Nat Friedman

Archive for May 2005

Made with GNOME

Nathan Wilson from DreamWorks just finished his keynote address at GUADEC with a really funny clip from Madagascar, the new animated film they just released. After the clip played (to thunderous laughter — it was good) he said, “All rendered on Linux, all made with the GNOME desktop.”

31 May 2005

GUADEC Usability Hackfest

This wordy entry is largely cribbed from an email I sent last week, and is to introduce to you the first-ever GUADEC usability hackfest. If you are at GUADEC, please come and help us make GNOME more usable!

Over the last several months we at Novell have sent a team of people around the world with a portable usability testing lab: two video cameras — one on the face, one on the hands — and a frame grabber, recording everything the user does. We ask our subjects to perform five or six simple tasks with GNOME and burn the result to a DVD.

It is amazing to watch the ways that people fall on their face. We’ve all read about the benefits of usability testing, but until you actually try to sit still through two hours of these videos, it isn’t a visceral experience for you. It is exciting, and totally emotionally exhausting. You squirm. And it focuses you like a laser.

For example, we asked a lady to send mail to a friend. Against all odds, she started Evolution (nothing in the menus indicates that it’s a mail program; something we hadn’t realized before but which was immediately obvious after watching her stalk one-by-one through the menu items muttering to herself along the way).

The correct next step would have been for her to click on the “New” button that’s in the upper-left-hand corner of the window. This button didn’t even register for her, however. Instead, because she wanted to “send” a mail, she clicked repeatedly on the “Send” part of the “Send / Receive” button just to the right. For about a minute.

This is easy to fix; we just need to change the labels to be more sensible (and then test again on 5-6 people to make sure we changed them appropriately). It was interesting to watch this video and instantly realize that the “Send / Receive” button is all about how Evolution works and not about what the user wants to do. I’ve been staring at that button for five years, and never realized it was wrong until I saw that video.

Anna Dirks will be airing much of this video at toady’s hackfest at GUADEC, during her talk before lunch. We will also be publishing a lot of it online as soon as we get all the participants to finish signing release waivers. We’re also thinking about providing funding for more of these usability labs so that other people can do this testing themselves. The video talk will be followed by a hackfest, so people who want to work on improving the desktop we have, instead of engaging in an open-ended “GNOME 3″ discussion, have a place to go.

You can read more about the hackfest on the wiki page.

30 May 2005

New Linux desktop software

Jeff Waugh has just arrived in Stuttgart fresh from his eight-leg trip from Sydney, and just pointed me at the SymphonyOS desktop mockups. This is one of the most exciting sets of desktop mockups I’ve seen in a long time. I’ve been spending some time thinking about basic desktop layout recently and these ideas are pretty cool.


. . .

Jeff also told me about Thunar, a very nice simple file manager being written by some of the Xfce guys.


The shortcut bar on the side matches the shortcuts from the Gtk file selector. Does the word “duh” mean anything to you? I have no idea why Nautilus doesn’t do this yet.

Also, Thunar provides browser-style navigation, which I think is a lot more usable than the spatial mode that Nautilus uses.

Jeff seemed pretty excited about this; I got the feeling Ubuntu would be switching to Thunar pretty shortly! If Red Hat and Sun follow, our hand will be forced.

28 May 2005

Welcome to the stud farm

Previous visits to IBM’s incredibly boring facilities near Stuttgart combined with reports that the city was almost entirely levelled by the allies during the war to lower my expectations to IM Pei levels of shitty modern architecture and East St. Louis levels of urban splendor. I wasn’t expecting much from Stuttgart this year. But this seems to be a very nice city.

Miguel and I got here yesterday morning, jetlagged and coated with whatever that filmy substance is that clings to your skin after 10 hours of flying. I spent the whole flight reading that new book about Steve Jobs, which was okay, but not really what I was hoping for. I wanted some more detail about how NeXTSTEP was turned into Mac OS X and about the development of the iPod. Instead I got a 75-page narrative of the early years of Pixar, its relationship with Disney, the ouster of Michael Eisner, etc. Not all that fascinating. And I felt that the book painted an unfair picture of Steve Jobs.

As told in the book, Jobs’s focus on an elegant and innovative user experience at the expense of all else was in several ways a major problem for most of his early career. The Apple II succeeded in some large part because it was expandable, because it was easy to program, and because an ecosystem of hardware and software vendors could develop around it quickly and support its growth. Woz can be credited with much of that.

