This evening I stumbled into a question thread on Quora about Linux and why it’s so user unfriendly. I thought this was funny because yesterday I decided I wanted to switch my Ubuntu install to use the command key (ergonomically located under my thumb, next to the spacebar) as the primary modifier key, instead of control (awkwardly down in the corners of the keyboard where you basically have to use your pinky finger). A single Google search turned up 3 different ways to do it, 2 of which were pretty easy (edit a clearly-identified line of a clearly-identified config file probably being the easiest). Another 10 minutes of reading those pages and some of the alternate answers, and another Google search later, and I found a little application I could install directly from the App Center in Ubuntu that gives a nice GUI interface to swapping keys around. Voila!
For the past few years, I’ve been trying to figure out how to do the equivalent with Windows 7 and 10. The short answer is: you can’t, without administrative access. With administrative access, it’s a royal pain in the butt, and might require registry hacking, and I have yet to find a step-by-step guide to the exact edits to the registry I’d need to make. (Might be mostly-possible with some commercial macro software, but I don’t use MSWindows at home enough to spend money on it, and can’t install software at work.)
Then I wanted to disable the numlock key (or, more specifically, permanently enable it, so that no matter what I do, I get numbers on the number pad). Again, a quick Google search turned up at least 4 ways to do it, each cleverer than the last. More importantly, that same software I installed a few minutes earlier? It simply has a setting for “numlock always on”.
Again, I’ve been looking for a way to do that with MSWindows for years. I figured out how to have it default to on, which is a huge improvement, but if I accidentally hit the button, it still goes off. There might be commercial macro software that can do the trick, and if I had one of a select set of Microsoft-manufactured keyboards, there’s some configuration software that I could probably do it with, but I haven’t otherwise figured out how to do it.
So, what is “user friendly”? I’d say the friendliest system works the way you would like without you having to do anything. But we have varying tastes, so that can’t always be true. Next best would be learning what you want—OS X used to learn a spelling if you typed the same word a certain number of times, so you didn’t have to explicitly tell it “yes, I mean it, and this is a word, so please learn it and stop trying to turn it into something else”. If that’s not possible—or it fails—easy configurability seems like it would be the next best thing.
(BTW, some of those methods I found for Linux would work on OS X, too. But it’s a moot point because it already disables the stupid numlock key, and has built-in GUI tools for swapping around the modifier keys. I’m genuinely surprised that MS hasn’t added that capability yet, given the number of people who prefer MSWindows for its configurability.)
So, is Windows 10 more user-friendly than Ubuntu? I suppose if you want to do everything the way it defaults, then, yes. But if you don’t…
Defaults tend to run the world and choosing how to set things up from scratch is hard, so it’s worth spending a little extra time to set the defaults in the best possible way. If people are used to something that is awkward, I really don’t know whether the “best possible way” would be to continue that bad design, or to choose the better but unfamiliar design. I’m an Apple user, so I’m used to the notion of throwing out the old way for something new (even if I don’t always agree with Apple on which changes are actually improvements—is there really some reason that going from iOS 8 to iOS 9 they had to reverse the direction you swipe to get to the home screen while within the app switcher?). But maybe if you’re used to having the primary modifier key under your pinky finger, switching it to under your thumb isn’t worth the re-learning unless tendonitis forces you.
Quick thought here: (1) Why do extended keyboards—that is, ones with a separate number pad—even have a Num Lock key any more? (2) Why does Microsoft Windows default to it being off?
I get why there is such a key on keyboards that don’t have a number pad, such as laptops. And it makes perfect sense if the “number pad” keys are also letters and stuff that you’d start with it off. But Windows ought to be smart enough to know the difference and choose appropriately—heck, my Mac can even handle the concept of having numlock on for one keyboard and off for another connected to the same machine simultaneously.
But, more generally, when was the last time a keyboard was made that had a number pad but didn’t have arrow keys? And does anybody ever intentionally turn numlock off for an extended keyboard, in order to use the number pad as arrow keys (interspersed with a bunch of other keys) rather than using the even-closer dedicated arrow keys?
As near as I can tell (based on complaints I hear at work and online), it is solely a historical artifact, whose only purpose now is to screw up passwords and complicate data entry.
And while I’m at it: why isn’t MSWindows, after all these years, smart enough to overrule that (and other modifier keys) in software with an easy-to-use interface? It’s clearly possible (since OS X can do it), so why do I have to do a registry hack or play around in BIOS (or UEFI, or whatever they are these days) settings to fix this idiocy?