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Recently, the Linux desktop has had some troubled years. Where once the news consisted largely of announcements of features, in recent years it has included debates about features and directions, declarations of forks, and resurrections and re-inventions of older designs.
The result of this activity has often been heated debate — to say the least — and, if user choice has increased, innovation has decreased.
The problem is that, with the exception of a few projects, the free software community is still learning to make user feedback part of the development process. Not long ago, the distinction between user and developer hardly existed in free software. And, even today, users making a suggestion are often told to write the code themselves.
Exactly how usability testing can be integrated into the free software development process has no easy answer. However, one important aspect of the answer is more consideration of the audience and its context. Thinking of the audience is always important in software design, but on the Linux desktop, which has developed in semi-isolation, it is even more important than usual. What will suit Windows or OS X users might be too different for Linux users to accept easily.
Based on what I’ve observed over the last few years about what has and hasn’t been well received, here are nine suggestions about how to design a Linux desktop.
I don’t imagine for a moment that developers will leap to embrace them. If anything, sarcastic cracks about pundits and outsiders seem more likely. All the same, I present them in the hopes of starting discussion.
Under these circumstances, user dissatisfaction shouldn’t be that surprising, should it? GNOME 3’s overview has a certain elegance, but, since users don’t worry about the problem it is trying to solve, not many are likely to appreciate it. That’s why Linux Mint’s Mint GNOME Shell Extensions (MGSE) allow users to ignore the overview, and its GNOME 2 re-creation Cinnamon does away with the overview completely. A feature designed to reduce clutter becomes clutter itself if you don’t want it.
Asked to choose between a lack of clutter and easy access, most users will choose access every time. Panel applets and desktop application launchers are not elegant, but most users prefer them over a clean desktop. Average users are too busy getting work done to sit back and admire the beauty of a desktop.
Why did KDE outlast complaints about the early KDE 4 series, while GNOME 3 continues to draw complaints? Partly because KDE developers always intended to restore the functionality of the 4.0 release, while GNOME has never had plans to restore elements like panel applets.
However, an even more important reason is that KDE has tended to extend features rather than remove them. The KDE 4 series is based around the idea of Activities — a series of customized desktops, each with its own set of widgets or icons. Yet, if you prefer to work on a single desktop, as in the KDE 3 series, you still can.
Admittedly, KDE should have made this flexibility more obvious. But that is a lesser mistake than eliminating features altogether.
Another reason why KDE has weathered protests better than other desktops is that, whenever possible, it has allowed users a choice of whether to use an innovation. If you don’t like System Settings presented as icons, you can use a tree view similar to the one in the KDE 3 series. If you don’t like the default menu, you can use the classic menu or the Lancelot widget. If you’re baffled by Activities, you can stick to Virtual Desktops instead, and get much the same results by changing a setting or two.
All of these fallbacks are fully functional, too — in marked contrast to GNOME’s fallback mode, which is a crippled imitation of the GNOME 2 series. Many details of the KDE 3 release series are rearranged or renamed in the latest versions, but the major features, at least, are available if you take the time to explore.
Anyone who follows the development of GNOME 3 or Unity can’t help but notice how often the jargon of usability design is tossed around. On both development teams, usability studies are evoked as an authority, intended to stifle criticism.
What no one ever mentions is that, while usability studies have the trappings of scientific study, they are closer to psychology than physics or computer science. They deal with complex, highly contextualized subjects, and very few — if any — usability studies are definitive.
Consequently, as anyone with experience can tell you, success in applying usability principles is highly dependent on your basic principles. In other words, you can easily create an interface whose every feature is in accord with the latest research in usability and still have flawed results because it ignores context and audience. Despite strenuous efforts to raise usability to scientific respectability, interface design stubbornly remains as much an art as a collection of established principles.
Both Unity and the GNOME 3 series are designed with the assumption that there is one optimal way to work. Unity, for example, allows files to be added to the desktop, while applications go on the launcher. Similarly, GNOME 3 assumes that all users want virtual desktops, and automatically creates them — regardless of whether you want them or not.
These ideas have a certain logic behind them, and some users do appreciate them. But what about the users who want easy access to more applications than the dozen or so that the launcher can absorb before it becomes unusable? Or the users who find virtual desktops confusing? These users aren’t going to appreciate being forced to work in a way that makes them uncomfortable, no matter how much logic you muster against them. Custom trumps usability, every time.
Today, Linux interface design seems centered largely on new users. In Unity’s case, this emphasis is probably partially due to Canonical’s march to profitability and its hope of attracting users from other platforms. However, other development teams have also adopted it, usually in the name of not frightening newcomers away.
