Archive for June, 2007|Monthly archive page

Die Würfel rollen…

Kennst du dieses Gefühl; du gibst deine Arbeit ab, lehnst dich zurück und fühlst dich vollkommen ausgeliefert. Das Roulett dreht sich, die Würfel purzeln, die Bowling-Kugel rollt. Aber du hast keine Kontrolle mehr, keine Möglichkeiten mehr zur Einflussnahme. Alle Chancen, irgendetwas am Ausgang zu ändern sind verstrichen, genutzt oder ungenutzt. Jetzt kannst du nur noch zuschauen und abwarten.

Genau so geht es mir im Moment. Die letzten Sachen, die ich noch zu erledigen hatte, sind jetzt in der Prüfung. Ich selbst kann nichts mehr daran ändern. Sicher; ich habe ein gutes Gewissen, ich habe (meist) gute Arbeiten abgegeben und bin immer am Ball geblieben. Aber dennoch bleibt dieses ungewisse Gefühl, diese Unsicherheit… Was wenn?

Ich hasse dieses Gefühl. Dieses Ausgeliefert-Sein. Diese schicksalsergebene Abwarten. Nur zuschauen können, ohne eine Möglichkeit zur Einflussnahme. Wie ein unbeteiligter Zuschauer daneben stehen, obwohl man doch auf direkteste Art und Weise betroffen ist. Ich hasse dieses Gefühl.

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The LisaBar – or – Why Apple got it right.

In my new job I’m constantly forced to use Microsoft products. And while I have to admit that those products offer some quite astonishing features that can really easy your life, I constantly run into one or another wall, leaving me dazed and making me scratch my head. One of those walls is Microsoft’s inability to decide whether to use SDI or MDI.

The single document interface (SDI) is the user interface paradigm where each document consists of a single window, including its own tools and menu bars. If you have to use/view/edit multiple documents of the same type, each of these documents sits inside its own window, giving the impression that multiple instances of the application are running beside each other, even if that may not be the case. One major drawback of SDI is the increased need of screen estate; since each window has its own controls, those controls take up more space. (And no; bigger screens are no solution to that. But more of that later.)

The multiple document interface (MDI) on the other hand places all document inside a single parent window, creating the illusion of a document workplace. All document use the same toolbars and menubars. The big disadvantage of the MDI is the need for an additional window management interface; because the window manager does only know about the parent window, the application (or the toolkit) has to re-implement all the windowing functions usually provided by the window manager; window placement, window selection, window management.

Now in its long history the Microsoft Office suite has had many changes. And a lot of those changes revolved around the question whether to use SDI or MDI. In the beginning, MS Office used SDI for all its components. Then it changed them to MDI, and finally back to SDI again. But to make things worse, many components have their own definitions of how a MDI or SDI should behave. Excel for example behaves like user interface hermaphrodite, showing characteristics of both MDI and SDI. This is very confusing.

The root of all evil lies within the ways Microsoft chose to design their user interface. Back in ’84, when the first version of windows arrived in the market, Microsoft took the liberty to very generously ‘borrow’ from the Lisa user interface. Now Apple did not invent the graphical user interface, Xerox did. But that’s another story. However; when Microsoft borrowed those concepts, they knew that they were on very shaky terrain. And since they didn’t want to get into a lawsuit (which they got anyway) they changed some aspects of the user interface.

On of those aspects was the unification of the menu bar and the application interface; whereas the Apple’s document interface consisted of the whole screen, Microsoft’s document interface consisted only of the documents own windows.

Microsoft Windows 1.0 - courtesy of Ars Technica

Now I don’t know if Microsoft’s engineers knew what a mess they created. But by unifying toolbar and document window they created a visual ambiguity; where Apple’s interface enforced method and conduct, Microsoft’s concept created a distinction between screen and workspace. All of a sudden, the screen consisted of multiple workspaces, one for each document. And while some may, somewhat rightfully, say that this improves usability because it ties the tools to the document, it has one big drawback; all of a sudden the application is in the center of the user interface, not the document anymore.

The Lisa user interface - courtesy of oldcomputers.net

People working with Apple computers are used to a very consistent user experience. For a large part this stems from the fact that the Lisa type of GUI does not have to fight with MDI vs. SDI. The question simply never arises, because the Lisa type of GUI does not offer the choice to create either of both; it’s something different all along. I usually think of it as ‘MDI on steroids unified with a window manager’. It virtually includes all benefits of a SDI and and the benefits of an MDI.

First of all, it saves a lot of screen space. Because the additional menubars are no more than optical bloat. “But,” you may say, “screen estate is not so important anymore. Screens get bigger and bigger, with higher resolutions and stuff.” Well, yes. But the human visual sensory equipment has limits. There is a limit of how much information you can get on a area of a certain size. And there is a limit to the area the human eye can usefully overview. And while there are people that are working with two, three or more screens, this is only the exception.

