Does an Operating System’s GUI Matter?

“Fibonacci” on the 168Hours blog says no and offers 10 Reasons why GUI Doesn’t Matter. His reasons, however, are basically screenshots using various tools to make Windows look a lot like Ubuntu (Linux), Mac OS X, Fedora, or KDE Plastik. I think this overlooks several key factors: performance, out-of-the-box configuration, and mass appeal.

Performance: first of all, as pretty as Windows Vista’s Aero can be, it is terribly slow and kludgy. It may be pretty, but I’ve turned off a lot of features, since my laptop, which is supposedly a mid-range-Vista laptop, can’t handle it smoothly enough for my needs. Secondly, making any OS look like something dramatically different requires add-ons and tweaks, which hog memory and processor cycles, reducing performance further. If Windows were meant to have transparent command line interfaces and the like, Bill Gates and his crew would have put them there; doing it after the fact is painful, like watching a champion pole vaulter trying to demonstrate his technique in slow motion – it doesn’t work, someone gets hurt, and nobody’s the better for it.

Out-of-the-box configuration: who cares what a geek can make a system look like? This is something that often confuses me. A true geek can, given enough time and effort, make a system look like just about anything his or her hardware can handle. This means nothing to the average user, who just wants things to work out of the box (or off the CD burn, or whatever). Most people don’t have the patience required to download, install, and configure numerous GUI tweaks, much less put up with the performance hits.

Mass appeal: obvious. Who cares what it can look like? Most people buying a computer or installing an OS care about its ability to run things they care about, its ease of use, and – because we are simple creatures and like shiny things – the eye candy factor. Denying this is pointless and the lack of a good GUI is one reason (secondary to lack of good virtualization tools) that Linux has held such low market share for so long.