The Little Things

Today I was out in the data center and decided to boot into Linux to get some work done on my Dell laptop. I was busy populating our internal wiki with hardware and OS data from our servers (how many dimms, what size, kernel level, etc…), which is a lot of work, lots of copy and paste, formating, grepping, going back and forth between the terminal and firefox. Lots of moving around, but not a lot of cpu or memory intensive tasks, just basic office tasks. I’m using Ubuntu, with Gnome and the desktop effects turned on, and I got so frustrated that I booted back into Windows. I hate to say it, but I was able to get more done in Windows today than I could in Linux.

Some of that is my fault, and the choice of applications, but much of it is not. I’m constantly getting the feeling that I don’t have X configured just right, the screen just doesn’t seem sharp enough. Also, I’m quite certain that the gnome interface is slower than Windows explorer. I don’t have any hard data to support this, just my gut feeling and a collection of separate annoyances that I’ve noticed. For instance, at times when dragging a window across the screen the window seems to stutter across the screen instead of flowing smoothly the way it should. I understand that Ubuntu comes with “Bulletproof X”, which is a big improvement in a lot of ways, but there is still no way that it can compare with Quartz.

With Windows, I use the excellent Putty SSH client, coupled with Launchy and exchanged SSH keys results in superfast access to my servers. Also with Putty, all I need to do is select text in the shell with the mouse and it is copied into the clipboard 1. Then it’s a quick Alt-Tab to Firefox and CTRL-P to past into the wiki, and I’m back. Maybe its because I’m more familiar with the interface, maybe its because I’ve spent the time to set up my windows environment, maybe its just because the interface is snappier. I was reading through one of my old Linux Magazine 2 issues when I came across a letter to the editor that said

Linux’s benefits are in its license, not in its interface.

I couldn’t agree more.

I want to use Linux on my laptop, its just that I want it to work the way I want it to work. I want it to be fast, smooth, and more than anything, intuitive. I know I may be asking too much in that last one, but things have been moving steadily towards a more usable interface for a long time. Each year since 2003 I’ve been waiting for the Year of the Linux Desktop, and I think its high time it arrived. I’ve been a fan of Gnome for a long time, I like the interface more than KDE (which I’ve always thought was a bad Windows clone), and Gnome is more fully featured than XFCE (or any of the other minimalist window managers out there). However, since Gnome seems to be running so sluggish on my laptop, it looks as though I’ll either be switching to XFCE, or seriously tweaking my X configuration. Ahh, and I thought those days were behind us.

Yes, Linux, you are getting there, but you’ve still got a ways to go. It’s not the big things anymore (winmodems, anyone?), it’s the little things that get us now. I’m seriously thinking that what we really need is an entirely new window manager, perhaps something not based on the thirty year old code base of X. Maybe its time we threw out everything we think we know about user interfaces and start from scratch. I wonder what awesomeness we could come up with.


  1. I realize that there is probably a configuration file somewhere I could edit (or a checkbox to check?) that would change this behavior. I just don’t know where it is.
  2. I remember when Linux magazine was a little more edgy, and a lot more geeky, back when it’s tagline was “Chronicling the Revolution.”