Saturday, December 27, 2008

Why Can't Operating Systems be More Fun?

Like a lot of folks did during this holiday shopping season, we ventured into the mouth of the lion:  Shopping Malls.  One store I always make a point of visiting is the Apple Store at MacArthur Mall, in downtown Norfolk.  Not the coolest Apple Store, but the ONLY Apple Store within 50 miles, so it's good enough.  I usually spend about an hour there and take my time grazing over the goods like a three-legged cat sifting through a turned over garbage can late at night.

My kids were with me, as usual, and they too spend considerable time playing with the gadgets and taking mental notes.  Mind you, we don't own any Apple computer products, just a ton of iPods and an AppleTV.  I can't justify the expense when I have a housefull of PC computers already.  I still like to play with things.  I always have. But I really like to quietly listen to my kids talk about what they think of technical gadgetry.  It's hilarious and extremely interesting at the same time.

I have four kids.  Ages 18, 16, 12, and 9.  A few months ago, I reloaded their computer at home with Ubuntu and had them use it for a little over a month.  Their views were mixed.  Two of them were "ok" with it.  Two of them hated it to death.  The 12 year old didn't even notice it was Ubuntu until I asked her.  The youngest two only use a computer to play online Flash-based games and they were using Firefox at the time, so it's not that much of a difference from Windows XP or Vista.

The two oldest kids spend a lot of time at their friend's houses and use their Macs a lot.  They are very fluent with them.  The two youngest kids have been to the Apple Store enough to know how to get around in OSX actually.

They all like OSX, as do I, for having a more interesting, intuitive interface over Vista or Ubuntu.  But we would all prefer an operating system that was more customizable, dynamic, and "fun" like a video console.  This became apparent to us while playing with the Wii over Christmas.  Navigating the Wii menu system, opening games and options, watching how objects move and behave, etc.

A good example being "World of Goo", for the Nintendo Wii.  The graphics, animation and characters are really cool and a lot of fun to play with.  It's a simple game of building structures using little globs of "goo" with eyeballs, that squeak and laugh as you move around and stick to them together.  The points talley is poured into a vessel.  The intro is like the beginning of The Incredibles, or movie-like.  The cursor is a squiggly blob that looks like a slug as you move it around the screen.  Everything is fluid, dynamic, smooth, not jerky or flat or static.  

Another example they like is an artistic program called ArtRage.  The menus use a fluidic motif that melts in and out as you click on things.  Very cool.  The overall theme is clean and simple, yet robust enough to not feel dumbed-down.  A great balance between simplicity and granularity.  But World of Goo is probably the coolerest of the two as far as what features could be adapted to make an operating system more "fun" to use.

The closest things I've seen to going in that direction are Edubuntu (add-on for Ubuntu 8.10), or WindowBlinds by Stardock.  But even they stop short of really radically redesigning the interface, or more importantly, the interface behavior.  I was hoping Windows 7 would open up things for people to customize the interface experience more than XP or Vista, but early signs don't look so promising.  Vista "Ultimate" was an ultimate let-down in that regard, but that's looking to the past.  There's no reason why an operating system can't be as fun to use as a PS3, XBox 360 or Wii console.  I'm hoping the future delivers something more interesting.
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