Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Desktop Revolution

Apple started it. Many years ago, they released OS X. Everyone marveled at the new effects and tools that it brought, and suddenly Microsoft began to show an interest in giving their desktop products a long overdue makeover. Pretty soon, Windows XP was "all the rave". It was met with a lot of resistance by the business users who were probably correct in saying "Windows 2000 seemed to run faster ... and I don't need these effects to do my job".

Apple continued to build upon it's success in OS, releasing a new version nearly every year for five years. Each time, outdoing itself with innovative new features that provided new tricks for the user, but also looked *really* good doing it. Microsoft answered with "please wait". Once they felt that they had caught up, they release Windows Vista. Even with the BETA releases it was obvious that Microsoft would never keep up with the "design wars" that laid ahead. Windows Vista simply duplicated a few effects that they liked from OS X but also tried to sneak in a software-crippling security overhaul. This has of course left most users demanding "I want Windows XP back".

Meanwhile, open source groups have aimed to out-do the commercial software companies when it comes to good looks. And why not? Linux after has been built and is maintained by the people, for the people since it's inception. It's the democracy of software. If something bombs and doesn't work, it either gets fixed or becomes "deprecated". Developers can work together on projects and build code at all hours of the day and night using systems that they developed earlier on. So it shouldn't be any surprise that the race to come up with the best looking desktop will be plaid out on open source platforms.

If you work in or around IT, or you have a nerd for a friend, you have no doubt heard of Beryl. Beryl was an experiment in using a commercial graphics card to create mind-bending effects for simple window and desktop management. It got a lot of attention. As did the Compiz project which aimed to do similar effects. Eventually they merged the two projects allowing the user to get the best effects from each collection, and possibly a little more stability. The result is "Compiz Fusion".

I must admit I was fascinated watching YouTube videos like this one. Windows Vista has a "tile effect" that let's you stack windows at an angle. Compiz allows you multiple desktops on a rotating cube, window-tabbing, OS X "expose" style arrangements, and more. Do I need all that to enjoy my computer? No. In fact, with these state of the art effects come a slew of bugs and crashes. After all, the code you are using to demonstrate effects like these were written by dozens of different people and were assembled moments later to begin experimenting with them. Still, someone like me sees a demonstration of the effects and I am all ready working on getting them running on my PC.

I am not the only one amused. Search YouTube for "compiz" and you will find that these videos are getting hundreds of thousands of viewings. Take a look around the forums for popular Linux distributions like Ubuntu and you will find that they are plagued with questions from folks who are fighting through crashes and panics to get these effects on their screens.

The war wages on, and yet the real casualties here are going to be "the business desktop user". Remember that attention like this does not go un-noticed. Shareholders will demand that commercial products implement the "fire painting" that their nephew was showing off. Microsoft will quickly attempt to duplicate the feature and put it into their home version of Windows Vista. The business users who purchased Vista Ultimate edition (and have little show for it at this point) will demand that it also be available to them. Before long, I will be rolling through group policies, user complaints, and help desk calls trying to stop the madness. Of course when I am done at work, I will go home, fire up Linux, and begin experimenting with effects that are years ahead of anything that Microsoft has done.

If you still haven't watched it yet, you owe it to yourself to see what all the fuss is about: Note that the video ends with "I have to admit: I made this with iMovie". Credit to Apple, where credit was due.