Thursday, April 22, 2010

Introductions and Workspaces

Due to a recent conversation stemmed from the announcement by Canonical that they will be removing the notification area from Ubuntu over the next year, an interesting discussion arose due to one current helpful use of the notification area, that of a place to store applications so that they are available to multiple compiz virtual desktops. In response, Mark Shuttleworth wrote back, saying:

"It's a good point. The workspaces experience has languished, and I'd
like for us to climb in and improve it substantially. At the moment, we
do a half-hearted job - we ship what's there but as you say, only
configure two workspaces. I'd be inclined to say "ship without
workspaces" so that we are at least definitive about the position for
the moment.

I'd welcome a discussion about how we could make workspaces *great*. If
we can do that, then we would make more of them. And your contribution
above is a useful start: great workspaces give you easy access to some
apps regardless of the workspace you happen to be in."

This sparked a continuing conversation that quickly grew unwieldy for a simple email mailing list, and particularly in me, it started a new found desire to actually finally begin a blog on, hopefully, usability and design within the world of Linux and Ubuntu. I am not a designer, a programmer, or a developer. I am simply someone who switched to Ubuntu some time ago, and have been happy using it as my primary operating system for just over a year now. Many such Ubuntu blogs have been started, but my hope and goal for this blog is to foster and process discussion and proposals about new functions, features, and tweaks in Ubuntu. While occasionally I may link blog posts from other blogs, my primary goal to begin with is not to give how to guides or instructions (although, I will try to as it is still not natural for me to think in terms of terminal commands, so I won't expect you to either), but to really get to tear apart how we use our computers and come up with new exciting paradigms.

That said, the first idea on the docket is that of making multiple desktops the best that they can be. So for this first post, I'd like to take a look at why we use multiple desktops, how exactly they are useful, and possible goals for improvement.

A bit of information about myself: I use 4 desktops, laid out in a square grid. This is accomplished by setting 2 options within CompizConfig Settings manager, under General Options. Set horizontal desktops to 2, and vertical to 2. I do no use the desktop cube any longer, something I'll explain a bit later. To access these different desktops, I either: 1., Drag a window to the top, bottom, left, or right of the screen to take it with me to the next desktop, 2., move my mouse to the bottom edge of the screen to activate the Expo Compiz plugin, or activate Expo using Win-E, and then clicking on the appropriate workspace, or 3., by pressing win-1,2,3, or 4 to go to the assigned workspace, or pressing Win-Tab to cycle through them.

I primarily use the first desktop for whatever is active at the moment, such as a browser or document, and the desktop to the left and below are for secondary reference documents, file navigation, terminals, and or update managers. In other words, anything secondary to what I'm doing, but that I want totally out of the way. The bottom right workspace is home to Evolution Mail client, and Liferea, which are both set to auto-open there.

Now, we have the basic idea of how I use workspaces. Lets talk about why we use them.

The way I see it, there are two primary ways that Linux users use multiple virtual desktops (please, forgive me and inform me if you have other uses for them). The first is to reduce clutter on the primary workspace by have task-centric workspaces, such as one for school, one for work, one for a current project and so on, and the second is for application-centric workspaces, such as one for an always on Email client, one for terminals, one for gwibber. This is not to say its an either or situation, far from. I am about halfway in between, using the bottom right desktop on my setup as a home for email and RSS feeds, and the top left as a browser home, while the other two get populated with more task-specific documents and programs. So the why becomes apparent through these two uses. People want to spread stuff out.

Its certainly not a new idea, or an astounding discovery. I want the ability to not close what I'm working on, but also to not have it currently present and staring back at me. I don't want the distraction of what I currently have open, and so I switch to a different, clean, open desktop. This concept has been around since 1986 by Xerox (then called Rooms. Yes, I used wikipedia), so its obvious that people have always desired a way to expand the computers ability to display more then just the current screen size, although not necessarily at the same time.

Currently, Ubuntu ships default with 2 desktops, side by side. These are generally discovered by accident, which is usually a horrifyingly frustrating thing. I remember my first Ubuntu install, in which I had no clue about how virtual desktops worked, or that there were already 2 turned on by default. I lost the restricted hardware driver dialog, and then the network manager, and I was at a utter loss as to where my windows were going to. While eventually I got the hang of it, it was still a serious matter of trial and error to remember where I was already and whether or not there were several dozen accidental file browsers orphaned in some other desktop.

So for Ubuntu, Linux for Human beings, what should multiple workspaces look like?

While I'm interested in other opinions (and seriously, I've got time on my hands, send me links to huge reports, I'll do my best to read anything sent my way), I've obviously got some of my own, thus the blog. :D

Optimally, I think that this is what virtual workspaces should work like for Ubuntu.

First of all, they need to be easily visualized. It needs to be instantly understood where it is that you are going when you flip around to different places. This is actually rather well done currently, by way of a small little graphic that pops up on desktop change:

This captures well the current idea: You are viewing the top right quarter of your workspace.

And I know, we're all thinking "Duh"

But Ubuntu is linux for human beings. Guess what? My mom doesn't understand it. My Dad doesn't. They use computers every day, they own 3 of them, they use Firefox and Hulu. They are actually rather adept for average users. But virtual desktops is too much. Why?

Because even though we've made this visualization work, and we make it easy to understand what is happening, the very nature of what is happening is not easy to understand.

AKA, we've done a decently good job of explaining what is, by essence, more complicated then necessary and in need of more explaining then it ought to be.

My solution? Well, we'll talk about that later. :D

Please, share your thoughts about what I've posted so far. I'll be back with the next bits of what I think virtual desktops should optimally be, and then eventually my concept of how to fix them.

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