Another advantage is the document-centric approach the Lisa-type GUI takes. Documents, not applications, are the center of the desktop. No matter what kind of document you’ve opened, it never feels like you’ve ‘started’ an application. It never feels like you are using an application, rather the document itself seems to be providing the necessary tools.

The Lisa-style interface has also the advantage of the window manager knowing about all windows. There is no distinction between document windows and in-application-document windows, simply because there are no mechanisms to support such a separation; it’s policy by design. And because all windows are handled by the window manager, there are no requirements to implement such things on the toolkit or application level.

Last but not least there is Fitt’s Law. More properly termed; Fitt’s Rule. There have been many discussions about how much Fitt’s Law really applies. But in the long years I’ve been using graphical user interfaces, the rule has proved itself many times, again and again.

Microsoft may have recognised the folly of their action back in the ’80ies; Microsoft’s Office 2007 suite behaves very much like a Lisa-type user interface when in full screen. But only if in full screen. And they are constantly trying new user interface concepts. The new Internet Explorer hides the menu bar in the default configuration, don’t be surprised if it re-appears on the top of the screen in Version 8. And the new Microsoft Office 2007 plays with a interesting new concept; Ribbons. Maybe they’ll come up with something new altogether, who knows.

The end is nigh! At least for HP and Dell.

Or is it?

Both Dell and HP love to claim to be the world’s biggest computer vendor. Indeed; Dell used to be and HP is told to be right now. At least when it comes to brute numbers of computer sold.

But when you look at the revenue, the picture is quite a different one. Do you guess who’s profiting most by selling computers? If you picked Apple Inc., you picked the right fruit.

Apple Inc., despite claiming ‘only’ about 5 to 7% of the computer market, generates the same, if not more, revenue as Dell and HP [1].

While those numbers are quite old, they show a clear picture; Apple, even though selling only a fraction of the computers HP or Dell sell, is not only holding their pace, Apple is overtaking them. But it’s getting worse for the two power mongers of years past; Apple’s getting a firm hold in the very profitable notebook market. And it’s getting stronger and stronger [2].

Why is Apple getting so strong? One reason is the high quality of their products. Apple has some of the most solid consumer products you can get. Apple is innovative, Apple stands for quality. Ever looked inside a Mac Pro? Did you miss all those cables, all that wire? Well, I did. And did not.

Apples second strength rises from the incredible high integration with the operating system. While I don’t use OS X regular, I had more than enough opportunity to see it in action. And it is an amazing operating system. It’s keyword is integration, no lose ends. From search to backup to gadgets; everything fits together like a well made puzzle. Except that you don’t see any cuts.

Now while Dell and HP may be able to catch up in hardware quality and innovation, they will have a very hard time to get even on the software layer. Both Dell and HP are stuck with Microsoft Windows. And Windows is in no way able to compete with OS X. Indeed, Windows Vista is a bloody mess. It took Microsoft seven years to develop it, and the amount of innovation is disappointing, to be honest. Not to mention the problems Microsoft has getting the hardware vendors to play along. Do you want Windows Vista drivers for your two years old scanner? Dream along. Instead of programming drivers for old hardware, the hardware business tries to sell new hardware. Of course they are not going to support old hardware! And as long people are not able to use their old hardware on Microsoft Vista, they will be very hesitant to use it. Replace all your computer equipment just to use Microsoft Vista? Thanks, but no thanks.

Funny enough, it’s not even certain that Vista will ever be the dominating operating system in the market. Just as Windows ME, it’s a misbegotten bastard of failed management. ‘Vienna’, Vista’s younger sibling, is planned to arrive 2009. And if Microsoft doesn’t fumble as bad as they did with Vista, Vista’s lifespan looks very short indeed.

To make thing worse, neither HP nor Dell will ever be able to achieve the same level of integration Apple is able to produce. Windows it not their operating system, they are just packing it on their computers, along with some drivers and some tools.

Apple on the other side controls everything. While Microsoft is dedicated to support a legion of age-old technologies, Apple has the freedom to cut backward compatibility to the minimum. It may take Microsoft some long years to support EFI, Intel’s BIOS modular BIOS replacement. Apple is already using it with great success. The result is a seamless user experience, from pushing the power button to entering your password. And even if power user and tinkerers may disagree; it’s what Joe Common wants from his computer.

So HP and Dell are stuck with an operating system they have no control over whatsoever. And while they are still scratching their heads, wondering how to get out of that mess, Apple is getting stronger and stronger. And new reasons to switch over to OS X are popping up like groundhogs; just as the IPod, the IPhone is going to provide a very strong lever for Apple. Though luck.

