Virtual Desktops, Or Why Two Monitors Aren’t Better Than One
Of all the arguments that surface during holiday gatherings, the last one I expected to become wrapped up in this season was over whether dual computer monitors are a worthwhile investment. But that was indeed what my geeky family members and I fought over the other day. And since no one agreed with me that they’re not worthy of the investment, I’d like to take this opportunity to make my case to a broader, more enlightened audience, namely The VAR Guy’s readers.
Let me clarify my point: It’s not that a second physical screen isn’t cool to have — just like a private jet or pied-à-terre on the Champs de Mars would be nice to own. Instead, my argument was that dual monitors aren’t worth the extra investment and hassle involved, because virtual workspaces provide almost all the same functionality for free.
Think about it: To run a PC with two screens requires, most obviously, a second monitor, which in these days of cheap computers can cost almost as much as the PC itself. You also need a higher-end video card with two outputs. And no matter which operating system you use, you have to configure the dual monitors at the level of both the video driver and desktop manager, which is not always as intuitive as one would expect in 2011.
In contrast, virtual desktops — which have been built into every Linux distribution I’ve ever seen in the last decade, and which Apple “borrowed” to introduce into Mac OS X in the form of Spaces in 2007 — are totally free and demand virtually no extra configuration. Nonetheless, they provide pretty much the same functionality as dual monitors: they reduce desktop clutter, allow users to group different types of applications together on the visual display and make it easy to switch between windows without minimizing or maximizing.
As a bonus, there’s no practical limit to how many virtual desktops one can have. Compiz supports up to 1,024, for instance. No matter how rich or geeky you are, I guarantee you can’t connect that many physical monitors to your computer.
The only task I can think of where having two physical screens might be truly more efficient is for copying text by hand from a document on one screen into a different document on another. But my first question to people who do that is what calamity befell their control, C and V keys. The whole point of computers is that they save you from doing boring, repetitive things, of which manually copying text from one digital source to another is a prime example.
Why It Matters: Software Is Better Than Hardware
Of course, my geeky relatives — of whom none has ever used Linux, and only one uses a Mac, mostly because he bought into the Steve Jobs personality cult at an early age — disagreed. They insisted that, bigger being always better, software solutions to the challenges addressed by dual screens can never compare to fulfilling one’s red-blooded American duty of buying more electronics hardware.
And I would just let the issue go at that, assigning it to fundamentally different world views, if it didn’t also speak to the larger question of whether we’ve been bred by the IT industry to believe that we never have as much hardware as we need.
After all, a lot of people profit from hardware upgrades. Not only do OEMs make money, but software developers also cash in when users purchase new and upgraded applications to support their new toys. Thus neither programmers nor device designers — at least in most of the IT channel — have much of an incentive to encourage users to get the most out of what they already own, rather than just buying more stuff.
Of course, behaving in ways that maximize profit is only natural. I don’t mean to insinuate a grand conspiracy on the part of hardware and software manufacturers. But I do think that it’s not only for want of creativity that Windows still lacks built-in support for virtual desktops, almost three decades after the concept was introduced. I suspect instead that Microsoft correctly calculated that adding the feature might temper the speed of hardware upgrade cycles, which would in turn dampen demand for new Windows licenses.
But, as my family will also not fail to point out to me once again this holiday season, I like peanut-butter sundaes with orange sorbet. Clearly my judgment is dubious.