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Confessions of an Old Fogey
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Going gaga over XGL

Going gaga over XGL

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Chris Pirillo's been making a ton of noise over a video he posted showing off a YouTube video of a demo of the XGL desktop running on KDE.

He then turns around and asks "Why can't Vista look like this?".  I'm not a UX (user experience) guy, but I have watched the video and I've got some pretty strong opinions about it.


First off, he's right - this is a pretty amazing demo.  It has TONS of eye candy.  The "bouncy" effects on the windows are very pretty.  The rotating cube is cool, as is the "windows bump into each other" effect. Having said all that, there's a TON of distance between a cool demo (or proof of concept, or whatever it is you call something that's not shipping in a product for millions of consumers).


For instance, the bouncy windows make you seasick after a while.  And the cube desktop, while slick has some serious issues - for instance, you've got a strong potential for "losing" your windows (because they're on a face of the cube that's obscured).

The key thing to realize is that it's relatively easy to make a cool UI.  I've seen the most amazing proof of concepts for Windows UI coming from our advanced UX team.  Really compelling stuff, that just knocks your socks off. 

And not one of them has ever seen the light of day outside of Microsoft (to my knowledge).


Why is this?  Because making a good user experience is HARD.  It's easy to make a cool user experience, it's REALLY hard to make one that's good, and that works for millions of users.  There are a ton of things you need to consider.  You need to consider usability, accessibility, localizability (yeah, it matters - Right-To-Left languages may have differnt visual conventions than Left-To-Right languages), all sorts of other *bilities.  I've been through enough and read enough UX reviews over the redesigned multimedia control panel in Vista to realize the complexity of the things that these guys have to deal with.  It's a lot harder than you think.  John Gruber over at Daring FIreball has a classic post entitled "Ronco Spray-On Usability where he talks about some of hte issues.


Take floppy windows for example.  The Shell Fit&Finish dude (Dave Vroney) just put out a post explaining why they disabled floppy windows.  The answer is that they significantly reduce the usability of the system.  They may be cool but they get really annoying really soon.


And, of course, Vista is only V1 of the DWM.  This release is about getting the heavy lifting and building a new desktop compositing engine.  Future releases are likely to have a ton more cool stuff coming from the UI wizards now that they have a platform on which they can do really cool things.

  • The only problem with Vista is that it is heavily resource intensive and is intent at driving the hardware market rather than the ISV market. Minimum 1GB RAM plus a directx9 support graphics card is something that is required at the minimum to enjoy the cool graphics there. Vista market at the beginning is going to be sloppy, I will have to throw away my machine and get a new one to enjoy it. :( No plans as of now to do that. How many would make that transition soon?
  • You don't have to throw away your machine.  My 2 year old home machine runs glass just fine.  My dev machine at work needed a $99 video card and it runs glass just fine.

    My two test machines, (one with 768K of RAM) both run glass just fine.  

    You're right that Vista is more hardware hungry than XP was, but it's not likely to be as bad a picture as you paint.  And all the machines shipped with Vista preinstalled on them will have glass working just fine.

  • Agreed - and most of compiz (the window manager being used in those videos) effects are more "tech demonstrations" than "things that should get enabled by default for every linux user"

    More importantly, it's clear that Windows Vista *does* have the technical ability and all the pieces to do that kind of effects. What I don't understand about the Microsoft-way-of-doing-things is why Microsoft won't allow expert users to download extra effects (I suspect they won't), Microsoft usually only releases whatever gets into the final build and nothing else even if they could. (compiz's architecture is plugin based and it's easy to enable and disable plugins for example)
  • "For instance, the bouncy windows make you seasick after a while."

    I know just what you mean. The fuzzy text in the borders of Vista's Glass interface give me a headache.
  • Vipin: Minimum 1 GB RAM is just not true. My girlfriend has glass on her machine and it has only 512 Mb RAM and an Intel onboard graphics adapter (I think it's a 940 or 945).
  • 768K of RAM running Vista, let alone Glass? No. Way.
  • "here's a TON of distance between a cool demo (or proof of concept, or whatever it is you call something that's not shipping in a product for millions of consumers)."

    Whether XGL is bad UX or not, the Youtube video you watched is from a shipping version of Ubuntu -- admittedly not shipping to millions of people :)
  • I will certainly agree that there is a huge world of difference between the target markets of things like the Xgl/Compiz demo and Windows.  I also agree with your point that these features don't add anything to usability except for a small set of people that happen to have a mental state that agrees with how they operate.

