The Future Is Disorienting

I just jumped years into the future with both my cell phone and my computer. The future is a mixed bag.

The Cell Phone

For quite a few years now, I’ve had a flip-phone and was paying for service out of contract. When people started getting smartphones, I kind of wanted one, but never enough to justify the cost of a phone or tying myself to a new 2-year contract to get a free one.

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I did the math recently. I found out that for what I pay just for voice, data, and texting would be equivalent to getting a new smartphone with a contract. I’d even be able to take advantage of the data plan since the one with my flip-phone which became nearly unusable when they stopped supporting some of the already-poorly supported video options. I went with my fiancee’s Sprint-based provider instead of AT&T, and that referral netted me a discount that made it even cheaper.

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So now I have an Android, the HTC EVO Shift, and I’m fairly happy with it. It’s way more useful than my old phone.

Plus, now I can play the games everyone has been talking about.

Plus plus, I have a device to test my own projects when I start mobile development.

However, I’m still getting used to figuring out how to hold it since I seem to keep accidentally hitting the search button or some part of the screen. I still hit the volume control on the side too often, and I press the power button as I slide the device into my pocket if I’m not careful. And as great as having a keyboard is, the phone automatically unlocks when I slide it out, which has accidentally happened in my coat pocket more than once already. While my old phone let me easily look up a name in my phone book since I could type a letter and it would jump to that section of my phone book, this new device seems to think I want to include everyone I’ve ever emailed, Tweeted, circled on G+, or friended on Facebook when I want to search for someone to call.

But this is the future, and the benefits are outweighing the negatives. Being able to fit a computer more powerful and integrated than my first desktop into my pocket has so far been pretty amazing.

The Computer

And speaking of computers, I’ve mentioned my dying laptop a few weeks ago. My Dell Precision M90 was a fine machine until the video card started failing. I’ve purchased a replacement: the Precision M6600.

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I’m going from:

  • 32-bit 2GHz CoreDuo -> 64-bit 2.2GHz i7 Quad Core
  • 2GB RAM -> 8GB RAM
  • NVIDIA Quadro FX 2500M (512MB) -> Quadro 3000M (2GB)
  • 100GB HD -> 750GB HD
  • 17″ WUXGA display -> 17.3″ 1920×1080 display

That last item unfortunately feels like a downgrade to me. I really liked having a 1920×1200 display. The extra lines of resolution were great for coding work. Unfortunately, it seems that 1920×1200 will no longer be available for most laptops. There’s no real explanation, either. There’s merely speculation that the hardware manufacturers will save money, especially since most people probably just want to watch movies on their laptops anyway.

Still, this new laptop came with Windows 7, and while I’ve used Windows Vista by being the default tech support guy for my family, I hadn’t really become familiar with anything since Windows XP, which is what my old laptop came with. The new interface is somewhat jarring. When I was running Firefox and had the download window open as well as the main browser, I wanted to minimize it, and so I clicked on the button in the taskbar, like I normally would. Instead of minimizing Firefox, it popped up a the windows as buttons so I could choose which one I wanted. Darn new-fangled tech doing things differently than I expected…

But no matter! I repartitioned the drive so that Windows gets about 100GB, and I installed Ubuntu 11.10 on the remaining space. And it turns out that Ubuntu is all new and shiny, too.

See, I used Ubuntu 10.04 Long-Term Support (LTS), and I didn’t want to upgrade to newer versions because I wanted a stable development system to do my work on.

So here I am, jumping two years’ worth of Ubuntu development, and this new Unity interface threw me for a bit until I realized they were trying to make it seem more Mac-like. There’s a launcher, and the buttons are all big and shiny, and there’s a Software Center where I can easily click and download apps and even purchase them. There’s quite a few indie games there, and it seems like it could be a decent marketplace.

But after looking at the entire games collection, I took the time to find the Terminal (more on that later) and typed: “apt-get install nethack-console” as fast as I could.

And then I added the Terminal to the launcher.