In particular, in both Unity and the GNOME 3 series, reaching configuration options, or even a command line, requires a far longer descent into the menus than with in other interfaces. Advanced users can, of course, customize the interfaces so the features they want are more accessible, but this is still an inconvenience that GNOME 2 or KDE don’t share.
Maintaining a single code base is obviously convenient for developers. You might also argue that, since mobile devices are the most common computers today, their interfaces should be the standard.
On any other operating system, configuration would be much less important. It might not even make this list. But Linux users are accustomed to doing things their way. They may not customize every available feature, but they appreciate having the option.
A strong case can be made that heavy customization is overwhelming for new users. However, this problem can be avoided by supplying intelligent defaults that users can live with until they are comfortable about changing them.
Look at the reactions to KDE 4.0, GNOME 3, or Unity, and by far the largest complaint is the loss of configurability. In comparison, I have yet to encounter anyone who complains about the controls that Linux Mint has added in its efforts to recreate GNOME 2 on top of GNOME 3. Linux users expect to be able to customize their desktops, and grow twitchy when they can’t.
These rules are not all that is needed. At least some of the debate over the new interfaces could have been avoided by fully explaining the changes in public, rather than trying to launch an ad campaign as GNOME did, or making them a dictatorial fiat, as Unity did.
Matters might have been improved, too, if the ideas for the interfaces had been discussed among the development communities. Instead, both GNOME and Unity imposed top-down designs, announcing them only when they were ready to implement. This policy not only means that the interfaces were designed more along the lines of proprietary development projects than free software ones, but reduced the possibility of any feedback that might have improved them.
Still, what these suggestions come down to is a plea to think of context in usability. That is the path that Linux Mint has more or less been following, and the one criticism that you tend to hear of its plans is that they are being implemented too slowly.
No doubt, you could follow my suggestions and still have less than ideal results. But at least the user revolts that have become the norm in recent years might be avoided. And who knows? Someone might even produce an interface that people actually want to use.
You're reading Nine Rules For Designing A Linux Desktop
It kills me to say this: The dream of Linux as a major desktop OS is now pretty much dead.
Over the past few years, modern Linux distributions such as Ubuntu have utterly transformed the open-source desktop user experience into something sleek and simple, while arguably surpassing Windows and Mac OS in both security and stability. Meanwhile, the public failure of Windows Vista and the rise of the netbook gave Linux some openings to capture a meaningful slice of the market. But those opportunities have been squandered and lost, and Linux desktop market share remains stagnant at around 1 percent.
I should emphasize that I’m not by any means talking about the demise of Linux itself. New projections from the Linux Foundation credibly show that demand for Linux on servers will outstrip demand for all other options over the next few years. And, as I’ll discuss at length in this article, Linux has already established itself as a dominant operating system on mobile and embedded devices ranging from tablets and phones to TVs and printers.
But for anyone who has longed for a future in which free, open-source Linux distributions would rival premium commercial operating systems from Microsoft and Apple on desktop PCs, now might be a good time to set more-realistic expectations. Though I personally wish that the opposite were true, the year of the Linux desktop will never come.Missed Opportunities
A few years ago, I infamously went on record with the belief that the stage had been set for a significant breakthrough in Linux adoption rates. After all, Ubuntu had created a virtually idiot-proof distribution that was as easy to install as Windows or Mac OS X. Hardware driver support had reached critical mass. Even major PC makers such as Dell had stepped up to offer Linux as a preinstalled option on laptops and desktops.
At the same time, consumer sentiment toward Windows Vista had reached such abysmal depths that users were clamoring for other options. And to sweeten the prospects just a bit more, the emergence of netbooks gave Linux a nearly unchallenged new platform to dominate for months on end. If there was ever a time for Linux to rise up, 2008 was that time. But it wasn’t meant to be.
By the time Microsoft released the Windows 7 beta in January 2009, Linux had clearly lost its chance at desktop glory.Why Linux Failed on the Desktop
Ultimately, Linux is doomed on the desktop because of a critical lack of content. And that lack of content owes its existence to two key factors: the fragmentation of the Linux platform, and the fierce ideology of the open-source community at large.
“I share the hope with everyone that free and open-source software will rise to meet the requirements of content delivery,” says longtime Linux developer Jeff Whatcott, senior vice president of marketing for Brightcove, a company that specializes in online video streaming. “But that’s not happening.”
