The Open Source Interface Conundrum: Will Linux Ever Be Touch-Ready?

The Open Source Interface Conundrum: Will Linux Ever Be Touch-Ready?

Open source desktop environments and interfaces lag behind their closed-source counterparts on smartphones, tablets and other touch-ready devices.

Are open source desktops ready for smartphones, tablets and other touch-enabled devices? That's the question a DistroWatch writer recently set out to answer. Here's a summary of what he found, and why it matters for the commercial open source world today.

Writing on DistroWatch, a venerable Linux news site, Jesse Smith tested various open source interfaces using a laptop with a touch screen. His tests included the big-name interfaces, including GNOME, KDE and Canonical's Unity, as well as some of more obscure, such as the lightweight Lumina desktop environment.

The only interface Smith really liked was GNOME Shell, whose virtual keyboard he praised and whose buttons he found "very well-suited for touch interfaces." Most of the other interfaces were mediocre when it came to touch performance, he said.

Linux, Touch and Mobile Devices

For desktop Linux users and developers who hope to leave their mark on the already well-established mobile market, these results don't bode well.

Smith, of course, was using a touch-enabled laptop, not a phone or tablet. And he was running traditional Linux-based operating systems designed for PCs.

Still, the fact that he found most of the interfaces so cumbersome for touch reflects poorly on developers' attempts to build desktop environments that work well with fingers in addition to the mouse.

True, not all of the platforms Smith tested were designed with mobile devices as a priority. But some of them—mostly notably Unity, a key part of Canonical's plan to "converge" Ubuntu across different devices—were. Smith found it hard to scroll in Unity and impossible to resize windows.

Eric S. Raymond wrote all the way back in the late 1990s, when desktop environments such as GNOME and KDE were just emerging, that the open source world suffered from poor "ergonomic design and interface psychology, and hackers have historically been poor at these things." He pointed out that these issues would need to be surmounted if desktop Linux and other platforms were to compete commercially in the big leagues.

More than 15 years later, the computer hardware market has changed considerably, yet the open source ecosystem has not produced touch-ready interfaces that can match their proprietary counterparts. Here's hoping initiatives such as Canonical's investment in mobile phones change that.

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