Familiarity Breeds Fondness, not Contempt

The thought about the content of this post occurred to me yesterday when surfing the web as normal. (Interestingly enough, I forgot about it until this afternoon.) It started with Mozilla Firefox crashing. I feel like although with computer-related things I'm a bit more flexible and willing to change (compared to average users) when better software alternatives come around, with some things I just stick too much to what I know, often to my own detriment. Follow the jump to find out exactly what I mean.
Take virtual desktops. The idea of virtual desktops originated on UNIX (and soon after that GNU, and still later Linux) WMs in the late 1980s. The oldest surviving WMs, including TWM and FVWM (developed around 1990), have virtual desktops (6 by default). Yet, it took until 2000 for Apple to incorporate the idea into Mac OS, and Microsoft Windows still doesn't have the capability (though it could be used for a brief time in Microsoft Windows XP through Microsoft PowerToys, which anyway never became a core component of the OS). I myself didn't switch to Linux until 2009 May; until then, I was using Microsoft Windows and was hence brought up in the mentality of being restricted to just one desktop. I took a lot of flak in my article comparing GNOME 3 and KDE 4 Activities (among other things) for conflating the two implementations. I now know that KDE 4's Activities are far more powerful than GNOME 3's, which are a more glorified implementation of the virtual desktops concept. However, for me, it really doesn't matter, because I use neither virtual desktops nor Activities to their respective full potentials anyway; for me, the distinction is academic (i.e. meaningless). So while I am sorry for getting it wrong in that article, please understand that it comes from my years as a Microsoft Windows user. While I am sure that for many people the virtual desktops concept has improved their work-flows immensely, [I don't know if this is true or not but] I get the feeling that the reward for me doesn't justify the (again, perceived) cost of having to create an entirely new way of working that incorporates virtual desktops. For the moment, having all my windows in a single workspace just works (though it does get cluttered occasionally, but I've found ways to battle that).
Next, take Mozilla Firefox. In early 2004, a member of my family (whom I shall not name here but who was able to make a good impression on me) showed me Mozilla Firefox (version 0.8 — yes, I've been using it for that long) and told me it was the cure to all my Internet woes (as at that time I was a user of Microsoft Internet Explorer 5). I tried it and I loved the speed, the idea of tabbed browsing, and the myriad extensions and themes, so I never looked back. But that's exactly the problem: recently, I've found that Mozilla Firefox (version 3.6) tends to crash a little bit more frequently than it should — by no means is it an everyday occurrence, but it's still a bit irritating and disappointing. Yet, though I know that arguably superior alternatives like Google Chrome/Chromium and Opera exist (and this same family member has since tried to convince me to switch to Chromium), I stick with Mozilla Firefox. It's partly because no other browser has Mozilla Firefox beat in terms of extensions and themes and community support. Also, though it is outdone by a few other browsers in terms of speed, memory usage, and standards support, it's still pretty darn good. Plus, I know that version 4 is coming out in a couple months (it really shouldn't take longer than that), and that should fix most of the lingering issues and will add many more new cool features. But all that aside, I know this will sound silly, but I think the other reason why I stick with it is because it saved me from the horrors of Microsoft Internet Explorer, so I feel like I owe it something (that I cannot quantify) and need to support it even when it isn't on top. Then again, software shouldn't be like sports fandom, staying loyal to a particular team even when they're down; it should just be people using software that works best for them. In that sense, I can't really argue that Mozilla Firefox would truly work better for me than Chromium or Opera, though it will get better than the competition with version 4.
So what do you think? Do you have strong preferences for software that mostly stems from familiarity? Do you have suggestions for how I can better make use of virtual desktops? Please leave these and other thoughts in the comments below! (Also, please don't suggest Microsoft Internet Explorer. It's still buggy and malware-prone and still throws all standards out the window.)


  1. Probably the big one for me is the package manager. I've just got so used to APT over the years that I find other (probably equally good) systems don't feel right. Kind of like getting into someone else's car, the biting point is wrong and the seat is the wrong hight.

    On the browser front - I've never really got on with opera and I used firefox (or iceweasel or swiftfox) since it was firebird. I do have Chromium installed and I use it every now and then but, well it's a bit rubbish. It's cookie control options are pitiful. And for script control the chromium notscripts plugin isn't even close to the ease and effectiveness of noscript on firefox. I find that the hassle of finding why a page is buggered up in chromium easily offsets its claimed speed advantage over firefox.

  2. @T_Beermonster: With regard to the package manager issue, there are real advantages and disadvantages to each for each user; it isn't just a matter of personal preference. What I'm confessing here is an attachment to Mozilla Firefox that in some aspects (e.g. speed, and script control isn't an issue for me) is indefensible (I think). Anyway, thanks for the comment!

  3. Firefox 4.0-beta 8 is available now in Peppermint Linux, a quick and easy install. You'll find it's a LOT faster than 3.6.anything, and a good challenger for Chromium (which had been my former favorite).
    As to virtual desktops/workspaces/whatever, they do take a bit of practice to use effectively, but they reduce clutter magnificently. Perhaps worth working at.
    And one more thing: I started using Linux one month before you did. Maybe that means you'll begin to like workspaces soon, too! :-)

  4. Familiarity is both a worthy adversary and a trustworthy friend. In some ways using a simple program (I've recently taken up gedit and vim) instead of a more complicated one (like OOo) can really increase your ability to do work. Sometimes I think about what life would have been like had I started with gedit and never known about full-blown word processors. At the same time, switching between programs incessantly has its downsides: with no familiarity you tend to work slower and remove the possibility for routine. I recently switched to the awesomewm (after trying several others) but I'm sticking with it. For a long while I was unproductive by trying all types of WM's and configuring awesome... but now it really works quickly and easily for me. +'s and -'s. I recently switched to chromium full-time after a bad firefox install and haven't looked back yet. We'll see... I'll certainly be trying Firefox 4 once its out. Maybe I'll switch again.