Seriously, it’s nice that the UI is 3D-powered and all, but sometimes I don’t want to mess around with a frickin’ mouse. I LIKED being able to open the system menu at a keypress and see ALL of my installed applications. Now I have to explicitly type to search or click on Dash, then click on “More Apps”, and then click some more? On the old system, I could hit Alt+F1 to open the “Applications” menu, then use the arrow keys to move to “Accessories” > Terminal. Now, I press the Windows key to bring up Dash, and if I know the name of the application, I can type it out right there, but if I don’t, it’s faster to click on “More Apps”, then go to “Installed” and click on “see all”, then scroll down until I find it.

I also liked being able to figure out how to open a file within an application by just looking at the screen. Unity has Mac-like context menus that applications share at the top of the screen, which…ok, whatever. Maybe it’s great, and I’ll try it, but why Unity hides the menu until you mouse over it, I don’t know, but I’m not the only one who is unhappy with it. Maybe I just need to get used to it, but there were a couple of times when I opened an application and wondered why the heck I had no way to open a file since the window I was using (seriously, why would I want to shift my eyes all the way to the top of the screen when the application I’m using is over here?) didn’t have a File option.

Unity also seems to hate the idea of customization. At least Windows let me move the taskbar around the screen. Why does the launcher have to stay stuck to the left side? Why do my windows have to have the close and minimize buttons to the left like on a Mac when I prefer them on the right? I’ve yet to find a way to change anything to work the way I want it to work.

I’m aware that it is possible to replace Unity with Ubuntu Classic UI or KDE, but I’m going to try to stick things out just to see how most users are expected to run their new Ubuntu-based systems. I actually do like being able to see all running application instances in an Exposé-like way, and there are parts of the UI that feel more intuitive. And Ubuntu 11.10 does seamlessly run 32-bit and 64-bit applications. I ran Stop That Hero! just to see if I had all of my development libraries installed, and I didn’t even realize that it shouldn’t have worked on this new 64-bit machine. So that was a pleasant surprise.

But if this is the future of computers, where laptop screens get smaller resolutions instead of larger ones, where the UI is made out of candy and shiny at the expense of being useful for people who know what they are doing, I’m not sure I’m happy about it.

I feel like the future is pushing me out of the way to make room for people who just want to watch widescreen movies or use a “workstation” as nothing more than a consumer electronics device.

Am I being unreasonable? Am I just disoriented because everything is different in the future? Is it better and I just need to get used to it?

7 comments to The Future Is Disorienting

  • Its a simple reality that the era of the power user has and is slowly dying. Personally I don’t think I mind that to much, despite once upon a time being heavy into customization.

    In the past I had my phase of water cooled computers, over clocking, replacing windows startup screens, re-skinning task bars, routinely hacking the registry and dialing out all the performance tricks, and so forth. Somewhere along the line though, I gave up carrying about any of that junk, and simply wanted a system/OS that was easy to use, did what I wanted, and was stable.

    Maybe it was the multiple years of corporate lock downed laptops that helped to break that customization urge, but I know once I got a Macbook pro for iphone development, that urge pretty much completely died. Mac OS quickly sank its claws into me, and soon my iphone dev Macbook had replaced all of my windows laptops and desktops.

    Mind you I use vmware to run a copy of 32 bit XP pro at the same time (I won’t even touch vista/windows 7), given I also do flash development, and Xbox development and as such much of my tool chain is .NET/win32, but for the most part my dumb, un-customized Mac OS came along and met all of my general needs perfectly. I do have terminal on the launcher though, I tend to not use it much, unless building some third party library though. Xcode, Visual Studio, and flash develop tend to handle most of my development needs easily enough.

    Its like my iPhone, is it jail broken? Nope. Am I missing out on things? Possibly, but if I am, I don’t know what, and haven’t found anything I’m missing. Its simple, and it works remarkably a large majority of the time, and rarely gives me any pain. What more do I really need? I certainly appreciate it much more, than say my android phones that I plug in to windows to do development work on, and need to hack around with usb drivers, mess all around with environmental paths, and other junk to get a debug connection made.

    So yeah it is disorienting at first, but I also think there is something to be had for simplicity, and things just working, no customization or hacking needed.

  • I remember the first time I installed Ubuntu on my laptop. I was used to Debian, and with Debian at the time, I found I had to compile my own kernel just to ensure that all of the drivers I need would be available. If a device didn’t work, then I had to go recompile until it did.

