jb… a weblog by Jonathan Buys

Spit and Polish

After spending a week with Linux as my sole computer, I find it very refreshing to come back home to my Mac. FedEx says my wife’s PC should be here tomorrow, so she can go back to Word 2007 and I can have Mactimus Prime back. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy working with Linux, I did, but I’ve found that once the geeky pleasure of discovering something new wears off, there are problems.

I gave up on using Lotus Notes as any type of information manager a few months ago, so anything that comes in as an email is treated either as a to-do or as reference material. To-dos are deleted when they are finished, and reference material is printed to PDF for indexing by the operating system. Or, they would be indexed if Linux had a decent indexing system. Tracker, the default installed with Ubuntu seems incapable of properly indexing the large PDF files that I accumulate. I’ve done quite a bit of research lately concerning high availability, especially when it deals with DB2, but a search for the term “HADR” in tracker finds nothing. Maybe there’s a setting that needs tweaking, maybe I need to read the man page a little deeper, but all I know is that it doesn’t work quite right yet.

Google desktop search finds everything, but then there’s the strange need that it has to look and act like Gnome-Do. That bothers me to the point that I wind up uninstalling Google Desktop, the only tool that actually works. I just can’t have two applications performing the same function. If Gnome-Do would actually index the contents of the files, it’d be perfect. Google Desktop just looks and acts out of place. I like tracker because it looks like it belongs in Gnome, but looking like it belongs and actually performing its intended tasks are two different things. Google Desktop finds what I’m looking for, but it opens Firefox and I feel like I’m browsing the web, not my personal files. The conceptual model just doesn’t work… not for me.

Contrast this to my Mac. Every file that is written to the hard drive is automatically indexed by spotlight, and is immediately available from search. Spotlight is written into the kernel, deeply ingrained in the OS X operating system. Linux (and Windows, I believe?) search and indexing systems are add on applications that search for new and updated files to add to their index on a schedule. There’s no integration, no unification of the application an the operating environment.

Desktop search is only one area that needs attention. Another is the location and organization of the menus. In Gnome, there are two task bars, top and bottom. The top menu bar contains the three main menus for finding and launching installed applications, bookmarks and file system manipulation actions, and settings for personal preferences and systems administrative tasks. In OS X, the nested menus have been replaced with applications. The Finder is an application for locating and launching applications and manipulating the filesystem. On the surface, it seems like Finder is on par with Nautilus, the Gnome file manager, but this is not the case. The Finder, for all its faults, is a one stop shop for finding and launching applications, documents, music, pictures, and anything else that you can think of. Gnome uses a menu to launch applications, and Nautilus for finding and launching documents. Gnome also uses a pair of menus to change system and personal preferences. OS X has the system preferences application, which is also integrated into spotlight with a clever highlighting feature that “spotlights” the preference you are looking for.

Finder and System Preferences are two applications that highlight the focus on simplicity that is inherent in the design of OSX. It comes down to limiting choices. If I want to change something, I need to change a preference, in OS X I launch System Preferences. In Gnome, I launch…. well, it depends on what I want to change. I need to spend some time reading through the menu options to find the appropriate application that will change the preference I’m thinking of.

Then there’s the rest of the top Gnome task bar, which absolutely drives me nuts. For one, Gnome allows you to add applications shortcuts to the task bar, and ships with Firefox, Evolution,and the Gnome help application there by default. So now, you have both drop down menus and applications to launch side by side. Gnome allows you to “Lock” a menu item in place, assumedly so that when other options are added, they must be added around the item that is locked. This has the unfortunate effect of causing some menu bar options to be completely in the wrong order when moving from the 13” laptop screen to the docked 22” monitor. The menu items that are locked in place are still in the same place relative to the smaller screen size, while the menu items that are not locked in place have expanded with the larger screen and are now on the opposite side. So, to remedy this, I have to go to each item and unlock it, and then drag them to where they are supposed to be.

Of course, this raises another interesting question… just where are they supposed to be?

I normally remove the item with my name on it, since it duplicates functionality available under the System menu. I leave the calendar where it is, and love the weather available there. The volume is next to the weather, as is the network manager item, which both seem perfectly at home. Then there ‘s the notification area, which I’m never sure what will show up in this area. Pidgin lives there, as does the Rhythmbox music player, and occasionally Gnome-Do pops up there long enough to let me know about some new tweets on Twitter. The new unified notification system reminds me of Growl, and I love that it is included in the operating system by default now. However, when I launch Pidgin now, I’m given yet another icon on the task bar, and I have no idea what it does. It looks like a small envelope, and seems to be there simply to annoy me.

Most of the things in the top right hand side of the task bar seem perfectly at home there, but the notification area doesn’t. I might move it down to the bottom right task bar, in the place now occupied by the trash and the desktop switcher, but I’m afraid it might clutter up that area too. In the end, the notification area is more clutter than anything else.

The bottom task bar includes the trash, desktop manager, and an icon to click if you want to minimize all of the open windows to see the desktop. That button must come from Windows. The rest of the bottom task bar is used for window management, with an icon for each open window much like the Windows task bar. This bothers me because I have a notification area where applications can live, and I have the window management task bar where applications can also live. So, when I want an application, at times I have to stop long enough to check both the top and the bottom of the screen. Or, Alt-Tab, or Super-Tab, or, if it’s not in there maybe it’s a daemon, or maybe it crashed.

Personally, I’d like to see a more interactive bottom task bar, one that incorporates both notification capabilities and window management. Eliminate choices so I don’t have to make choices and decisions about my computer when I should be thinking about what I’m doing. I have to stop using my tool at times to interact with the tool, instead of simply using the tool to accomplish my intended task.

Gnome has some things that I’ve really enjoyed. I love TomBoy. I love how Gnome has built in ability to mount nearly any connection and browse it as a filesystem. I love, love, love Gnome-Do, and I wish it wouldn’t have tried to be something its not with that ridiculous dock theme. Gnome-Do, you excel at being a keyboard application launcher for Linux, where I spend all my time in the terminal. Be what you are!

I’m looking forward to getting my Mac back in the next couple of days, and I’m really looking forward to firing up Xcode and getting to work on my app again. I may talk to my boss about using my Mac at work as well, that would solve so many problems for me. For now, I’ll keep using Linux. The major problems have been overcome; stability and capability. Now, it’s time to concentrate on spit, polish, and deep integration for a cleaner, less cluttered user experience.

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