Ubuntu Jaunty Tries to Set the Usability Agenda

Monday Apr 27th 2009 by Bruce Byfield
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With the supposedly improved notifications system in the recently-released Jaunty Jackalope, Ubuntu unintentionally raises a new issue in usability: should a distribution set the usability agenda by itself?

With the first release in 2004, Ubuntu established itself as one of the most user-friendly GNU/Linux distributions available. Since then, each release has reaffirmed this reputation, although recent versions have coasted a little.

However, with the supposedly improved notifications system in the recently-released Jaunty Jackalope (aka 9.0.4), Ubuntu unintentionally raises a new issue in usability -- that is, whether a distribution can or should set the usability agenda by itself?

The fact that Ubuntu should be the distribution where this issue arises seems inevitable. Admittedly, a GNU/Linux user's experience these days is usually determined by changes to the GNOME and KDE desktop rather than the choice of distribution. However, you only have to compare Ubuntu to its parent distribution Debian to see how much Ubuntu has made usability issues their own.

Debian is perfectly usable on the desktop (partly because many of those who improve Ubuntu also work on Debian), but Ubuntu is far ahead in support for multiple languages and keyboard locales, and offers desktop tools like Computer Janitor and Software Sources for tasks that in Debian usually require the command line if they are available at all.

And while some other distributions like Fedora and Mandriva also have an interest in usability, few have such a long and extensive history of desktop improvements, nor such an apparent hurry to improve the user experience.

In many ways, Jaunty continues this usually uncontroversial history. Nobody is likely to complain about Jaunty's faster boot time, its more reliable suspend and resume, or its increased support for wireless cards. Nor is anybody going to question the availability -- but not default use -- of the ext4 filesystem, or Eucalyptus, the roll-your-own cloud computing application.

But notifications -- the messages about events in the system that appear near the system tray -- are another matter. Neither users nor developers appear to have been complaining about their existing conventions, and the change in how they operate is due largely to the insistence of Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu and Canonical, its corporate face. And while users might not notice the changes, much less complain about them, developers seem less certain about them.

Where the Changes Come From

The changes in notifications are directly traceable to Shuttleworth's challenge last summer to make the free desktop rival OS X's by late 2010.

"If you have a grand vision, where do you start?" Shuttleworth said in an interview a few weeks ago. "Notifications were very carefully chosen as a starting point. We wanted something which affects multiple applications. . . . We also wanted something that would be slightly controversial. We wanted to make some tough choices, like removing actions from notifications, and we knew that would trigger discussion and debate about the design process. . .it is small enough that we believed we could do it in a single cycle, but meaningful enough and visible enough that it would draw attention to the work that we're doing."

With these perspectives in mind, Shuttleworth set to work with the Canonical team and announced the proposed changes on his blog in February, pointing readers to a description of the new notification standards.

These standards depend on the exact message being transmitted. If the message does not require any action by a user and can wait, then the message should display within the application it applies to. There is no need, for instance, for a desktop notification when Firefox crashes because Firefox has its own system for displaying messages. However, if no action is needed but the user should read the message immediately -- for instance, if a new USB drive has been plugged in -- then the message should go in a notification bubble (so-called for its rounded corners) near the system tray.

Conversely, messages that require actions but not immediate ones, such as a message about a lack of system space, use a standard alert button. Those messages that require immediate actions, such as the expiry of a laptop's battery, go into a morphing alert box that changes shape and background color to call attention to itself. All these standards are strictly enforced, apparently without exceptions.

These changes immediately sparked discussion on the ubuntu-devel mailing list, including some questioning of the power of Canonical's Design team to impose them. They were similarly discussed on the gnome-desktop-devel list, where reception of them has been reluctant enough that Jaunty was released with a package called gnome-stracciatella-session, which allows users to press F10 when they login and get a GNOME desktop with standard notifications. In addition, an alpha release of Jaunty included a configuration tool for notifications, but was omitted from the official release. However, Jaunty does include an Indicator applet for the panel that signals that something on the desktop requires your attention.

A Technical Reaction

When users see a notification, many are probably more focused on the message than on its format. For such users, the change in notifications is likely to go entirely unnoticed, and therefore not be an issue at all.

