Gnome's Interface Warts--And Its Future

It's not unusual for this column to provide how-to advice for users of Free Software--usually tips for Linux users, showing how to tweak something using techniques analogous to getting under the hood of your car. These tips often include a directive to open a Terminal window and type in a command.

More often than not, when I give this sort of advice, I hear from someone--often a reader, sometimes a colleague--who will explain to me, with great condescension and weariness (as if they cannot believe that I don't recognize this myself), that no operating system will be ready for (or accepted by) "average users" until such arcane command-line tweaks are never, ever necessary.

So I have to admit, it was with barely restrained glee that I watched the online hubbub over Mac OS X 10.5's new translucent menu bar unfold. If you don't follow developments in the Mac world, here's all you need to know: In the Mac OS, one menu bar always graces the top of your screen. You click this sucker a lot. And in the new Leopard release of OS X, this bar traded in its classic, solid appearance (basically unchanged since 1984) for a translucent look, with results that are sometimes downright disastrous in terms of whether you can find and see what you want to click.

The Gnome desktop on many a Linux box has a similar bar--we call it a "panel"--along the screen's top edge. You can make it translucent, if you like. You can even choose how translucent you want the thing to be. Here is the dialog box you encounter when you wish to alter the panel's look:

Apple, on the other hand, provides no sort of GUI-based control over Leopard's menu bar translucency. If you have cherished wallpaper that makes seeing your menus impossible, here's how you solve the translucency problem:

sudo defaults write /System/Library/

LaunchDaemons/com.apple.WindowServer

'EnvironmentVariables' -dict 'CI_NO_BACKGROUND_IMAGE' 1

Yowza, talk about arcane! Yet I've seen nobody argue that Leopard is somehow "not ready for average users." The same goes for various tweaks one might employ under Microsoft Windows (XP or Vista, take your pick): Write a command line batch file to do this or that, or edit the Registry to tweak a certain aspect of the interface--PC World has been peddling such tips for years, but you don't see people claiming that those tips prove Windows isn't ready for prime time.

I think it all boils down to a matter of what you are accustomed to: A lot of folks have worked with Windows through so many iterations and for so many years, they no longer see certain usability issues that have hung around for every bit as long.

And the same goes for Macintosh fans. Recently I was stumped--completely--as I tried to learn how to view the contents of a Windows shared folder on a Mac. I was able to drill down through several layers of PC World's internal network using the Mac's Finder, but when I arrived at shared folders, I always hit a dead end and couldn't get an actual file listing.

What I did not know: At that dead-end point in the Finder, I had "mounted" the Windows share as a "volume" on the Mac, and an icon for it was now on the desktop (hidden beneath my Finder window, of course)--and I needed to double-click that icon to bring up a second Finder window, where I would see my files.

That setup may make perfect sense to a Mac user; it made zero sense to me. Why do I have to mount a volume to browse a remote folder? Windows doesn't make me do that. Linux's Gnome and KDE desktops don't make me do that. Is OS X a poor choice for "average users" because remote folder browsing is kinda unintuitive? Of course not--it's just that the Finder isn't very smart in browsing a Windows network, and sprucing this up doesn't seem to be a priority at Apple.

Similarly, a Linux machine running the Gnome desktop generally offers a very friendly and familiar computing environment by any measure. But the quirks you will discover once you become a full-time user are, naturally, different from the quirks you'd grown used to on your old platform. So they're going to stick out at you.

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