The free desktop has been in “catchup” mode: catching up to first Windows and now nipping at the heels of the Mac. Our path has been obvious to date. In some areas, our technology and applications lead; in others we still lag. From here on, progress becomes much less clear, though I’ll bet on the moving herd and natural selection of free software over directed closed commercial development any day.
How now to move from such a reactive strategy to true leadership in all areas? How do you set strategy, when our very culture is that of serendipity, discovery, sharing of ideas, and creation? where a single vision cannot rule?
I recently attended the UIST conference, and discovered there was essentially no overlap between the research community and our own. The conference (in free software terms) was expensive and much was uninteresting to me personally (though most would be interesting to someone in the free desktop community). But a couple of gems at UIST were there that made the trip worth while. For me, it was OctoPocus. For you, it will likely be something else.
For another concrete example, the Facades work built on Metisse is not well known in our community. I highly recommend watching the videos you find at those web sites. Facades, published several years ago, combines at-spi and composite to do things that aren’t possible anywhere else. You too, could edit the gimp in real time to have the UI you want! Peter Korn only became aware of Facades last week, after I had stumbled across it while investigating other work. My jaw dropped. Peter’s jaw dropped. Please add your jaw to the collection on the floor. We could have deployed this by now! But we did not know it existed!
Dan Olsen notes in “Evaluating User Interface Systems Research“:
“This search for fatal flaws is devastating for systems research. It is virtually impossible for a small team of researchers to recreate all of the capabilities of existing systems or to completely examine all of the eventualities of new concepts. The farther such a team reaches into new territory the more compromises will be required and the more supporting ideas must be left unresolved. If a new systems approach is attempted, the omissions of some important feature is guaranteed. The existence of a fatal flaw is a given. If the evaluation of the work is focused on “what does it not do” no research system will ever pass. Flaw analysis will frequently be a barrier to new systems research.”
As a result, UI systems research has stagnated due to combined effect of the middleware of the UI stack being closed (or in our case, until the recent flowering of the free desktop undid more than a decade of stagnation) and this effect. Many good ideas of all kinds have been explored from hardware, to window system UI ideas, to UI ideas for specific classes of applications. But there is much less proof of which ideas actually works in a real system, for the reasons Dan lays out. The resulting research experiments are usually “toy” systems, and toy applications, built in the limited environment of MacIntosh and Windows where much of the system is off-limits. The research community has neither the resources nor (if they work on Mac and/or Windows) the ability to make advances “real”. But we do! We have the resources, the open system, and the ability to and desire to innovate.
Our fundamental advantage we have is the ability to experiment and modify all areas of the stack; from hardware, to the window system, though toolkits to applications. Just as compositing has allowed a thousand flowers to bloom (most of which stink, but we’ve picked some that smell pretty sweet) in eye candy, accessibility and in other areas, compositing and other modern free software technologies can be used in new an unexpected ways. We are able to perform experiments, and have a large audience to test the experiments radically faster than commercial software. Nice as the Web is, there are just some things you can’t do in the web until the underlying technologies have support. 20 years of frustration in the UI research community shows that pushing from research to commercial vendors does not and cannot work at more than a glacial pace. Let us pull people to free software by out innovating and becoming the system with the best user experience, by pulling with the best ideas of free software and research innovation.
How to lead? I think some of what is going on now (e.g. the work to bring journals to avoid file management among others) are fundamental. But there are also almost 20 years of ideas lying fallow since the first flowering of UI work in the 1980’s. By mining research for the best ideas, fostering collaboration with researchers when possible, and combining with your own good ideas and production code now on millions of desktops, we can accelerate our progress.
Thankfully, the ACM is becoming more enlightened: conference proceedings and videos once locked up are now available. (Dan Olsen points out that videos done later found on the researcher’s web sites are often better than those presented at the conference; due to an oversight, the UIST 2008 videos are not yet up). The proceedings of UIST is one good place to start for the free desktop community. There is a list of other ACM conferences on many other topics. Go see which ideas are worth grabbing and running with!
This is a two way street: I had great fun demonstrating Compiz Fusion and some of our eye candy (as well as showing videos of Facades and Metisse) to a number of UIST attendees, who had been unaware that the free desktop had advanced beyond the commercial state of the art, already solving in a real system, problems they could not solve in their “toy” research prototypes on Windows and Mac. When you have a chance, this is also very worth while: the more bright people working on free software, the better.
But it is up to you to figure out which ideas are good, which are bad (and why), which ideas really work, recombine them with your own great ideas, and get them into people’s hands (both literally, and on the desktop)!