  5. I use Chromium but do not like some things that I like in Firefox such as being able to clear history when the browser closes. I for one use my computer for very few applications and thus I have never had a need for more then one desktop. I usually turn the desktop to one or get rid of it altogether if possible. I guess I am old school that way and do not need all the new things coming out. Like you said it is not a new concept but for me I have not used it and do not see a need for it since at most I have a browser open and when done with this I close it and do some thing else.

  6. It's true that familiarity breeds fondness. However, the longer you use GNU/Linux, the less you cling to specific applications (and "brands") and the more you seek out working functionality. At least, in my observations.

    My windows using friends all keep a mental list of applications in their head, which they know to provide a certain functionality. I'm not saying I don't have such a (short) list myself, but most of the time I fire up the package manager and search on keywords to find packages with wanted functionality. I'm also less and less loyal to packages if they contain annoying bugs. Since most software in a GNU/Linux distro is free in both senses, I can just swap them out if another works better.

    I'm sorry to say that I've missed the boat on Virtual Desktops. I started using GNU/Linux back in 1998 (full-time switch in 2000), but in all these years I've never seen the point of them. I am quite partial to using apps maximized (I abhor the spatial paradigm) and I'm heavily dependend on the Window Switcher. I know this is probably MS Windows "damage", but hey, it works for me. With the Window Switcher I only have one area I need to be aware of with my multitasking. Four (plus) Desktops times their own Window Switcher just makes my workflow just too complex for me. I do love tabbing though.

  7. Virtual desktops:

    Define Ctrl+F1 to Ctrl+F4 (if not already). Ctrl+Fn to desktop n: instantaneous switch!

    Virtual desktops are useful as a way to group related tasks while keeping unrelated things out of sight -- not just as a way to get more screen state. It makes switching tasks easier fro the mind (e.g. to and fro a game or internet browsing).

    On FF:

    FF 3.6 works very well by me. No crashes; check your Linux config or PC hardware for instable behaviour.

    About familiarity:

    I like to learn new things from time to time. So familiarity can also be a hindrance in software selection... (like in "why more of what I already have?")

  8. Sometimes it takes a very small and insignificant detail to be brought to your attention to make a big change.
    For instance, I was always used to a single desktop (I used MS Windows until 2006) and never found virtual desktops to be any more than a gimmick. But one day I learned that you can change between V desktops using Ctrl Alt and right or left arrow. This made more sense than mouse clicking, because using the mouse you could just as easily click on your open programs. I tend to group program types in virtual desktops, such as e-mail and calendaring and Internet in one, the GNUCash and open copies of customer invoices in another, and perhaps remote desktop screens to my customers' machines that I'm working on at that time in yet another.
    And Alt Tab only tabs round the programs within that particular virtual desktop, whereas if they were all open in a single desktop then Alt Tab can be a bit messy. (I'm not sure about the latest Mac O/S, but previous ones with virtual desktops had Alt Tab tabbing round ALL open programs, so that would also make the virtual desktops seem a little pointless.)
    Sometimes I have un-maximised windows open on the same desktop, perhaps to read data from one file and use it in another. In that case it can be annoying to minimise windows to launch a desktop shortcut, so I use Ctrl Alt and maybe right arrow to take me to an empty virtual desktop and run the launcher, then Ctrl Alt Left to get back to my working desktop.

  9. @Emery: I have read about the amazing new changes coming with Mozilla Firefox 4, and I am excitedly anticipating its arrival; this, above all else, may be the reason why I will continue to stick with Mozilla Firefox. Also, with regard to virtual desktops, I think my issue is that I never have enough applications open at the same time to justify the need for extra virtual desktops; that clutter is rarely (if ever) there.
    @Kyle Reynolds Conway: With regard to a word processor versus a text editor, I like to use something like Gedit when I'm just taking notes or writing something that I never have to submit to anyone else. It's simple and light enough to not get in my way, but not so minimalistic as to make me feel lost. (Of course, I use OO.o for documents that I do need to submit to other people.) Also, with regard to switching applications, I feel like once I have enough experience with different applications in a particular category, switching ceases to become a hassle. For example, I would say that I feel just at home in Openbox as I feel in GNOME; however, I don't have as much experience with KDE, so I still struggle a bit when using it.
    @United Against: That makes sense. It's like using a WM; though many WMs are quite old, some people will always be CLI people.
    @r_a_trip: I'm sorry to say that I feel like as with your friends, I seek out specific applications over working functionality, but that's more because the applications I have in mind have functionality that suits me best (and if it's just equal to another application, it boils down to personal preference). Also, with regard to virtual desktops and windows, I too keep a lot (though not all) applications maximized, and because I don't have that many applications open at the same time, I can never really justify the need for virtual desktops.
    @Anonymous: For virtual desktops, the way you describe it sounds more similar to KDE 4's Activities, as KDE 4 actually does group different applications with different virtual desktops ("Activities") automatically. Also, thanks for the tip on Mozilla Firefox. I'll try to check that out soon.
    @Richard: As I've said earlier, I never have enough applications open at any time to justify needing virtual desktops.
    Thanks for the comments!