Usability: is Gnome configurable enough?

Usability: is Gnome configurable enough?

Two days ago, I bought myself a DSLR camera; a Nikon D50. It’s a nice piece of hardware, and since it can do USB Mass Storage, there are no issues in using it with Linux. Well, not from the camera’s side, anyway.

When you work with a digital camera, there are a few things you usually want to do with the photos. First, you want to get them off the camera and onto your hard disk. Second, you want to manage them with some application that will store some metadata in a database and allow you to search this metadata for photos and catalogue them. You want something to edit photos. And, you may want to put some of them online.

There are applications for all of these available for GNU/Linux. And I’m not Bruce Perens, so when I find that something doesn’t work the way I think it should, I won’t shout that it’s impossible. But while looking around for an application to manage my pictures, I was reminded of something:

Linus was right.

Managing pictures

On IRC, I was pointed towards f-spot, a Gnome application for picture management with a whole slew of features. With this application, I can:

  • import pictures into a sort of database directly from the camera, either using PTP (through gphoto2) or via USB Mass Storage, and turn them in the right direction, using the EXIF data in the pictures; alternatively, I can import any random picture from anywhere, provided I put it in some directory somewhere.
  • tag them; that is, tack a number of tags onto them from either a set of predefined tags that come with the application or with my own tags which I can add in a hierarchical fashion
  • search for them on a timeline or based on the tags that have been applied
  • view them full-screen or in a slideshow
  • export them to web applications such as Gallery, Flickr, Picasa, and others
  • export files to a CD using nautilus-cdburner. (It’s not clear to me whether this is going to be a Photo-CD; if I’m correct and it is, I should be able to view it in my DVD player)
  • edit them with a few builtin functions or with external applications such as The GIMP

...and a whole bunch of other interesting things. On the whole, a very nice and flexible application, really; there were only two things that I didn’t like about it:

  1. The application stores pictures in a directory ~/Photos. I don’t like that; I have a directory data/images where all my graphic files are today, and I would like my pictures to be stored in, say, data/images/photos.
  2. When in slideshow mode, it switches to the next picture in about one or two seconds, whereas I would prefer a more relaxed five seconds.

De gustibus et coloribus non disputandum

Obviously, anyone even remotely familiar with computer software will feel that these are things nobody feels the same about. So, it should be possible to change these values in the preferences. And, while that’s true, this is a Gnome application...

The preferences dialogThe preferences dialog

The preferences dialog shows me that the application has a feature which I hadn’t even thought about (using my pictures for a screensaver); but the two basic options I was looking for were glaring in their absense. Worse; if I want to modify these basic things, I have to download the source, edit it, and recompile the application, for they don’t even provide gconf hooks. I doubt anyone not familiar with the source code could accomplish that.

Of course, since the Debian package of this application is currently at version 0.2.1, it’s not unlikely that more recent versions will turn this into configurable settings; in fact, a quick check shows that the most recent version now reads the first, but not the second, from a preferences variable rather than a string. Still, it’s striking that it’s Gnome applications that have these types of problems; and it always makes me wonder what their developers are thinking, and how they can defend non-configurability as “usability”.


Some things just cannot have sensible defaults. I don’t mind if my holiday pictures scroll by at a high rate, but I don’t feel the same about pictures I took just because I felt like taking pictures.

Accordingly, some things should be configurable. It’s okay if that makes the application slightly harder to use—computers are intrinsically complex and, as a result, hard to use.

Linus was right.



Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

And I’m not Bruce Perens, so when I find that something doesn’t work the way I think it should, I won’t shout that it’s impossible.

I'm not this Bruce Perens person, but I can certainly relate to his issue. I can't tell you how many times I've tried to install software on Linux, even with Debian's apt-get package manager, and it STILL doesn't work. I won't even go into the tarball hell I've had to wade through. It seems kind of foolish to have to spend hours upon hours just getting the software to run. Just last night I spend about 1 hour trying to get a Beryl plug in to compile. I just had to give up realizing life's too short.

I don't think installing software/plug-ins is "impossible", just something I'm not "elite" enough to do, I guess. It looks like we're going back to the old days of computing, when only geeks/hackers could use software and the rest of us would have to sit idly by.

I'm sure some people are gonna pull their hair out at this, but I can't remember the last time I double clicked on a "setup.exe" or "install.exe" file and had it abort saying I was missing some off-the-beaten-path library.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Interesting that the poll being run on the front page of FSM still shows GNOME with a comfortable lead over KDE and the rest. Maybe there are lots of people who don't agree with you?

Lawrence D'Oliveiro

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

You should really give digiKam a serious look, it has configurability if you want it, and if you don't, no problem, they're out of your way and no harm done.

Not saying digiKam, or KDE itself for that matter, is perfect or anything. KDE does need to organize a few things a little better (KControl comes to mind), that I will agree with. But at least they treat the user like an intelligent being by kind of saying "Hey, if you wanna configure things, here's the options of you want them".

If both my mom and aunt can use KDE without any problem, it's not too complicated to use, and please note that none of them have a degree in computer science. My mom sometimes forgets how to attach a file to a freaking email (She uses GMail), even though it's right in front of her nose, and despite me having shown her how to do that about a zillion times.

If a car followed GNOME idea of "usability", I think you'd barely have a steering wheel, because "we don't want to confuse the user with too many options", sure, but how do I adjust the freaking radio!!!

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Probably the biggest problem preventing me from using KDE is the fact that I cannot find one *decent* distro with a large friendly community where KDE doesn't take a back seat to GNOME (ie Kubuntu) that uses KDE set up with nice defaults as its default desktop. What we need is for there to be a KDE version of Ubuntu, ie where GNOME takes the back seat and all development is centred on KDE.

Kubuntu is the basted child of Ubuntu and it shows.

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Wouter Verhelst's picture


Wouter is an independent contractor specializing on Free Software. In his free time, he contributes to the Debian Project as a Debian Developer.