GNOME usability hackfest

Saturday, October 25th, 2008

The GNOME user experience hackfest in Boston was a great way to spend the worst week in Wall St history!

Though there wasn’t a lot of hacking, there was a LOT of discussion, and we covered a lot of ground. There were at least 7 Canonical folks there, so it was a bit of a mini-sprint and a nice opportunity to meet the team at the same time. We had great participation from a number of organisations and free spirits, there’s a widespread desire to see GNOME stay on the forefront of usability.

Neil Patel of Canonical did a few mockups to try and capture the spirit of what was discussed, but I think the most interesting piece wasn’t really possible to capture in a screenshot because it’s abstract and conceptual – file and content management. There’s a revolution coming as we throw out the old “files and folders” metaphor and leap to something new, and it would be phenomenal if free software were leading the way.

I was struck by the number of different ways this meme cropped up. We had superb presentations of “real life support problems” from a large-scale user of desktop Linux, and a persistent theme was “where the hell did that file just go?” People save an attachment they receive in email, and an hour later have no idea where to find it. They import a picture into F-spot and then have no idea how to attach it to an email. They download a PDF from the web, then want to read it offline and can’t remember where they put it. Someone else pointed out that most people find it easier to find something on the Internet – through Google – than they do on their hard drives.

The Codethink guys also showed off some prototype experience work with Wizbit, which is a single-file version control system that draws on both Git and Bazaar for ideas about how you do efficient, transparent versioning of a file for online and offline editing.

We need to rearchitect the experience of “working with your content”, and we need to do it in a way that will work with the web and shared content as easily as it does locally.

My biggest concern on this front is that it be done in a way that every desktop environment can embrace. We need a consistent experience across GNOME, KDE, OpenOffice and Firefox so that content can flow from app to app in a seamless fashion and the user’s expectations can be met no matter which app or environment they happen to use. If someone sends a file to me over Empathy, and I want to open it in Amarok, then I shouldn’t have to work with two completely different mental models of content storage. Similarly, if I’ve downloaded something from the web with Firefox, and want to edit it in OpenOffice, I shouldn’t have to be super-aware or super-smart to be able to connect the apps to the content.

So, IMO this is work that should be championed in a forum like FreeDesktop.org, where it can rise above some of the existing rivalries of desktop linux. There’s a good tradition of practical collaboration in that forum, and this is a great candidate for similar treatment.

At the end of the day, bling is less transformational than a fundamental shift in content management. Kudos to the folks who are driving this!

Update: thanks mjg59 for pointing out my thinko. The Collabora guys do great stuff, but Codethink does Wizbit.