“DRM is not popular with the open-source crowd,” says Whatcott, lamenting that the open-source community at large remains so steadfastly opposed to digital rights management technologies. Without those systems, commercial content providers have no incentive to embrace Linux. And Whatcott points out that even if the open-source community were willing to go along, the DRM arena is dominated by “deep, deep patent pools,” making a free, open-source alternative unlikely anyway.
Meanwhile, even common streaming technologies such as Flash–which Whatcott helped bring to Linux in his previous role as a Macromedia (and later Adobe) product manager–deliver poor results on Linux.
Architects build buildings from specifications, so can IT management do the same? A new way of building applications, known as business rules processing, offers the prospect that IT might be able to do just that.
We need to start with an explanation of business rules and their possibilities. An interview with Val Huber of Versata Inc. (in Data Base Newsletter 25, No. 2, March/April 1997) spells out very clearly what business rules are about and what their potential is.
Huber says: “Years of experience with information system development have taught us two important lessons–it takes far too long to turn a relatively simple set of requirements into a system that meets user needs, and the cost of converting existing applications to new technologies is prohibitive.
He goes on to say, The factor underlying both of these problems is the amount of code it takes to build a system. If code is the problem, the only possible answer is to eliminate the coding by building systems directly from their specifications. That’s what [business rules do].”
A Sample Database and Application
Just to be definite in our example shown in figure 1, assume the database is an SQL database specifically and the boxes represent SQL tables. The arrows in the figure represent foreign key relationships; for example, there’s a foreign key from the ORDER table to the CUSTOMER table, corresponding to the fact that every individual order must be placed by a customer.
Those foreign key relationships can be thought of, in part, as existence dependencies; an order can’t exist unless the corresponding customer exists. And those existence dependencies are business rules. Foreign keys correspond to an important special case of business rules in general.
Here, A, B, and C are business requirements that must be met in order to carry out the overall business function. Incidentally, there’s an important point here that I’ll come back to in a moment: Those very same requirements might also need to be met as part of certain other functions (for example, “delete line item.”) But let’s concentrate on “insert line item” for now.
For each of these requirements, then, the application developer will specify a corresponding set of business rules. In the case of “check credit limit,” those rules might look like this:
This rule, obviously enough, means the new line item must be rejected if it pushes the total owed by this customer over the customer’s credit limit. But what does “total owed” mean? Clearly, we need another rule:
2. TOTAL_OWED = Sum (ORDER_TOTAL where not PAID)
Note that there isn’t any “total owed” column in the CUSTOMER table shown in figure 1, so the total does need to be computed as indicated.
3. ORDER_TOTAL = Sum (LINE_ITEM_AMOUNT)
4. LINE_ITEM_AMOUNT = QTY_ORD * ORD_PRICE
QTY_ORD and ORD_PRICE are both specified as part of the line item, so LINE_ITEM_AMOUNT can be computed directly.
Here’s the rule for the third requirement: “determine whether reorder is required”:
5. If QTY_ON_HAND – QTY_ORD
“Reorder” here can be thought of as the name of another application, part of the same overall integrated application system.
Alternatively, and this is a very important point, “reorder” might mean “send an e-mail message to some external agency.” So we’re not just talking about calling subroutines. And we’re not just talking about applications in the classical sense.
Business Rules Advantages
As you can see, the rules in our example are fairly declarative (nonprocedural) in nature. But they can be compiled into procedural code; in other words, they’re executable, loosely speaking. So we’ve specified our application in a purely declarative way. We haven’t explicitly written any of the usual procedural code at all, and yet we’ve still wound up with running code–an application that can be executed on the machine.
TimeLine is a free, cross-platform timeline-creator application, written in Python, that runs natively on Linux, Mac OS X and even Windows. It will allow anyone to effortlessly create custom timelines, for any purpose they like, with many useful features like grouping of events, custom visual representation and more.
Timelines might have many uses from educational purposes, through data representation to event planning. Whatever your usage, TimeLine is a great alternative to commercially available software or any web-based online tools.Installation
TimeLine has few dependencies. You will need Python 2.5 or greater (which should be available on most systems) and wxPython 188.8.131.52. Just to be on the safe side, check what version of Python you have installed.python
If the output shows 2.5 or greater, there is nothing else you need to do about it. If you see a lesser version, try updating your system. This should be as easy as
on Debian (and Ubuntu) derivative distros.
To check what version of wxPython you have available on your system, search for the python-wxgtk package:
Your output will be something like this. The number after the package name will be your version number:
On Debian 8 this should return version 3.0, while on Ubuntu 14.04 you will see version 2.8.
