Ubuntu, Buttons, and Democracy

Tuesday Mar 23rd 2010 by Bruce Byfield
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No matter how the war over the Ubuntu buttons ends, it highlights the tension between democracy and meritocracy within Ubuntu and the greater FOSS community.

When Ubuntu drinks, the free and open source software (FOSS) community gets a hangover. The distribution is so influential that its every development sends echoes rippling through the greater community. How else to explain how a simple change in desktop themes should spark not only debates about usability, but about how decisions are made in FOSS?

This latest proof of Ubuntu's influence began when, a day before the interface freeze for the upcoming Lucid Lynx (Ubuntu 10.04) release, the Ubuntu Design and User Experience Team announced a new set of default themes for GNOME's default window manager Metacity. Instead of the familiar browns of the Human themes that Ubuntu had used with only minor changes since its first release, the distro would be shifting to a set of themes called Light.

Furthermore, the Light themes would be integrated into new branding efforts by Ubuntu and Canonical, its commercial counterpart. According to Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu's founder and benevolent dictator for life, the new theme "includes a fresh, lively Orange, and a rich, mature Aubergine, which work well together. The use of Aubergine indicates Commercial involvement of one form or another, while Orange is a signal of community engagement. . . . We also identified shades of Aubergine that are more consumer, or more enterprise -- the darker shades mapping to a stronger emphasis on enterprise work."

From this description, the new theme, with its predominant shades of aubergine -- or purple, most people would probably say -- is a direct signal that Ubuntu is changing to a new emphasis on commercialization. Yet despite the lingering mistrust of commercialism in FOSS, the early reactions to the new Light theme were more often positive than not. Although some complained that Ubuntu was starting to look too much like Apple, a majority welcomed the shift away from the Human theme, which seems to be few users' favorite.

Then Ubuntu users began noticing a detail of the new theme: The positioning of the buttons on the title bar for manipulating windows.

The Debate Around Bug 532633

In most GNOME themes, window controls are arranged with the button to minimize the window on the left of the cluster of buttons followed by the buttons to maximize and close. However, in the Light themes, the traditional order is changed with the maximize button placed before the minimize button.

Bug #532633 was filed against the Light themes, asking that they use the traditional order. In the comments for the bug, users also asked that the buttons be moved from the left side of the title bar to the traditional right side. The bug is now a master bug for all complaints about the Light themes' window controls, amalgamating fourteen other similar bugs.

At first, Ubuntu developers were at a loss about how to respond to the bug, wondering it if was valid, should be set to low priority, or relegated to a Wish List of changes that would be appreciated but did not matter. At first, Shuttleworth even over-ruled the efforts to classify the bug, arguing in its comments that "The issue is not a bug, it's a difference of opinion on what is the best result."

However, users' dislike of the changes quickly became evident. Although several commenters suggested that placing the buttons on the left made them more accessible, such opinions were a minority.

A workaround to revert to the traditional layout of controls began circulating in Ubuntu circles, and now tops the input into But #532633. A poll on OMG! Ubuntu indicated that 80% of 4,762 respondents favored the traditional layout, while a similar poll in the Ubuntu Forums showed just under 76% of 1,023 favoring tradition.

Traditionalists also mustered a number of arguments in favor of placing the buttons on the right. Strategically, they complained that the Light themes were simply copying the position of the controls in OS X, and that new users coming from Window would find the positioning awkward. Others noted that Ubuntu was making changes that, by the traditional etiquette of the FOSS community, should have been incorporated into GNOME as the upstream project.

Other arguments against the change focused on usability. Some argued that the position of the buttons had been changed simply for the sake of change. Others said that the Light themes placed the buttons too closely to the menu, making mis-clicks likely, obscuring the menu with the mouse-over help, and crowding the left side of the title bar.

Still others pointed out that the traditional layout includes a menu on the left with window controls as well as the buttons on the right, so the Light themes amounted to a step backward in usability.

