Productivity Cubed

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My Desktop(s)…as a Cube

Originally uploaded by sogrady

During a recent podcast appearance with Senors Asay, Rosenberg, and Vance, Canonical’s Mark Shuttleworth discussed the 3D desktop capabilities offered in the latest iteration of Ubuntu, Gutsy Gibbon. Given that I’ve been using Gutsy for a few months, and using said 3D functionality off and on I had a special interest in his comments. Among other things, he expressed his hope that the various communities that provide and consume the functionality would seek ways to apply the new capabilities to the task of making the user more productive.

A month ago, I would have wholeheartedly agreed. And in fact, I still do, for the most part. But my recent usage has led me to question my original belief that these technologies – while visually impressive – were largely gratuitous and trivial in their current incarnation.

I’ve been a fan of the 3D desktop for quite some time now. At one point, on a plane to a conference, I turned my entire desktop into a series of very small blue cubes. Barely recovered from that one. Still later, I corrupted the very hard drive I’m writing this from by getting a bit overambitious in some experimentation. And yet, I was interested enough that I still kept trying to get the technologies up and running.

Once successful, however, the initial elation quickly faded. While having transition animations like OS X and transparent borders and so on is a definite improvement over the usual staid desktop experience, it did little to make me more productive. Indeed, some of the effects were little more than a distraction (the one that burns up closed windows, in particular).

But over the past few weeks, I’ve taken to using the multiple desktop concept quite heavily. This capability has been present in the desktop for years now, but the Compiz-fusion enabled 3D functionality in Ubuntu made them really usable to me for the first time by – get this – turning my desktop into a cube (forgive the poor image, the screenshot app got a bit overwhelmed).

These days, I typically assign one side of the cube (a desktop, in other words) to a browser, IM, IRC and other related tasks, one to writing, one to Songbird, and the last to my terminal windows and other miscellaneous tasks. Navigation between them is a simple CTL-SHIFT-ARROW sequence. How is this faster than a simple ALT-TAB? Well, when you’re working with as many windows as I tend to be, sequencing through them can be tedious. OS X users are probably sitting their smugly saying, “Well, you just wish you had something like Expose.” As it turns out, we do – the 3D desktop includes a plugin called Scale that replicates the Expose functionality fairly effectively. But still, there are a lot of apps to pick through. It’s nice, instead, to work on a small set of related windows in a desktop dedicated to that purpose.

My experience, of course, is but a single datapoint. More pertinently, average users can hardly be expected to see the benefit to adapting to such a radical change in the UI paradigm. But each time I use the 3D desktop, I become convinced that users will have to meet the technology half way: the latter can certainly be more polished and user friendly, but consumers of the technology may have to be willing to think outside the traditional desktop, as it were.


  1. I’m actually using my 3D desktop in a very similar manner. By organizing ‘like apps’ into workspaces on the cube, I have “less clutter” in a single window.

    I would like to see other integrations and innovations as they discussed on that podcast. It would be great to see what else can be done – having applications take advantage of these effects. If you think of the Office 200x “ribbon” menu as an advancement, what could you do in a 3D space? I think the best example out there of ways to ‘relook’ at apps is probably Sun’s Looking Glass project. Although it’s been understaffed, buggy, and ignored for so long, it at least changes how one might think of application presentation from the traditional 2D world.

  2. The thing I don’t like about the cube metaphor is that it’s still tied to virtual desktops of old.

    If dynamic window managers like XMonad, dwm, or wmii were the prevailing workspace management facilities, I imagine that the 3d graphical representations for them would be more like an infinite parabolic surface, with layout algorithms (beyond the focused workspace) based on usage statistics and user configured rules.

    Actually, the fact that there aren’t any dynamic window managers available for OS X is one of the biggest drawbacks of Macs to me (which I’m otherwise in love with).

  3. It took me a little while to get compiz-fusion working (as I’m am still on 7.0.4). Still, I am quickly taking advantage of the cube (or in my case an octagon).

    Like you, I dedicate a few desktops to like-tasked items. I tend to group by activity. For instance, when writing a paper, I have the document, diagramming tool, plus most of my references – wikipedia, google searches, etc. – all on together. I have my basics – email and IM – on a single desktop. Finally, I have a few full screen remote desktop connections to other machines – one per side of my octagon. This last one has dramatically reduced the confusion on my real desk as now I have one laptop running and my other machines are not relegated to the corners of my office.

  4. […] a bit about segments of the computer industry that I might have otherwise been ignorant to. A recent post discusses the merits of various “cool” user interface enhancements. Most of these […]

  5. Hmmm, I use WindowMaker with multiple virtual desktops. My preferred application layout format has been one desktop per application type for years (and in some cases, one per application).

    So a full screen browser, IRC client and office suite (three desktops). One desktop dedicated to xterms with remote logins. One dedicated to my text editor. One for the rest of the stuff.

    Expose is irrelevant, my keboard shortcuts for my applications are in muscle memory.

  6. […] a long time Compiz guy, but it was cool to see Open Solaris including things like the 3-d desktop Mr Tecosystems uses. I am hoping it will be new to him on Solaris. Seriously: if i can tell my […]

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