After Woz faded into the background and the development of the Mac began in earnest, Steve swung the pendulum hard the other way: no expansion slots, only one memory configuration, and the focus of early development was, based on the anecdotal evidence I’ve read, on the user experience, not on the developer experience. He did recruit Microsoft as an ISV, but that was the extent of it.

The result was a machine that was to some eyes all flash and no substance. Yes: the Macintosh was a breathtaking, gorgeous achievement in user interface design. But it was largely a commercial failure under Jobs’s stewardship. Until long after he left, the vast majority of Apple’s revenue came from the Apple II line. There was no spreadsheet, and very little software available for sale. This is absolutely unbelievable, because the spreadsheet was the piece of software that rocketed the PC to commercial relevance.

The way the book tells it, NeXT was much the same story. An elegant machine, technically and aesthetically compelling, but not very useful due to a lack of applications. NeXTSTEP did sport an object oriented development environment, but somehow it failed to attract the hordes of adherents who would have made the system broadly relevant. This either wasn’t enough of a priority for NeXT, despite the nice platform they had, or it was already too late to catch up to Microosft with a proprietary hardware platform.

I have my doubts about how faithful this telling of the story is to actual fact, but it is interesting nonetheless.

Contrasted with Microsoft’s intense and unflinching focus on recruiting developers to their platform, this is an interesting story. This morning at breakfast, Dan Kusnetzky mentioned that one of the major mistakes of OS/2 was to support Windows application execution. If you built a native OS/2 app, it would run on OS/2. If you built a native Windows app, it would run on both Windows and OS/2. What are you going to do?

By the way, I don’t think that either of these issues (sexiness or ISVs) is the most important problem facing the Linux desktop communities (GNOME, KDE) right now. The biggest impact these groups can have is to make fundamental functions easy: basic operations like managing files and changing simple settings are difficult because of poor user interfaces, slow software, and bad error handling; hardware still doesn’t just work, etc.

I loved reading Matthew Thomas’s list of usability issues he encountered in Ubuntu because it drew attention to the things those of us in the Linux desktop community would rather forget. Though we like to focus on new horizons like desktop search and 3d acceleration (I certainly do), there’s still shit lying in the backyard that someone needs to to clean up. Checked out the sound properties dialog in GNOME lately? There’s not as much glory in being a pooper scooper, but maybe there should be. We could make t-shirts.

So, the biggest issue for GNOME and KDE isn’t a strategic one. It’s an execution problem. We’ve got to get better at finishing what we’ve started.

(I hope I’m not being a downer or anything, on the eve of GUADEC.)

I wanted to go running this week but my right ankle and shin are still in pain from the abuse I applied last weekend. Apparently all those people who emailed me after my last post and told me not to overdo it were right, but a little too late.

28 May 2005

24 May 2005

San Francisco

Time Travel

Brain Activity

Mike Shaver recently recommended I read Delivered From Distraction, a book about adult ADD.

It arrived today, along with about fifty other things that had accumulated in my Amazon shopping cart (a new Gore Vidal book, some Manu Chao CDs I already owned, Marathon Training for Dummies, a chess strategy book, a toy airplane). I cracked it open and skipped directly to the self-assessment quiz on page 45.

The first question was, “Did you turn directly to this quiz before reading the other parts of this book?”

The next question wasn’t, “Did you receive twelve other books on disparate subjects with which you’ve already lost interest and a toy airplane along with this book?” But it might as well have been.

. . .


I started running a few weeks ago as a way of keeping the urge to smoke at bay. The theory being that you can’t just stop smoking, you have to adjust all the other parts of your life such that smoking doesn’t make sense anymore. You essentially have to become a different person, a person who would never smoke.

So I’ve been running three or four times a week, and I’m up to about an hour a run. Yesterday was my longest continuous run so far, at a little over nine miles (in an underwhelming but not totally pathetic 1:20). My shins hurt today.

Last night, I ordered a super-cool wrist-mounted GPS to show me how far and fast I’m running. All the benefits of a treadmill without the massive suck-factor of going to the gym and contracting foot diseases in the bathroom.

Last week was spent in Europe, and running was much more fun there. The little towns of Ede (in Holland) and Bad Homburg (in Germany) had very accessible parks and forests through which to run. Dirt trails are a lot gentler on the joints than sidewalks.

In Bad Homburg, which is not as good as Good Homburg

“Bad” in German means “bath,” and Bad Homburg is an old European spa town; a place you’d visit to recooperate from serious illness or decades of too much sausage and beer. Like in Der Zauberberg, but without the mountain and the long expositions on Humanism.

. . .

Sort of sinister

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