Ian Bicking: the old part of his blog

UIs of the future: Ion, Emacs

(Were you looking for Squeak/Morphic Demo?)

I was reading this post where Sidnei talks a bit about productivity tools under Linux. I also am a huge fan of Ion. It's far simpler and more focused than the traditional window model, it lets me program without undue distraction or the clerical work of window manipulation.

The irony is that Ion is like a step back in time and could be seen as a dramatic reduction in WM features. Or maybe it's a step sideways, kind of like Emacs is. Emacs, compared by traditional measures, is clearly inferior to other editors, it's crufty and awkward. But when judged on its actual worth, not its similarity to traditional UIs, it of course performs wonderfully. The same goes for Ion -- it does all the really important parts of window management well, without any of the stupid cruft, even if the stupid cruft has become ingrained in modern UIs.

In my heart of hearts, I still believe this kind of simplicity has potential for a larger audience. I feel confident that a large number of computer users would find this greater simplicity a great aid to productivity, and in fact deeply comforting. One of the most challenging parts of computer use -- for all levels -- is keeping track of everything that is going on. There's so many tasks -- the manipulation of windows so you can see everything, getting the keyboard focus right, the constant sidetrack as you move between one side-task and another, all while you still have to concentrate on whatever your real task is. Sure, you can get better at it, but multitasking has its costs, and I think those costs are higher than most of us realize. And they aren't just productivity or accuracy -- there's an emotional reaction, a level of stress that a poor UI can produce.

Of course, these particular implementations we choose as programmers -- be it Ion or Emacs -- probably won't ever catch on. But there's still a powerful idea there. The UIs we've been using were designed for children 25 years ago, when everyone was a child with respect to computers. The UIs so vaunted for their accessibility to novices (WIMP, the traditional Mac interface, etc) are not appropriate for the users of today, not to mention tomorrow. The users of today are heavy computer users, if not always power users, using their computer for hours each day both at work and home. The investment of learning more powerful interfaces is worth it to them in a way it wasn't to computer users of the 80's.

But I should be clear what I mean about more powerful interfaces -- I don't mean things like Photoshop (or GIMP), but rather the simple yet orthogonal interfaces, which in their careful selection of features provide power without distraction. Features like tabs and type-ahead searching in Mozilla (bookmarklets too?), or in a word processor the view-tags feature of Wordperfect which exposes structure that lays deeply hidden in MS Word. These are empowering features, sharply in contrast to the disempowerment of a feature like Word's autoformatting.

So there exists the potential for Linux to reach a larger audience, and to really do something novel and important and maybe even revolutionary, if we recognize what we've already accomplished instead of judging ourselves by the kind of progress others have made. So long as we believe our critics, we'll be stuck focusing on our flaws instead of our unique abilities. That was my point in my recent post, and I've unintentionally come back to it. Joel Spolsky calls it Fire and Motion -- you can't let your opposition get you pinned down, you have to always advance. Gnome is pinned down, but software like Ion and Emacs aren't because the opposition doesn't even realize they exist. Still, they're honking great ideas -- let's do more of those!

(PS: try Ion for a couple days, you'll learn to love it, I swear)

Created 15 Nov '03
Modified 25 Jan '05


FRom my experience most windows users solve the windows placement problem by maximising every window they they see and using the start bar to navigate.
Hmm if I had a portrait monitor I'd prolly do that as well, well, maybe if I had two portrait monitors.. :)
# Factory

Enjoyable read.
I'd like to think that Wiki's fall into the "inferior..crufty, awkward...yet perform wonderfuly" category also.
Also, Windows 1.0 was "limited" to tile positioned windows.
# DeanG

The devil is in the details, of course, but from a quick look, Ion isn't all that different from NVidia's nView (configurable desktops, gridded management, dialogue control, hotkeys, gestures, etc).

(ATI and Matrox have similar tools for their hardware).
# Fredrik Lundh

i've been a (part-time) ion user for a couple years now and i can verify that it really is a more productive environment. i also agree that the potential is there to reach a more general audience. my girlfriend, who is definitely not a computer geek type, after using my computer for a few days and after i took a few minutes to explain the basic ideas behind ion and show her the keyboard shortcuts, asked me to set it up on her computer for her in place of KDE.
# anders

You are exactly right. Both emacs and ion have one more feature in common.....complete customizability and transparency. emacs lets you do what you want and lets you do just exactly what you want. The best thing about a window manager like ion is that it is almost as powerful as the X protocol itself.

To say it all in one line.......emacs and ion follow the unix principle. Sorry i would like to add 2 more words...THEY ROCK.

# Rajsekar Manokaran