    My laptop had a touch pad, various buttons to control sound, and even buttons for the DVD drive. When I installed Ubuntu, they all just worked! It was pretty amazing at the time, and I was very pleased.

    In the past, when I had plenty of spare time, I might be inclined to tinker more, but today any time I have to spend on getting video drivers to work feels like a frustration. I used to run fluxbox, but today I run the stock Gnome that comes with Debian. And I’m sticking out this Ubuntu Unity thing for a bit to see how I like it.

    Simplicity has its place, but sometimes I’d like to be able to open things up. Sometimes I want to customize. Unity doesn’t seem to think I would want to do that, and so unless they give me the option in an update, maybe it is not for me.

  • Yeah, Unity is probably not for you. Ask yourself: Was it meant for you? They’re trying to unite small touchscreens and desktops to smooth the feel for casual users. That’s all fine for them, but I expect you’ll be switching back to Gnome soon.

    I use KDE (via Kubuntu) and I’m glad I ended up preferring the desktop manager which is big on customization. I used to think with all the Windows hacks back in the day that I had a lot of customization options, but when I found KDE, I realized what kinds of things were being held away from me and how much more productive I can be when I have free choice.

    (For other readers) As for KDE vs. Gnome, it’s all down to taste. Do you prefer Windows-style or Mac-style?

  • I don’t use Ubuntu on my main development computer, although I may install it instead of upgrading to the next version of Mint. I DO use Ubuntu on the netbook I’m typing on now, and I’m surprised at how used to it I’ve gotten.

    New customisation options are coming in 12.04, including the option to reposition the dash. Also, you probably know this, but you can quickly open a terminal with ctrl+alt+t.

    I do miss the menu, and the dash is terrible to search through for programs, but I usually know the name of the program I want to open. Pressing Super and doing a search has become quicker than going to a menu for me.

    I agree about the hidden menus. Even if they’re not a big issue to me, how is someone unfamiliar with Ubuntu supposed to know about them? All this “hidden until you need it” nonsense isn’t very intuitive to new Ubuntu/Linux users. Besides, I don’t mind my screen being a little cluttered if it means extra functionality and convenience. The least-cluttered screen you can have is when the computer is turned off, but people turn their computers ON. Hint hint, UI designers?

    So yeah. I don’t know if Unity is as much an improvement as it is different just for the sake of being trendy, but I’m less irritated about trendiness than I thought I would be. Perhaps that will change when I’m using Ubuntu to develop.

  • I’m having a similar experience to yours, as I’ve just upgraded from the “dumbphone” my contract came with to an iPhone 4. I think I like it overall, even though I do have to use a Windows virtual machine to manage it. Also, it irritates me that I cannot access and modify the /etc/hosts file without jailbreaking the device.

    Since Clean3d is expecting this from me, I will do my PSA: If you don’t like Unity, try Linux Mint. I’d recommend Mint 11 for a usable development environment. It has the Gnome 2 interface you are used to, and it is built off of Ubuntu 11.04, so all of the packages from the Ubuntu repositories are compatible. Personally, I’ve found that even some things that take configuring in Ubuntu “just work” in Mint.

    Mint 13 is supposed to feature Cinnamon, which is a fork of Gnome 3 that attempts to capture the shine factor of modern window managers while maintaining the usability and productivity of classic user interfaces. As far as I know, it will still be completely compatible with Ubuntu. I’m interested to see where it goes, as it will probably be what I’m using by this time next year: http://cinnamon.linuxmint.com/

  • Thanks for the suggestions!

  • Greg

    I still love my flip-phone with no contract. I love Linux Mint and have avoided the ‘big change’ of Unity because I just don’t have a need to change (and Fluxbox has grown on me!). I’m still on Ubuntu 10.04 on my main machine and it’s fine.

    I am thinking about getting another desktop rather than a replacement for an old/dying laptop sometime this year.

    It seems the fun thing about the future is that the old technologies never really die so there is just more and more to choose from. More things change, more things stay the same (mostly)…

    Does this make me a Luddite? I don’t know, but an Android tablet this year might be good fun 🙂