With users, though, the changes are harder to ignore, because they affect how an application should be written. A blogger called Glyph details some of the problems. For example, all notifications that require actions must become the active window; you cannot, as Glyph wanted, have a notification that required action but did not steal the focus. Similarly, you could not keep a notification on screen until the time an action was required without having it constantly reappear.

Glyph also complained about the lack of formatting, including links in the notifications, and the inability to move notifications from the upper right corner of the desktop. He did acknowledge that the Indicator icon helped a bit, but added that it was largely undocumented and just as constraining as the notification standards.

Ironically, Glyph noted, the new notification standards were based on the first version of OS X's notification tool Growl -- apparently without anyone noticing that many of the feature they removed have been added to later versions of Growl.

Nor are the new standards well-documented, according to Glyph. "I want an API that I can call, not a picture of a window I need to re-create myself," he writes.

Community Reactions and Over-Reactions

Glyph's comments are polite, and end by saying that the new system is an improvement over the old, and should evolve over time. Others, however, are less concerned about the technical details than with alleged violations of the way that members of the free software community are supposed to interact.

A particularly scornful reaction comes from a blogger called Ryan. Referring to the changes as a "crapfest" and "foistware," Ryan suggests that the situation reveals a lack of dedication to the community.

"Mark Shuttleworth has given kind of an impression that he’s not some dictator over the project who uses veto power and thugs to muscle in whatever he damned well pleases," Ryan writes. Then referring to Brainstorm, a kind of suggestion box for Ubuntu, he continues, "If this is the case though, there would have been some kind of vote or some Brainstorm blueprint, or at least making it appear like they care about your feedback."

Ryan goes on to explain that, with Ubuntu insisting on implementing the changes itself, rather than in GNOME, the distribution has effectively forked GNOME. As a result, developers will either have to do some work twice, or choose to develop only for one version of GNOME -- and, given Ubuntu's popularity, he worries that the version they choose will be Ubuntu's.

"This reminds me a lot of what Microsoft did during the browser wars,” he writes. "They made IE incompatible so that developers would start *only* bothering to correctly support them. . .what I believe Ubuntu is doing is adding an extra hurdle just because they know they can. They want to make it harder on developers to know how their app will behave outside of Ubuntu. . . . it’s just patently unethical too, a bid to manipulate developers into not caring about how their stuff works on other distros, this is just a beachhead and they’ll be back with more pointless/stupid changes to come. Embrace, Extend, Extinguish."

An Innovation Too Fast?

Such criticisms should not be exaggerated. Usability is something everyone thinks they know something about, and rarely do. Moreover, many users sound delighted with the new notifications.

However, while users and developers are often the same people in free software, developers can still be a separate community in free software. No matter how well Jaunty is received in general, you have to wonder whether, in his hurry to answer his own challenge, Shuttleworth has made a major mis-step, not only technically but socially.

Accusations of Microsoft behavior often fly around too easily in the free software community. They are a sort of equivalent to comparing opponents to Adolf Hitler in other online discussion. However, in this case, the appearance of high-handedness makes the comparison understandable, if hardly excusable. Both Ubuntu community developers and GNOME developers in general seem to have been presented with the notification changes fully developed, with little room offered for their input.

Perhaps, too, the comparison has revived the community's latent distrust of business. Some in the community cannot forget that Shuttleworth is primarily an entrepreneur, nor that his millions have helped Ubuntu to its prominent position as much as its concrete achievements. But, until now, this distrust has had very little to focus on, because Shuttleworth and Ubuntu have shown every sign of respecting community standards.

So far, the grumblings are soft and far from universal. However, the real question is whether Ubuntu's future usability improvements will add fuel to them, and force what is most likely a temporary fork into becoming a more permanent one, especially if Shuttleworth's agenda conflicts with the changes to be implemented in GNOME 3.0 over the next few years. Either GNOME developers could refuse to accept Ubuntu's changes, Ubuntu could decide to implement the changes alone, or, more likely, both could happen at once.

In any of these situations, what's most important could easily be lost: the fact that Ubuntu's emphasis on usability, although perhaps not always implemented well, is something that the free desktop needs to take it to the next level. And if that is forgotten, then who is to blame becomes irrelevant. We will all be poorer for the lapse from common sense.

ALSO SEE: How to Run Ubuntu Safely

AND: The Secret Lives of Ubuntu and Debian Users

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