Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Gadget Goodies 19 – Taking Back Control 2

image courtesy of Wikipedia, Creative Commons license
Last time we hit some early device history to lay a foundation for the rest of our discussion on taking back control of our devices.  Not taking control back from the devices themselves, but from the limits put upon them by their creators and the whatever limits there are in the involved programming languages.

The picture to the left is a Kaypro II, my first computer.  With a 9" green screen and CP/M for the operating system, there wasn't any possibility of customization.  Since then, operating systems, computing hardware, and screen capabilities have grown far more sophisticated.  And a lot lighter and less expensive.

Last time, we referred to DOS as Microsoft's early foray into mainstream consumer computing.  That was after CP/M that ran the computers we bought before that.  But Microsoft did one thing that previous operating system creators hadn't done well, if at all.  It licensed DOS (and later, Windows) to computer manufacturers for extremely reasonable fees.  That got Microsoft's operating systems on almost all consumer computers.  And eventually it got some thinking Microsoft was too much a part of our everyday experience.

That line of thinking took a small, but adventurous group in several different directions.  The "mainstream rebels" were real techies.  There was already Unix, which still used those green screens because everything was done via the programming language and the commandline.  The average consumer would be lost.  And that's the very reason why Windows was so ubiquitous.  And, yes, there's your $64 word for the day.

Unlike anything else available when Windows came on the scene, it put on a pretty face, the user could click icons and use menus to get things done without having to use typed commands.  It was excessively easy.  And it was excessively frustrating.  The user was limited to what Windows allowed and could only do things in the way Windows allowed.  That frustrated the techies, like me. The rest of the world was quite happy to have things made easy for them.

In comparison, Unix was not consumer friendly.  So, Linus Torvalds (and, eventually, a bunch of others) created linux as a variation of Unix that still allowed commandline access for the hardcore techies, but could also use a UI such as KDE, Gnome and others to be more user friendly.  That was one direction from mainstream Windows.

There was another group of techies who didn't have issues with Windows itself, just how it looked and did things.  There were a number of options to change the UI.  Commercially there was, among others, Stardock, with the well known WindowBlinds and Object Desktop.  In the freeware realm there are LiteStep and others created and developed by communities of enthusiasts.  Both sources were helping some very old versions of Windows and both are still active for Windows 8. Throughout, there were two reasons for both.  One was having the functionality of Windows, but a more pleasing UI for the user.  The other was a combination of making functions easier to get to, plus adding more functionality.

There are downsides to both linux and third party UIs for Windows.

  1. As good as all the varieties of linux are, there are drivers and some functions that aren't as complete as in Windows.
  2. Stardock's products are not free and limited to their choices.  So, most people are just switching from Microsoft's design decisions to those of Stardock.  Which may be OK with many.
  3. Community driven UIs and add-ons, like Rainmeter widgets and Litestep, are limited if installed in their "as is" state.
  4. There's a way to deal with the first three items on this list.  But it requires more effort from the user.  There are themes and tweaks to enhance all of these.  Some paid, some free, but they also require the user to learn a bit about the system they're using and getting into the settings more than most people care to.  If you like your system to look and act the way you want it to, instead of how someone else thinks it should, the result is worth it.  And it's a learning experience that may help avoid paying someone to fix a software glitch, the next time a program doesn't work as smoothly as advertised.
On the mobile side,  there's a similar history, but more variety in past and present operating systems and their look and feel.  Most recently, Apple took over the reputation of forcing users into their mold.  Apple was very restrictive about what got into the app store and how users could use their devices.  Unlike computers, there seems to be a larger tech oriented group of smartphone and tablet owners.  With fanboys for every flavor of device on the market.

The downside of the fanboy thing is that there are more "flame war" activities -- "mine is bigger, better, and badder than yours".  The upside is that more mobile users have become willing to become more tech savvy with their devices.  So, all the possibilities for customization are much more in the public's mind, if not their fullfledged readiness to adapt.

The present and future of our devices is pretty exciting and getting even better, almost by the hour. We'll hit some conclusions and insights in the next one or two Gadget Goodies posts, Christmas and maybe New Years Day.  What are your thoughts?

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