Why Linux desktop UIs don't matter anymore

The best interface may be no interface at all

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I miss the old days.

I miss the days when I would get excited about the latest desktop interface to come from the GNOME or KDE projects, or downloading and installing the umpteenth Linux distribution on the continuing quest to find Linux nirvana.

The truth is, though I still use Linux on a daily basis, I am just not as interested in making sure I have the latest and greatest any more. I have the most recent version of openSUSE running, but not really because I want the newest shiny - I just want the security updates. I don't have a particular affinity for green, either, but I am not motivated to really go out and change the desktop theme. When a browser and a text editor are your constant visual companions on a daily basis, then what's the point?

Much of this attitude is a little bit of nonchalance and a whole lot of GenX pragmatism. Why decorate my Linux desktop, when I am the only one in my home office who can see it? I am more likely to trick out my laptop, but even then, there's work to be done.

This is not to say there aren't interesting stories in Linux and the desktop. The recent Samsung Chromebook offering is very intriguing to me as a device for my youngest daughter, whom I would love to have a portable device that could withstand her wear and tear or be cheap enough I won't freak out if she bricks it.

I am also, while not a user, curious to see how Unity plays out. While many people, including me, don't find it their cup of tea, there is a valid argument out there that Ubuntu's GNOME-based interface has a chance to break the netbook ceiling - especially if the aforementioned Chromebook gets some market traction.

If you go back to the turn of the century, a lot of the arguments against Linux on the desktop were along the lines of "where are the apps"? I should know, I argued that point many times. But thanks to web services, I have also argued, that obstacle is diminishing every day.

But I have a theory why Linux on the desktop may actually succeed, something that I have developed from observing undergraduates at my school for the past few years. For this Millennial generation, things like computer interfaces, windows and menus are simply non-issues. For these young users, they just want to click a file and have it open in the correct app. They don't care to know about network drives, or why it's a better idea to run a file locally than across the network. Menus are strange. Ribbons make a little more sense, since they are app-like in their iconification.

These are ridiculously smart kids, but they simply have rarely had a user experience where such things mattered. Raised in an era of smartphones and now tablets, they are used to "non" interfaces like Android and iOS that just let you touch your way to what you want. When they use computers, it's just to get online and use the social media flavor of the day. Or research a homework assignment to write up in Word.

Curiously, this might be the ticket forward for Linux. As interfaces get more bare-bones and "phone-like," they will start to deliver on the expectations of this generation of users: if they touch something once, the expected action will result. No menus, no windows to resize. They won't care about icon themes or color schemes, unless they're the kind of person who likes bling or are the tinkerer-type.

This is the new user environment that Linux will need to work with, not fuddy-duddies like me who remember the days of X and the middle mouse button.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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