So how are they going to get out of that mess? Of course they may try to license OS X for their own computers. But Apple is never going to do that. Indeed it’s one of Apple’s biggest concerns; vertical control, from hardware, operating system, applications to gadgets; vertical control allows a tight integration and an extraordinary smooth user experience. They are not going to drop that ball. And don’t forget that Apple burnt it’s fingers with re-licensing it’s operating system before. No, they are definitely not going to make that mistake again.

Another option may be GNU/Linux. While not on the same level as OS X yet, it bears a lot of room for improvement. And while it may have some rough edges, it’s definitely ready for a managed corporate environment [3], the main target for both Dell and HP. Linux is already a testbed for new technologies, indeed it gets used as a platform for reference implementations more and more. IPSec anyone?

So Linux is able to provide fast and solid access to new technologies. Meanwhile the open-source nature of the beast allows both Dell and HP to improve exactly those parts of the operating system they feel lacking – an option they don’t have with Microsoft Windows. Suddenly vertical integration becomes possible, allowing those to brittle giants to compete with Apple again.

I don’t know if HP has seen the tide turn. Dell may have and the Ubuntu-option may be the first sign of that change. But only time will tell if this change happens fast enough to prevent Apple from dominating the computer market a second time.

1: http://money.cnn.com/2006/01/17/technology/apple_earnings/

2: http://www.computerworld.com/action/article.do?command=viewArticleBasic&articleId=9025540
3: http://www.cio.com/article/120452

Linux-LAN-Party im kleinen Stil

Am Samstag hat bei mir eine kleine LAN-Party stattgefunden. Joel und Urs sind vorbeigekommen und wir haben uns in StarCraft und Heroes ein wenig auf den Kopf gegeben. Heroes hat sich richtig gemausert, sieht schon toll aus.

Auch wenn die Spiele unter Linux laufen; so einiges muss da noch getan werden. Für die nächste Party werde ich Warcraft 3 evalutieren. 😉

Ach ja; Claudio hat am Wochenende im Türmlihaus Geburtstag gefeiert.

Project Ammonite

Being rather unhappy with the state of Nautlius, I’m going to revive my old “Filecentral” (http://home.zhwin.ch/~bosshrap/projects/filecentral/) project. Project Ammonite will be a prototype of an minimal yet extensible file manager for the GNOME desktop. Since Filecentral 2/Ammonite will be based on GVFS instead of gnome-vfs, and the first stable GVFS release is expected for Gnome 2.20, I still have some time to draw up a proper concept.

I guess there will be a lot of people that will tell me to work on improving Nautilus instead of wasting my time on a new project and divert effort this way. But anyone who has ever taken a look at the Nautilus source code knows what complexity lies in those depths. It’s not without reason that Nautius has been in maintainance mode for the last few years.

The first project phase will be an evaluation phase; priorities, possible starting points, project to evaluate. Thunar as a starting point is also something to consider, although that would inevitably lead to a fork; Benedikt Meurer will probably never agree to incorporate GNOME libraries into Thunar.

One way or the other, these are some of the priorities I consider:
– extensive metadata integration
– plugin system
– speed

If I ponder about it, may be that there arise some new ones.

Any suggestions?

Meine kluge Schwester

Jeannine hat eine 4.17 in ihrer BWL-Prüfung geschaft. In Anbetracht der Tatsache, dass sie aus Versehen in einen Kurs drei Stufen höher eingeteilt wurde, ist das ein wahrhaft erstaunliches Resultat. Aber sie hat es auch verdient, sie hat sich tierisch reingekniet.

Mittelalter-Markt in Weil-am-Rhein

War heute in Weil-am-Rhein, am “Spectaculus”. An und für sich ganz nett, auch das Wetter hat irgendwie mitgespielt. Als dann das angekündigte Gewitter tatsächlich eintraf, sind wir (Kiku, Alex, Boris) in ein Shisha-Zelt geflohen und haben es uns dort bei einer Wasserpfeife gemütlich gemacht. Natürlich waren wieder viele MEFler unterwegs, aber was erwartet man auch anderes. 😉

Poetry-Slam im “Kraftfeld”, Winterthur

So ein Poetry-Slam ist schon etwas Witziges. Zumindest meistens. Dieses Mal war ich allerdings nur enttäuscht, sogar die Frauenfelder haben mich nicht wirklich begeistert. Ich muss wahrscheinlich wirklich mal selbst auf die Bühne stehen. Gewonnen haben die männerfeindlichen Exkurse einer sexuell und emotional frustrierten post-Feministin. Warum ist es ‘in’, über Männer her zu ziehen?

Kissenschlacht am HB Zürich

Das gab es noch nie; eine Kissenschlacht am Hauptbahnhof Zürich. Da musste ich natürlich dabei sein. Hat dann auch massig Spass gemacht, auch wenn es nach 15 Minuten schon wieder vorbei war. Ich habe davon Bilder gemacht, jetzt muss ich sie nur noch vom Handy runterkriegen. ^^