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Who killed the desktop metaphor?

09 May 201407:57AMrants

You'll have to excuse me for a bit while I revert to being 15 years old and ranting excitedly about technology that nobody cares about.

So I ran a software upgrade today, and when I went to open up Firefox my lovingly crafted toolbars had been replaced with this mess: what the heck is
going on here? There are two problems here which I think are pretty symptomatic of the way computing is headed, and if I'm totally honest, I'm not happy about it and I need to have a bit of a whinge.

The first thing is that some third party - whether they're the developers or not - should not be touching my configuration files. That's a pretty gross violation of trust however you look at it, but I think the reason behind it is the worse part of the story. It's not that they needed to make changes to support blah blah blah. It's that they figured that they knew what was best for me, and overwrote my configuration files, on my computer, to match their vision of how my computer should work.

The second thing is the nature of the changes. I am a desktop kind of guy. I have put a lot of effort into making my workspace look and act as much like a souped-up version of Windows 95 as possible. And the reason for that is that I'm not using a tablet. As a matter of fact, I seriously doubt that anyone using the x86 Linux version of Firefox is using a tablet, because there are no x86 Linux tablets. And it's not like they don't have the ability to tune this stuff by platform, because Firefox on my XP desktop (yes, shut up.) and my Arch laptop have always looked and behaved very differently.

So not only have I had this change forced on me unwillingly and without permission, but the change actually makes my experience noticably... simpler. By which I mean, less conducive to the kind of complex tasks for which I typically turn to a proper computer rather than a touch screen gizmo.

Here is where I see the convergence of these two trends: User interfaces are getting dumber. By which I mean, trending away from complexity. By which I mean the ability to complete complex tasks through multitasking and extensive customisability rather than a uniform modal interface. Look at Windows 8, or Gnome 3, or... actually, the new Mac OS is not too bad in that respect. Which is surprising, given that IOS started it all.

Here's the thing: users are dumb, but simplifying interfaces further and further, while it increases accessibility, won't increase ability. And just maybe, it might stop some inquisitive person from discovering the awesome power and complexity buried in their computer.

Because here's the thing that pisses me off - it's not that you're simplifying the general interface while exposing a more powerful one 'underneath' as it were. It's that in many cases you're actually removing functionality. Like, see that menu on the side there? yes, this one. Unlike every other UI element in every other version of Firefox since 1.0, that element can't be moved. Why? I don't know. It probably has something to do with the fancy new customisation window with the option to flick unneded icons straight into the menu (as if there were any icons left to start with), or maybe to make tech support easier ("Go to your menu - there's only one!") or maybe just because Chrome does it that way and Chrome is cool right now. I don't know. All I know is that this bit of software is measurably less capable than it was before the upgrade, and that seems backwards to me.

Anyway, turns out I'm not the only one with this problem, and there's already an extension to fix it, because thank god for open source. Because it, I don't know, Microsoft, was to hypothetically remove all the neat functionality of their webmail client in the name of simplification, then there would just be no way to get it back, would there?


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