“The Traditional Desktop is dying”

That namesake quote has been exchanged around for quite a while, between many people, and even a certain Desktop Environment’s own culture.

However, here’s my take on it… in short, that, as a blanket statement, isn’t the case right now, but it is fairly true for a specific target audience.

The Traditional Desktop

The ‘Traditional Desktop’, for those uninformed, is the OS design that is most commonly seen in the likes of Microsoft Windows and more. Menu bars, a Taskbar or panel to manage windows and launch applications with, and so on — they’re all synonymous with the ‘Traditional Desktop’ when they’re in unison. Basically what Windows is before Windows 11.

It could also be argued that a ‘Traditional Desktop’ is the Windows XP and 2000 styled Desktop, but for the sake of this article I’ll refer to those designs, and the ‘Modern Traditional Desktop’ (Windows 7–10) as the ‘Traditional Desktop’.

Phones and Tablets

It’s no secret that phones and tablets are insanely successful. Heck, this is the main reason such a claim as on this article’s namesake is even brought around.

Phones and Tablets have a completely different paradigm to the ‘Traditional Desktop’, instead being focused on having a few buttons, or gestures, for switching between open applications, and having a Tiling Window Manager that only allows a maximum of 2 applications on screen at once (3 if you count iOS’s floating window gimmick), with the system status always being present at the top of the screen, with popups about said information now being accessed by pulling instead of clicking.

It’s a lot simpler than the ‘Traditional Desktop’, and that is for a good reason — touch-friendliness and compensating for the smaller screen sizes of phones.

Furthermore, it’s no secret that phones and tablets are increasingly popular, with the next generations likely getting more used to phones and tablets than the ‘Traditional Desktop’, and to most that is why they claim the ‘Traditional Desktop’ is dying.

However, that couldn’t be further from the case for everyone else.

The Traditional Desktop is still very much relevant for teens, adults, and so on

Smartphones and tablets are still relatively new in the grand scheme of things — we’re in the 2020s… and they only really started to take off in the late 2000s. ‘Traditional Desktop’ paradigms are still frequently used in education, work, and so on, and a lot of things a lot of people do still very much require a ‘Traditional Desktop’ to do them on. This is especially so due to the complexity of such programs simply not working on a dinky phone size screen, or developers being uninterested in porting their programs to tablets, or even just the necessity for pixel-perfect precision (easier said than done on a touch screen).

Even then, if things go the way they are in technology fine, those future generations may still experience the ‘Traditional Desktop’…

The ‘Traditional Desktop’, in a modern sense, is evolving towards staying relevant for those people

…as it’s no secret that even the ‘Traditional Desktop’ is available on tablets, too.

I’ll split this into multiple sub-sections for clarity, but… in short, the traditional desktop is evolving towards touch friendliness to allow itself to stay relevant with tablets, while still keeping its paradigm mostly intact.

Unity 8 was the first ever famous time I’ve seen of this… even if it failed, it did pave the way for a potential future where the ‘Traditional Desktop’ mostly survives, BUT is able to adapt itself into the Tablet and Phones paradigm on a dime.

When connected to a mouse and keyboard, Unity 8 would transform into the Ubuntu Desktop most would’ve experienced — a Desktop-friendly environment with a left-side launcher, clickable icons on the top-right for status, floating windows, and so on…

However, when not in this state, Unity 8 would change into a tiling window manager, with an auto-hiding launcher that is accessed via swiping, icons on the top-right that you pull down to open, and so on.

Similarly, after or during Canonical’s attempt with Unity 8, Microsoft also had a failed attempt at what we ultimately now dub ‘Convergence’. It had similar intentions to Canonical’s attempt, except it was more like Windows 10 in design when a mouse and desktop was connected, being a larger contrast from the phone paradigm it had.

Now, for actually successful attempts. Google’s Chrome OS has a Tablet Mode, which simply adapts Google’s take on the ‘Traditional Desktop’ to be touch-friendly, with hitboxes for user interface elements increasing in size, and the window manager becoming a tiling window manager like on tablet and phone OSs, similar to Android (which Google also makes).