If it says 2.8, you should verify the minor version, as you will need 184.108.40.206. Check the details with
and search for the line where it says Version: 2.8.XX.
In this case it is 2.8.12, so we are ready to go.
Download TimeLine from sourceforge. The latest version at the time of writing was 1.6.0.
You can now start TimeLine with:python
You can also make a desktop icon or launcher that points to this command (The process would slightly differ depending on your system, DE and/or tools available).Main features
TimeLine has a simple user interface that is easy to navigate.
If you follow the link for the “Getting started tutorial,” you will be presented with an example timeline. The events shown will explain TimeLine’s best use as you interact with them.
and navigate timelines
shows its real power. Still, the preferences window offers surprisingly little to tweak,
but if you are not afraid to get your hands dirty, editing the $HOME/timelineproj.cfg will allow for complete configuration of TimeLine, including easily adding keyborad shortcuts.Creating timelines
When you start a new project, you can choose to create File, Numeric or Directory timelines, considerably extending the possible use-cases of the software.
Your categories will then be displayed on the left pane.
Events will display according to their starting and ending time and in relation to other events that may overlap in the colors specified by their categories.
Hovering over an event will show its description in a pop-up balloon which can also be pinned to stay open.
If you create a directory timeline, the files in that directory will be displayed in order of date created/modified and categorized by folder structure,
although this seems to have some limitations.Conclusion
TimeLine is a powerful application that can help you organize and represent information in a timeline format. Besides its few flaws, TimeLine’s main functionality, that is creating and displaying custom text-based timelines, works flawlessly. If you need a lightweight easy and straightforward timeline creator application for Linux, you need not look any further.
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Many years ago, I was in the computer repair business. I worked for small businesses, households, and pretty much anyone that would either sign a contract or pay a monthly rate for my technology know-how.
During this period in time, the most common issue I ran into was Windows malware disrupting my client’s ability to use their computer(s). After a while of fixing the same old problem, I decided I was ready for a change. During this transitional period, I became more familiar with the various popular Linux distros that were available: Red Hat, Mandrake (Mandriva), and the live Linux CDs that followed a short time later.
Flash forward to now, I use Linux on the desktop almost exclusively. For my day-to-day duties, Linux on the desktop allows me to create written content in addition to occasional video how-to tutorials. I can email, print, scan and store files on my computer in much the same way as those of you who use Windows do. The key difference is that I choose to use an operating system where the key support comes from the community, and not from some large corporation.
The single biggest issue to consider when selecting a Linux distribution is whether to use a rolling release or a non-rolling release option. In my home office, I use both as each offers different benefits. Since 2013, I’ve been using Arch Linux as my “getting work done” distribution because it allows me to keep up on the latest software and features of each new kernel release. The second PC has become something of a media management box. A slightly more robust computer, this second PC handles my video editing, long-term file storage, and other related duties.
Mirroring my setup is easy enough. The key here is realizing that installing and updating these two Linux distributions aren’t as difficult as most would have you believe. Want Arch without the bare metal? Then I recommend Antergos for an Arch experience without all the setup requirements. Antergos offers access to a true Arch desktop, but can be setup in minutes vs. hours.
I also use Antergos for my netbook as well, since it plays nicely with my Eee’s hardware out of the box. The only thing to be aware of with Antergos is that some things require a bit of setup, such as printing. You’ll need to set up and configure printing using the Arch wiki as it’s not ready to go out of the box.
Jumping back over to Ubuntu, the distribution setup is just as easy. Once installed, anything you could want is ready to go out of the box. If you own a PC that supports Linux, Ubuntu will be the distro that runs flawlessly out of the box without any “surprises.”
Now I’ll be first to admit that I don’t find myself updating the Ubuntu installation as often as I do my Antergos computers. The single biggest reason being that I don’t use it as much, therefore I run my updates in bulk in those off moments when it strikes me.
For installing both Antergos and Ubuntu I use a USB flash drive. For the sake of simplicity, I prefer to use the dd command instead of the various USB drive creation software options available. Using dd to build my installation media ensures that I won’t have any odd-ball installation challenges that sometimes happen with USB installation creation software.
Once I have a USB drive ready to go, I simply plug it into my PC and begin the installation process. Both Ubuntu and Antergos are an absolute pleasure to install. The only thing to be aware of is you’ll want to make sure you’re plugged into an Ethernet network connection to install updates during the distribution installation. For Ubuntu, this is optional. With Antergos, however, it’s mandatory as it won’t install otherwise.