    However - that doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't have them.  Program the functionality in, turn it off by default, and then let the savvy users figure it out.  Include somewhere in the depths of the Accessories > System Tools menu a "UI Enhancements" widge.  Label it as beta, for the daring, etc.  Even make it a hidden feature - everybody loves easter eggs and cool features.

    (Spoken as a guy who has a Compiz/Xgl box but vastly prefers Windows for day to day use and would love to combine the window manager of the former with the functionality of the latter.)
  • "Why can't Vista look like this?" - I'd respond "Why _should_ Vista look like that?"  Flashy gimmicks alone don't make a UI good. You're gonna have to give me more supporting evidence before convincing me a new desktop metaphor is worthwhile.

    Some of the elements from the old Task Gallery[1] have made it into Vista: most notably rendering windows using the 3D card; and Flip3D looks a heckofa lot like a stacked-window layout from TG. But that took how many years to get into production? TG was running on Win2K, so 6 at the least.

  • Larry, I can't recall ever disagreeing with you, but when you say "all the machines shipped with Vista preinstalled on them will have glass working just fine," I have to call crap.  

    Have you ever sat down in front of the average consumer pc from Dell, Gateway, EMachines, etc.?  Straight from the factory with XP installed they're so under-rammed you could wipe the drive, install Win98, and still find them running so slow as to be barely usable... forget about XP and all the preloads.  Nope, PCs will be shipped with Vista that won't run fine with Vista much less with Vista with glass working.

    Now, if Microsoft would put something sensible in their agreements with manufacturers like "no discount price if you sell ANY PCs with less than 1GB of RAM"... then I might let your comment slide... but I still wouldn't consider it accurate.
  • Neal, you're right, that was too strong.  How about "the vast majority of the machines shipped with Vista on them will have glass".

    You can get glass on surprisingly limited machines - for instance, the intel integrated graphics adapter gets glass (at the cost of system memory).

    And my 768K test machine does glass quite well.

    Mark Smith: The problem there is the 1000 knob problem.  UI can't have that many knobs and switches.
  • - How about "the vast majority of the machines shipped with Vista on them will have glass".

    this is not necessarily true.  This will only come with Vista Home Premium and above.  Many companies will undoubtedly try to sell their low-end computers with the Vista Home Basic, which will not come with the Aero features.
  • I'm shocked that you use a PC-XT (clone?) for your test machine. ;)

    By the time Vista ships 512M will presumably be the minimum possible configuration for buying it. Currently, the number is 256 (and frankly I'd be shocked if you could put win98 as mentioned on that and not have a speed demon). With the vast majority of consumer machines simply uninstalling the virus/security trial will rid you of most of the slowdown (norton/symantec always hijacks and destabilizes the system anyway).

    And I want some of those cool demos! Not actual skins, just short videos of various wild and crazy but rejected concepts. It'd be a lot more fun that surfing windowblinds.
  • I don't think too many people will argue with you  if you say the effects are superfluous. The 3d flip task thing in Vista is superfluous too. I think the main point that Chris P. and others are making is: "Look at what XGL can do with 1/3rd of the machine that it takes to run Vista."

    So when you say, "all my work machine needs was a $99 video card to run glass.", I say, "All I needed to run XGL on my 2 year old laptop and have those visual effects was to burn a DVD." And btw, just HOW beefy is your dev machine? How many CPU's do you have in it? ;) I doubt most home users have that much horsepower.

    The cube is just another way to swap multiple desktops around, the bouncy windows are just for fun. The full screen transparent video is nice.

    After having seen the re-work of the "Start" menu in Vista, Paul T's demostration of the new back and forward buttons in Vista, and having used Quicksilver under OS X for over a  year now, I refuse to believe that Microsoft has ANYONE working on useability. ;)
  • [quote]
    For instance, the bouncy windows make you seasick after a while.  And the cube desktop, while slick has some serious issues - for instance, you've got a strong potential for "losing" your windows (because they're on a face of the cube that's obscured).
    I don't think so.

    Do you remember XWindow has multiple desktops in the same user session ages ago? I believe the sides of "the cube" are just different desktops be made to stick together.

    I think this effect can be made into Windows in similar way too, just treat the "screens" as multiple monitors. :)
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