What’s Happening with User Interfaces?

Like many of you, I’ve been watching the big changes in user interfaces over the past few years, trying to make sense of them all. Is there a common explanation for the controversies surrounding the Windows 8 UI and Unity? Where do GNOME 3, KDE, Cinnamon, and MATE fit in? This article offers one view.
The Windows 8 UI

It’s no secret that PC sales have declined for the past couple years,
while smartphone and tablet sales have increased:

Device Shipments

(Source: Gartner Inc,
June 2013 statistics, 2014 numbers are predictions, chart courtesy of Chron)

This has been terrible news for Microsoft. Windows sales are stagnant,
even while the company misses out on the tremendous growth opportunity
in handhelds:

Operating System Shipments
(Source: Gartner Inc,
June 2013 statistics,
2014 numbers are
predictions, chart
courtesy of Chron)

What to do? A few years ago — in a gutsy, bet-the-company move —
Steve Ballmer confronted this crisis
head-on, announcing a radical redesign of Microsoft’s flagship Windows.
Now, we all know the result: Windows 8. It flopped. The IDC research firm, Dell
Inc., and others
blame the decline in PC sales, in part, on the new Windows 8 interface.
the extent of the new UI’s responsibility for this decline is
nobody disputes this basic judgment… not even Microsoft. The company
is breaking all speed
records to produce the 8.1 upgrade it will give away free to save its

The puzzler here is why Microsoft decided on one OS with a single
interface for both desktops/laptops and its Surface handhelds. The
winners in the
handheld OS competition, after all, have decided on a two-OS approach.
Apple reaps success with iOS for its phones and tablets, yet the
company retains Mac OS for its desktop and laptop computers. Similarly,
Google offers Android for handhelds and Chrome OS for netbooks and

These companies recognize that handhelds and personal computers have
fundamentally different operating characteristics, and thus require
different UIs. Apple iOS supports touchscreens with direct manipulation
via sliders, buttons, and switches. Gestures includes the swipe, tap, pinch, and reverse pinch.
Accelerometers respond to movement, so that the device automatically
reorients between portrait and landscape. It can even respond when you
shake it. GPS navigation underlies locational services. These are vital
because we carry handhelds around with us. Lastly, the
small sizes of handheld screens dictate many aspects of their designs.
On a small screen, it’s easier to run a program by touching a big
colorful app icon, rather than by selecting from a tiny text list menu
that’s hard to read. You can’t easily minimize lots of windows to a
panel on
a small screen.

None of these
functions — so integral to handhelds — relate to desktop and laptop
computers. In fact, as the Windows 8 UI demonstrates, if you
try to alter the desktop/laptop UI to include some of them, you
compromise the
user experience.

So why did Microsoft insist on one interface for both its tablets and
PCs? And why does the company state
that “The release of
WindowsPhone8 is a significant step toward convergence with
? Microsoft is clearly driving towards a single
OS and similar UI across all devices.

Some believe this was an engineering decision. Others think it was an
error in judgment, the kind that can happen in any large
corporation (even one with such talented people as Microsoft). I
believe this is a marketing-driven decision. Microsoft owns the desktop
but has no
meaningful market share in handhelds. So why not leverage all those
loyal desktop and laptop users? Force them into Microsoft’s new
OS. Train them into Microsoft’s handheld world, even as they use their
desktops and laptops, so that when they buy a handheld, they’ll be
comfortable, familiar, and already loving the Microsoft product.
Microsoft believed they could leverage their personal computer OS
monopoly to build handheld market share.

So far, the strategy has failed. Perhaps version 8.1 will fulfill
Microsoft’s dream. Or
maybe the version after that. Microsoft’s got both the cash and the
for the long game. Many would like to see them succeed. As consumers,
would all benefit from a more competitive handheld universe, with three
big software
ecosystems vying for our money, instead of only two. (And we sure
wouldn’t mind if they fixed Windows 8 to work reasonably for desktop
and laptop users.) Will it all happen? We’ll find out over the two to
three years.

