Usability of Free Software Desktops: a rant from 2002


In 20012002 I wrote for LinuxFormat a two parts tutorial for end users on how to configure Gnu/Linux desktops on limited hardware, that in part summarized what we were then doing in the RULE project. Before the actual tutorials, I had also written down my own, very personal motivations for playing with that kind of tricks. The reason was to clarify, first to myself and then to the editor, what itches I would try to scratch, so that text was never published, and I basically forgot about it. I rediscovered that file, dated September 19th, 2002, only this morning. Reading it again, in these days of Unity, tablets and touchscreens, made me think it may be fun to share it. Remember when it was written, judge by yourself and let me know.

TITLE: Are Gnome and KDE really useable? Are KDE and GNOME suitable for children/students?

A look to the desktop side that KDE, GNOME, and many Linux distribution are missing (not that commercial software never cared…)


Today, everybody knows how and why Linux (and Open Source software in general) is technically superior to closed solutions. It finally has the deserved recognition in the server market recognition it deserves, performing optimally even on obsolete hardware. Many commercial tools have been ported to it, showing that the two worlds can (and, in my opinion, should) coexist.

So, what’s still missing to world domination? The desktop, of course. Apparently, Linux has made huge steps forward in that direction too, with the KDE and GNOME projects: today it is much easier to do WYSIWYG word processing, spreadsheets, games, music, video and games using only Free Software (as in Free Speech of course), in fully graphical and well integrated environments.

Certainly Gnome and KDE are the easiest and more realistic migration path to wean non technical users from the Redmond playpen. I highly respect all the developers, and consider outstanding software many of their applications.

On the other hand, I also think that KDE and GNOME risk to limit or delay the worldwide spread of a Free desktop, because they seem to forget what real desktop usaability should be about.


In KDE and Gnome, you can do everything just clicking on many wonderful icons; all windows have the same borders and fonts; you can cut, paste, drag and drop everything to everywhere. Is this desktop paradise? Yes, if:

  • the Redmond way is the right way

  • you do accept their default tool(s) for every task

  • you do accept their default way of doing things

  • you do have a modern computer, with much more CPU power, RAM and HD space than are really needed

Sure, there are thousands of other Linux applications, all free and customizable. I know it, but your six year old son, your grandmother, or your technically challenged coworker don’t.

They can buy a PC, put the Linux CD in the tray, and have everything installed in twenty minutes. But what do they find on the screen? The confirmation that, even with Linux, to do desktop computing you still must:

  • give up at least 1015 percent of your display to buttons, panels and taskbars,

  • have the latest CPU and truckloads of RAM and disk space.

Oh, yes, and quite some money to buy all that. Just as commercial ones, free modern desktops perpetuate the dogma that more is necessarily better, forgetting that while software can be free as free beer, hardware cannot.

They say that Linux might even transform any 486 junk into an excellent server, but on the desktop it must waste almost as many resources as other platforms, in the same way (without blue screens, of course). We seem to have lost the passion for doing always more with the same limited material resources.


Shell scripts and commands give the maximum power, efficiency and flexibility, but remembering them all is not easy, and opening a terminal just to type six or seven characters doesn’t make much sense. When we closely look at it, this is the main, if not the only reason, why many people become addict to full fledged mouse-based environments, and limit themselves to the ready made ones.

I know that, without a common graphical toolkit it would take much more time to develop and integrate new applications, and RAM needs would be higher. I am a bit lost, however, whenever I read proud assertions that Unix now has a really useable desktop “because all windows look the same”.

To me, from the point of view of a non competent desktop user, useability means:

MINIMIZE ALL COSTS: without touching real functionality

SPEED, but the one coming from running only what you actually need, not by fan-cooled dual processors

DOCUMENTATION: one common, searchable frontend for everything, be it HTML, man or info

COMMON SHORTCUTS: an easy way to have or remap the same key shortcuts across all applications

FREEDOM TO PICK UP ONLY WHAT YOU ACTUALLY NEED. Recently, I asked in several mailing lists what I should install on a four years old PC to surf the web graphically. I wanted SSL, Cookies, JavaScript but no email/news/ftp and so on. The result was:

  • Konqueror: very good, but you have to install and run a bunch of KDE pieces anyway, so what’s the point?

  • Konq-e: probably the solution, if you know how to compile by hand lots of stuff

  • Galeon: very good, small and ligth on resources… if Gnome and Mozilla are installed

  • Skipstone: almost like Galeon

The truth is that many modern applications are lightweight only inside their complete default environment. If not, you must have quite some skills and spare time to recompile them.

NO PANELS OR ICONS: screen space is too valuable to do in this way what you could still do with the mouse through the root menu, or a file manager window. “Drag any file over the printer icon… TA-DAH!!” Uh? What is faster (i.e. more useable) for a mouse-only newbie? Left click on something inside any file manager, and select “Print” on the resulting menu, or drag it all the way to the other corner of the screen?

NO MULTIPLE WORKSPACES: yes, if your boss enters the cubicle while you are chatting with your mistress on a Playboy immersed in company memos and budget calculations. Apart from that, let’s admit that most human beings do things serially to avoid mistakes. Those shock-full screenshots demonstrate how much you can do in Linux, but who really writes, clicks and read into 20 windows simultaneously?

Commenting system (still under test!!!)