Democracy in Distro Development

Never mentioned, but likely strengthening the debate is an undercurrent of resentment against the Design and User Experience Team, which sprang into existence in the months after Shuttleworth challenged the FOSS community to deliver "a user experience that can compete with Apple in two years" in the summer of 2008.

Working closely with Shuttleworth and, from some perspectives seeming to have a veto power over everything in Ubuntu, the Design team has attracted scattered amounts of hostility ever since it began working on usability by tackling the GNOME notification system. To some, the lack of debate about the changes, and their announcement so close to the interface freeze must have appeared as more of the same, especially since circles in Ubuntu also resent other top-down decisions, such as including proprietary drivers or including applications based on Mono.

Next Page: Hostility toward Shuttleworth

Significantly, it is to this undercurrent of hostility that Shuttleworth has largely responded. Although he has hinted that part of the reason for the shifting of the buttons to the left is to provide space for some new features -- possibly something to do with notifications, the speculation goes -- mainly, he has responded to the questioning of the design decisions.

"We all make Ubuntu," Shuttleworth comments, "but we do not all make all of it. In other words, we delegate well. . . . We have processes to help make sure we're doing a good job of delegation, but being an open community is not the same as saying everybody has a say in everything."

In other words, just as not everybody has equal input into decisions about the Linux kernel or security, so not everybody has equal input into design. "It may feel less democratic, but it's more meritocratic," Shuttleworth says, evoking the FOSS community's vision of itself as a place where competence is rewarded. "It means (a) we should have the best people making any given decision, and (b) it's worth investing your time to become the best person to make certain decisions, because you should have that competence recognized and rewarded with the freedom to make hard decisions and not get second-guessed all the time."

Shuttleworth admits that the unexpectedness of the design change can be criticized, but, in the end, he firmly insists, "This is not a democracy. Good feedback, good data, are welcome. But we are not voting on design decisions."

This declaration has met with some approval, notably by journalist Brian Proffitt, who argues that "Democracies are great, but they are not well-suited for product production and design. There's a reason why 'designed by a committee' is into a positive label: too many hands on a project with no consensus of direction leads to a pretty crappy project."

By contrast, a user called TuxChix comments on LXer that "This idea is demonstrably false by the fact that we have a thriving open movement to begin with. Where decisions have been made cooperatively, rather than handed down from above. If the 'best' way was subservients reporting to bosses who call the shots, Linux would be a complete failure, and it isn't."

Similarly, the InaTux blog argues that "Democracy is more than just the final decision, it's also about the open discussion of an idea, good or bad. Government legislation is discussed before it's voted on. So is Free Software; even if the people who end up voting on it are Ubuntu's design team, it should be discussed with the community beforehand. Just as legislation is discussed amongst the public and media before it's voted on by the U.S. Senate or Congress."

Two Great Half-Truths

Shuttleworth has indicated that he is willing to hear further discussion. In addition, by stating that the button position will remain at least for the current beta, he may be implying the possibility of change.

However, by this point, the resolution of the particular issue may have become less important than the larger issues it has raised. The FOSS community certainly expects input into decision-making, but how realistic is that expectation in a project the size of Ubuntu? Moreover, how do they balance that expectation against commercial expectations, or the wish to push change as rapidly as possible?

Similarly, while decision-making by experts may be efficient, the Design Team's authority is the result of top-down decisions, not the meritocratic demonstration of competence to make those decisions. Furthermore, its ability to make decisions is undermined by the apparent lack of usability testing that has gone into its efforts.

Yet, even if the Design Team's expertise is accepted, Shuttleworth's insistence on its right to make decisions is certainly undiplomatic. While community expectations may be partly unrealistic, they still need to be managed. To deny them as bluntly as Shuttleworth does can only excite discontent.

Judging from past performance, Shuttleworth will probably be able to push through the changes he champions. However, no matter how the war of the buttons ends, it highlights the tension between democracy and meritocracy that is central to the workings of not only Ubuntu, but the greater FOSS community as well. Perhaps what matters is not that one tendency should prevail, but that both democracy and meritocracy should co-exist, each compensating for the weaknesses of the other.

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