GNOMEr's criticism of iTunes

In response to John Gruber’s comments on Eric S. Raymond’s CUPS configuration usability rant, an Anonymous George has posted a page titled “The State and Future of GNOME”. Along with visual comparisons of GNOME’s Open/Save (no longer crappy!) and preference dialogs to those of Windows XP, the author includes some criticism of iTunes when compared to Muine, a GNOME music player. I have never used Muine, so I can’t really compare it to iTunes from a usability perspective, but the author makes some…

Good Points

  • Apple’s positioning of the album art display in iTunes is not ideal, failing to strongly connect what is displayed in the central status oval and the art. With that said, the artwork pane has two useful modes, one of which would not be at all logical if the artwork were displayed in the status area as is done in Muine.
  • Automatic fetching of album cover art should be an option without having to use Sofa or Synergy.
  • Automatic folder-library synchronization, a feature found in Whamb and Audion, is of potential use for those who backup and listen to their music on several machines.
  • Context-switching widget
  • The only iTunes widget I know of that completely changes function based on context switching is the Browser (upper-right), which becomes Burn CD when viewing a playlist rather than the Library. A problem, but a singular, not plural one. What Apple could do is make iTunes’ CD burning interface more like that of the Finder (a related posting of my own) – when a writable disc is inserted, it appears in the iTunes source list for users to name and drag-and-drop tracks or playlists to. The Burn widget (the black and yellow doodad) would be placed to the right of the disc name rather than the Browse button changing to and from Burn Disc. Once the burn completed, the Eject button would replace the Burn button.
    iTunes CD Burning (87K PDF)

Based on the screenshot at Muine’s home page, it has a queueing feature that would be nice in iTunes. I believe Windows Media Player also has such a thing. The 3rd generation iPods allow users to queue songs in an “On-The-Go” playlist (mentioned about halfway down the right-hand sidebar), but iTunes does not have an equivalent.

Muine does look like a solid application, but iTunes is an end-to-end music management app while Muine appears to be tightly focused on playback. The author calls iTunes bloated while neglecting to mention that you would need (possibly several) additional GNOME applications to get the functionality iTunes provides. As I’ve pointed out in this and numerous other posts, there is room for improvement, but I think iTunes handles an overwhelming majority of its many tasks very well.

GNOME toolbar customization

There are several things I would change about GNOME application toolbars, primarily pertaining to the customization of them. Toolbar customization is one of the things I think Apple did really well with OS X. These comments are based on GNOME 2.4 – I don’t know if any of these things have changed in GNOME 2.6b1.

Customizing the Galeon browser’s toolbar

  • There is no need to display the toolbar contents twice
  • By default, position the customization window so users can see the actual toolbar. If users can already see what is on the toolbar, they only need to be shown what they can add (or duplicate in the case of separators). Keyboard control would need to be rethought.

  • Get rid of the vertical layout
  • Toolbars are usually horizontal – why should users be forced to mentally map left??right to top??bottom? KDE makes the same mistake.

  • Use the active theme’s icons
  • With the custom theme seen on the actual toolbar, it is fairly easy to identify buttons from their icon, but that is not always the case – some themes use icons which are different enough from the generic set that this could be problematic. The visual consistency aspect is also important.

Displaying feed meta-data in NetNewsWire

In both traditional and widescreen views, the content pane of NetNewsWire currently goes to waste unless a headline is selected. Using it to display feed information useful to users would provide additional functionality without consuming any additional screen real estate.

The GNOME feed reader Liferea uses a layout similar to NNW’s default three-pane interface, with the subscriptions listed on the left, the headlines in the top right section, and the content in the bottom right. Rather than leaving the bottom-right pane empty unless a headline is selected, here is what appears in Liferea when Slashdot’s subscription is selected without selecting a headline:

GNOME's Liferea feedreader displaying information from Slashdot's feed

Particularly Useful Functions
  • Single-click access to the homepage
  • Direct site query input
  • This is of great potential use with any site which provides a searching facility.

  • E-mail contact for the manager of the feed
  • For reasons beyond my comprehension, the e-mail links in Liferea are not clickable. Making them so would allow for easy reporting of feed bugs (assuming you can get this far with the feed!).

  • Category
  • This is part of the RSS 2.0 spec, but I don’t see it in the Atom 0.3 specification draft. It could eventually be used as one criterion for building smart subscription groups.

This would fit well into NetNewsWire’s default traditional view interface. With proper formatting, it could also work in widescreen view, but I can’t think of a way in which it would work with the combined view.