Ubuntu’s Unity

Microsoft’s bold interface gamble very much influenced Canonical in
switching Ubuntu’s interface to Unity. Mark Shuttleworth shed light on
this in his talk
at OSCON 2012:

“We said: ‘We have this desktop,
and it’s a very popular desktop; lots of people love it. But we believe
that the future looks like this diverse collection of form factors. We
want to have a user experience that spans a range of form-factors, e.g.
a desktop, a tablet, and a phone, and, in fact, we even wanted a TV as

Different form factors [have] different constraints and need different
but they can be, we believe, part of one family…

old desktop would force your tablet or your
phone into all kinds of crazy of funny postures… So we said: ‘Screw
it. We’regoingto move the desktop to where it needs to be
for the future.

We [had to move] our desktop because if we didn’t we’d end up where
Windows 8 is.
[In Windows 8] you have this shiny tablet interface, and you … press the wrong
button… then it slaps you in the face and Windows 7 is back. And then
you think OK, this is familiar, so you’re kind of getting into it and
whack [Windows 8 is back]

[Ubuntu] is in this great position to spread out across all of
the form factors.”

Canonical bought into Microsoft’s idea of one OS for all devices. As
part of their plan, the company introduced the Unity shell for the
desktop environment in Ubuntu 11.04. Unity replaces the traditional
Windows-Icons-Menus-Panels desktop with its new
Launcher-Quicklist-Dash-HUD-Panel paradigm. Like the
Windows 8 UI, Unity’s design was heavily influenced by small-screen
touch technology.

As Shuttleworth acknowledged in his speech, “… [This change] turned out to be a deeply unpopular process.” Canonical
responded to user resistance to the new Unity interface in several
ways. It has variously offered the
classic GNOME shell as a fallback, the gnome-panel
package, and Unity 2D. More importantly,
Canonical continues to improve and enhance Unity at a rapid pace.
Lastly, official
Ubuntu derivatives still support the traditional desktop metaphor. This
fulfills Shuttleworth’s vision where he says that “Different
form factors [have] different constraints and need different interfaces
but they can be, we believe, part of one family…

The different interfaces that are part of the family include Xfce
(Xubuntu), LXDE (Lubuntu), and KDE (Kubuntu). It is very telling that a
Ubuntu GNOME project was recently
added to this list, since it was the switch from GNOME 2 to Unity that
caused all the controversy.

Today, many users enjoy Unity. Others have left Ubuntu for its
derivatives, as
as for Linux Mint. The Mint developers saw what was happening with
and the somewhat similar new GNOME 3 interface and developed a
dual-bore response. They built upon the traditional GNOME 2 interface
in their product named MATE, which enhances this GUI and supports
hardware. Mint also built upon the new GNOME
3 interface and its state-of-the-art
graphics in their Cinnamon shell — while adding menus for traditional
navigation. Linux Mint has become very popular in part
its developers understood that Unity and GNOME 3 would meet user
resistance, and
they astutely continued supporting traditional desktop interaction.
(The Mint distribution also offers KDE and Xfce.)

GNOME 3 with the GNOME Shell

When it was introduced in spring 2011, GNOME 3 abandoned the
traditional desktop design of GNOME 2 in favor of the new GNOME
Shell. The GNOME shell is superficially somewhat similar
to Unity (though the two are diverging over time). Both present a new
style of desktop interaction influenced by mobile devices. As with
Unity, some
liked the new GNOME desktop paradigm, but others didn’t and it
caused quite a controversy.
Linus Torvalds famously criticized it and switched from GNOME 3 and its
shell to Xfce.
Then, as the product rapidly improved, he went back to GNOME. Tons of
extensions and packages like the GNOME Tweak Tool smoothed the way.
Computers that
couldn’t boot GNOME 3’s new graphics ran a Fallback mode that was
reminiscent of GNOME 2.

