Program Menus and Window Manager Usability

A couple of weeks ago I had an old Sun Ultra 1 installed on my desk to act as a terminal in the work Unix systems. The Sun is running OpenWindows 3.6 as it’s GUI, which brought back quite a few memories of my first experiences with Unix back at university. Using OpenWindows has also made me think about the difference in user experiences between window mandagers.

I have had experience using a number of different window managers including Microsoft Windows (3.0 to 2000), KDE, Gnome, Enlightenment, AfterStep, OS/2 and older Apple Macintoshes. Almost all of them had two desktop items in common: a Taskbar (or Dock, Wharf, etc) and desktop icons. Neither OpenWindows nor Enlightenment have either of these, at least not by default. They do have pop-up menus with lists of actions and programs, but in the case of OpenWindows these menus are very limited.

Why does this matter? I would argue that it makes it more difficult to discover which applications are available on the system. In order to run most applications it is necessary to type in the program name on the command line in a terminal window. First, however, you need to know the name of the program. At least on Unix systems (unlike old MS-DOS systems) you often don’t need to know the directory path (unless the application is installed somewhere outside of a directory listed in your PATH environment variable). However, it is more difficult to know what programs you have available in the first place.

Linux window managers often have the problem that new software installations often don’t place an icon into the appropriate menu or an icon on the desktop. It is something that needs to be done manually.

The issues listed above are not problems for power users. However, I could imagine that to new users of Unix or Linux systems that the lack of easy graphical access to applications could cause difficulties.

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