What should be displayed if a folder or multiple subscriptions are selected? If there is only one feed within the group that has unread headlines, it would probably be safe to display that particular feed’s info. A simple “This group has several updated feeds” or “Multiple subscriptions are selected” notification message could be displayed when applicable.

The State of the User

OmniWeb 5’s Workspaces reminded me of a feature I really liked while I was using GNOME and KDE extensively on Linux machines – saved environment states, often referred to as sessions.

Saving a snapshot of a user’s environment that is then opened when the user logs in again is a great way to preserve continuity. You don’t have to set login items to launch, you don’t have to remember what sites you were browsing, what documents you had open, and on a more general level, what the hell you were doing. With a well implemented session saving feature, the applications you had open and positioned return, the sites you were browsing reload, both of which serve to bring you back to whatever you were working on.

Fast User Switching under 10.3 (thanks for the feature, Microsoft) provides this for the most part, but it of course requires that the user be logged in and all of their applications be open, accompanied by the necessary RAM and/or swap space usage. All continuity is lost as soon as the user completely logs out or the computer is shut down.

After writing the bulk of this entry, I came upon John Siracusa’s OW5b1 write-up at ArsTechnica, in which he details why the Workspaces feature is so useful and why state retention features are so rarely implemented.

Apple implementing a state retention method in OS X would be a great way to improve the perceived stability of the interface.

GNOME 2.4, KDE 3.1

I’ve gotten both of the major desktop environments running under Apple’s X11, so I’ll be looking at them from a UI standpoint periodically. My brother was recently gifted with many spare parts (including an extra 512MB DIMM which now resides in my iMac – thanks, Jarod), so a Linux box might be in my not too distant future.

I know that both GNOME 2.6 and KDE 3.2 are not too far away, so it really would be best to wait until then to make any UI comments, which otherwise run the risk of being obsolesced.

GNOME drives & media policy

While the GNOME Drives and Media Prefs is certainly a step in the right direction (to my knowledge there is no media policy manager at present), I have a few suggestions for improving the UI.

  1. Simple first, complex second

    The “Command” option is great for power users who know CLI switches for their favorite programs, but this is not an interface average users would find usable. Rather than the drop-down being labeled “Command,” label it “Use” and fill it in with the default GNOME handler for a given action. The option to use a custom command-line argument could be presented within the selection menu.

  2. Clarify wordings
    • “Auto-play” is not needed for the DVD or Audio CD controls – just “Play” would do.
    • For CD burning, what is Auto-burn?
    • The contextual meaning of the word “media” (in Removable Drives and Media) is known by fairly savvy computer users, but “Disks” would be easier for novice users to understand.
    • Cameras are generally thought of as being “connected” rather than “inserted.” For this, I have to ask if this mechanism handles only cameras which are directly connected or also memory cards which contain photos. If only directly connected cameras, my suggestion makes sense.

GNOME Storage

A recent Slashdot headline described a new filesystem/UI concept by Seth Nickell, GNOME Storage. Having looked at the screenshots and read the PDF describing the reasoning behind the project, I am very hopeful that such a system will be embraced by the GNOME community and other operating systems (ahem, OS X).

As more and more information moves online, particularly media, organizing and locating this information becomes almost linearly more difficult. Many users forget where they save and what they name their files. Most people can remember what was in a file they are looking for – this is most applicable to text documents. For either audio or video, most people can remember at least a few facts about a given item: an actor’s name, the year it came out, who the bass player was, a lyric or snippet of dialogue, etc. This information is meta-data. This would make a system like Storage useful.

The problem: how does the meta-data get there? At some point along the road, someone somewhere has to input this information.

For certain types of media it could be input once into a world-accessible database such as FreeDB.org or IMDB.com. While most people realize the utility of this information, they do not want to have to enter it manually. This puts the burden of meta-data input/creation on the content providers. This is fair and logical, as the customer/consumer is (in a law-abiding world) providing money in exchange for a product. This data is also useful to content providers, so there is no reason not to expect them to add it.

For the content of individuals, meta-data entry is a bit more problematic. How do you get a person to add valuable contextual information to a document, every time they create one? Ideally, the information that would be added to this individually generated content could be automatically drawn from data stores on their computer. Access by programs to this information should be tightly controlled BY THE USER, preventing spyware from transmitting your social security number to some shady character.

In a perfect world, I should be able to use a Storage like interface to instantly display all image files sent to me by Joe Smith in December of last year. The system would use the catalog of meta-data to locate all images that were attached to emails from joe@smith.com dated December 1 to December 31, 2002.