Like Google’s Chrome OS, Microsoft’s Windows 10 also had a successful Tablet Mode. However, initially it completely changed the familiar Taskbar to be stripped down to just the Start button, Search, Task View, and Cortana buttons, as well as a few of the System Tray icons (although this later changed, if I recall correctly, to just becoming a thicker version of the Desktop Taskbar like Chrome OS does). Like Chrome OS it also made the window manager go into a tiling mode similar to Android… or should I say more so to Windows 8.X’s ‘Metro’ applications, as well as turning the Start Menu into a Start Screen.

It seems however that this mode is now gone nowadays, as it has completely disappeared off the face of Earth so far in Windows 11.

That isn’t all, though. Application Designs are also ‘evolving’ in a sense. More people are starting to dumb down their application designs, as if trying to make them more phone-screen-size friendly, in all the OSs that one would find said application(s) in.

We’ve seen it in Windows, seen it in macOS, and seen it in Linux/BSD overall. On Windows, the general application design of Windows’s own applications are leaning towards touch-friendliness and adapting to being in smaller window sizes more than ever before. In macOS we’re seeing near-straight ports of iOS applications to macOS more than ever. In Linux/BSD we’re seeing… GNOME applications… and Kirigami applications too. All of them have simple designs in common, with an emphasis on being more easily approachable by touch screen users, while in some cases not losing their Desktop-friendly design at the same time.

Additionally, if the ‘Traditional Desktop’ is dying, why are phone and tablet paradigms importing paradigm elements FROM it?

Riddle me this: If it truly is dying as a paradigm, why is Apple so keen to make the iPad’s OS design more and more reminiscent of the Desktop Paradigm? Why are we seeing floating windows slowly but surely make their debut into the phone and tablet paradigm in general?

If it was really a lost cause, there wouldn’t be any reason to bring these paradigm elements from it into the phone and tablet paradigm, would there, other than to put even more nails into its grave?

The Desktop Paradigm is simply evolving… towards overall unification with the phone and tablet paradigm

Finally, here’s my opinion and take on this… both paradigms are evolving into one merged paradigm with elements from both paradigms.

The fact of the matter is that the ‘Traditional Desktop’ paradigm is taking more and more cues from the phone and tablet paradigm, and the phone and tablet paradigm is taking more and more cues from the ‘Traditional Desktop’ paradigm.

With an overall focus by more and more companies to unify the OSs on tablets and phones with the OSs on Desktops, thus making developers’ lives easier and generally increasing the application roster on both sides of the coin, the two paradigms merging into each other only makes sense in the grand scheme of things.

I’d honestly want the overall look of the ‘Traditional Desktop’ to remain largely the same, with menus and not-so dumbed down application designs still remaining, while at the same time easily adapting to a tablet or phone screen when needed.

Some applications don’t even need to adapt, in my honest opinion — yes it’d be neat to have menu bars become thicker on tablets to compensate for touch friendliness, but… I honestly think some applications are fine just staying the complexer way they are, with a suitable warning that they aren’t designed for phone screens. Stuff like Krita, GIMP, and so on come to mind as examples.

I’ve already personally envisioned how the Feren OS design, that Feren OS currently has, could look on a phone paradigm already — heck, I did that when Feren OS was only a year or so old in fact — and I honestly think such a design could work really well as a means of bridging the two paradigms together into a single piece of software that provides a place to launch your applications from.

Feren OS Desktop Mockup with Notifications Center expanded
Feren OS Phone Paradigm (Home Screen) mockup

Truth be told, Unity 8 showed us that we don’t need to sacrifice much of the panel or Taskbar for a good phone UI — there just needs to be gestures for quickly scrolling to and choosing the application in the panel the person wants to launch, while still being approachable with mere taps as well, and there just needs to be a second panel at the top of the screen to house the system tray elements at.

Do that, and have decently adaptable applications in there that keep a lot of Desktop elements when on a Desktop but still have decent phone-friendly designs on phones, and you’ve got a potential recipe for a great way to merge both paradigms together in a best-of-both-worlds manner.

But, until then… we’ll just have to see if my predictions are correct about the future of the paradigm.