was announced in May. It includes a new Classic mode “…for those who prefer a more
traditional desktop experience.”
mode replaces Fallback mode. Through
Classic mode, the GNOME team addresses those who dislike its new
interface. The goal is to continue with the new desktop while keeping
users who want a traditional system in the fold. My guess is that most
will judge GNOME on the basis of its enhanced version 3 design, which
many like. Those who want
a traditional UI have probably already left the GNOME Shell for
alternatives. In any case, the GNOME project remains vitally important
the free software movement in its support of many dozen tools and


KDE, too, ran into controversy
when it altered its desktop paradigm. This was way back in 2008 when
version 4 was first introduced. KDE 4 promoted new understandings of
folders and icons that many initially found off-putting. But like the
and GNOME 3 projects, the KDE developers moved quickly to address
issues. The Plasma Desktop had matured by release 4.2, quelling most

Rather than a “one UI fits all
devices” approach, the KDE project offers a multi-pronged strategy. The
Plasma Workplace concept includes
Plasma Desktop, Plasma Netbook, Plasma Contour (for tablets), and
Plasma Mobile (for phones), thereby distinguishing the high-level user
interface by device while retaining lower-level commonalities. Plasma
Desktop mates traditional and new concepts in its own unique manner.
Thus, KDE
continues to be popular on desktops and laptops, especially among
power users who appreciate its flexibility, customization, and powerful

Xfce, LXDE, and MATE

With the drastic changes in some UIs, interfaces that have remained
true to the traditional desktop metaphor have gained in popularity.
Xfce, LXDE, and MATE innovate within the context of this
long-established paradigm. Xfce is well polished and much faster than
when I first
tried it with Xubuntu several years ago. Today it really flies on my
Mint systems. You can customize it by adding icons to its desktop or
quick launch panel as
easily as you can in Windows. LXDE features a
highly-modular design with independent, plug-and-play components.
Together with its fast apps, LXDE has become the lightweight default
interface for several distros including Knoppix, Lubuntu, and
Raspbian. MATE continues the GNOME 2 heritage and
incrementally improves it with new features and themes. Several distros
have adopted MATE instead of GNOME 3.

Xfce, LXDE, and MATE will run on mature
computers. The newer UIs require
state-of-the-art graphics hardware. These include current releases of
GNOME (with 3.8’s
elimination of Fallback mode), Ubuntu (with 12.10’s dropping of Unity
2D), and Cinnamon (which requires 3D acceleration).

What Happened?

The rise of the handhelds caused turmoil in user interfaces. Ubuntu
Unity, GNOME 3 Shell, and KDE 4.0 transformed
their desktop UIs to
handheld-influenced designs. All three immediately became embroiled in
controversy as desktop and laptop users resisted. In response, these
projects modified their initial efforts. (They also admitted the
legitimacy of their users’ complaints by providing various options for
with the traditional desktop metaphor.) Now, a few years in, many users
enjoy the new UIs into which these three products have evolved.

Windows 8 suffers this same controversy today. Microsoft could
have avoided the strife had they adopted the dual-OS
approach favored by Apple and Google. These two competitors clearly
distinguish between handheld and desktop/laptop UIs. But Microsoft’s
marketing needs dictated
otherwise. Now the company endures a difficult period in which it tries
balance the UI changes consumers demand with achieving the company’s
marketing goals.

Xfce, LXDE, and MATE continue to refine the
traditional desktop-laptop interface for Linux users. My experience has
been that
even beginners take to these UIs without training.
While some argue that it’s “intuitive” to hover the cursor over
an invisible hot spot, click a hidden button, or type arcane
application names into an empty box, desktop users find old-fashioned
roll-over menus quick and self-explanatory. And
these interfaces don’t require new machines with high-end graphics.

Everyone’s needs are different. The good news is that now we have more
interfaces than ever from which to choose.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Howard Fosdick
(President, FCI) is an independent consultant who supports databases
and operating systems.


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