Anytime you rely on Linux instead of a proprietary operating system, the question of legacy software does come up. For myself, I haven’t found any software missing in this space. Dropbox, Firefox, LibreOffice, SpiderOak, Clementine, VLC, GIMP, Skype, Kdenlive, Pithos, Kazam, Nitro Tasks, HPLIP– each of these programs serve me very well.
This isn’t to say that everyone out there looking to emulate my user experience will have as easy of a time. Some software is inherently built for Windows or OS X only. Worse, trying to find a comparable alternative isn’t always straight forward. But for most people, I believe the software that they’re looking for is readily available on the Linux desktop.
Sadly there are some areas where even in 2014, the Linux desktop leaves some folks frustrated. For example, if you own a fully updated iOS device or most Android phones, you’re going to have trouble syncing music and movies to these devices. Even the simple matter of mounting a SD card in an Android phone, at least under Arch, isn’t as straight forward as we’d like to believe. Ubuntu users may have an easier time, by relying on Go-mtpfs. In all honesty, mtp mounting and syncing rarely works reliably and happens to be why streaming music to one’s Android phone via Linux is the preferred approach. As for iOS devices, success getting compatibility here is also hit and miss.
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If you have a desktop or laptop running Linux Mint, you can ensure your Internet security and privacy with the help of a VPN.
A virtual private network service changes your IP address and geo-location, encrypts every packet of data and helps you access restricted content on the web.
Moreover, you can unblock streaming services that are otherwise blocked in your country, such as Netflix, Hulu, or BBC iPlayer. Plus, you can find cheaper flights with a VPN.
Created by Kape Technologies, Private Internet Access (PIA) is a top VPN for Linux Mint, thanks to its powerful security features and speedy network connections.
It has more than 3,300 servers in 48 countries, exclusive DNS servers, OpenVPN and WireGuard, together with Shadowsocks and SOCKS5. The app also comes with port forwarding, a kill switch, and a split-tunneling feature.
You can install PIA not only on Linux Mint but also other Linux distros, as well as Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, and even routers. It allows up to 10 simultaneous connections.
What else you must know about PIA:
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If you’re interested in premium VPN security for your Linux Mint laptop, opt for NordVPN. Made by Tefincom & Co., the app covers more than 5,100 spread across 59 countries.
NordVPN can hide the fact that you’re connected to a virtual private network using obfuscation mode. It can also maximize your privacy by joining the Tor network using Onion-over-VPN servers.
The VPN tool supports OpenVPN with up to 256-bit military-grade encryption, exclusive and custom DNS servers, Double VPN servers, dedicated IP addresses, and a kill switch. It can protect up to 6 devices at once.
What else you must know about NordVPN:
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Surfshark is a versatile VPN for Linux Mint that offers affordable subscription plans for all types of users. Made by Surfshark LTD, the app comes with over 1,700 VPN servers in 63 countries.
The virtual private network solution can be used to protect any number of devices since it features unlimited simultaneous connections. This means that you can share your VPN account with your entire family.
It supports OpenVPN and WireGuard, Shadowsocks, obfuscated servers, multi-hop VPN connections, along with a malware and ad blocker for browsers. You can install it on all popular operating systems.
What else you must know about Surfshark:
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CyberGhost VPN is the best free VPN for your device. Owned by Kape Technologies, it has an impressive network of more than 6,500 VPN servers in 89 countries.
You can use CyberGhost VPN to secure your data when connecting to public, unprotected WiFi hotspots. It features OpenVPN, private DNS with DNS leak protection, split tunneling, and an emergency kill switch.
The app is compatible with all popular devices, not just Linux distros. You can even install it on your router using OpenVPN manual configuration mode. It permits 7 simultaneous device connections.
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ExpressVPN is a huge name in the VPN industry, popular thanks to its vast network of over 3,000 VPN servers in 94 countries, together with great security options. It’s operated by Express VPN International LTD.
The tool is wrapped in a user-friendly interface and features intuitive options for all user levels. It encrypts data traffic using OpenVPN with up to 256-bit military-grade encryption.
Furthermore, ExpressVPN supports split-tunneling mode and an emergency kill switch. It has private DNS servers and IP leak protection, allowing up to 5 simultaneous device connections.
What else you must know about ExpressVPN:
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To sum up, you can use a VPN to secure your digital identity and protect your Linux Mint computer from hackers and other Internet dangers, especially if you have to frequently connect to public, unprotected WiFi hotspots.
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