as they are now. And that, as Norman correctly states, might indeed make Apple to pull out of the ‘general-purpose’ computer market and focus on more ’specialised’ multimedia devices, where its strengths lay.

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