Ubuntu 11.04, Natty Narwhal: Successes and Failures

Tuesday May 3rd 2011 by Bruce Byfield
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Ubuntu’s latest Linux desktop release is an ambitious effort, though not an unqualified success.

Few releases of any distribution have received as much attention as Ubuntu 11.04 (codenamed Natty Narwhal). Most of the buzz is about the switch to the new Unity desktop -- and deservedly so, since it is radically different from the GNOME desktop it replaces. However, Natty also features some changes to widgets, the installer, and the Ubuntu Software Center, many of which -- like Unity itself -- reflect Ubuntu's ongoing concerns about usability and design issues, while having mixed levels of success.

This concern has always loomed large in Ubuntu. However, it became even stronger several years ago, when Shuttleworth decided that usability and design were areas where Ubuntu and its corporate arm Canonical could "make a significant contribution" to open source software. Since then, Ubuntu has introduced such innovations as the app indicators, the repositioning of title bar buttons, and a new color-coded default theme reminiscent of Apple's.

In 11.04, this concern continues on all levels. At the level of widgets -- the pieces of windows used to manipulate them -- you might notice that Natty has done away with the traditional scroll bar.

Instead, Natty offers what its developers call "overlay scrollbars": a red gauge a few pixels thick to indicate the current position in the window. When you need to change your position in the window, running the cursor over the gauge summons a set of arrows outside the window that you can drag upon.

This novelty is economical, but you might wonder about the point of it -- on today's wide screen monitors, do we really need to save the few pixels required by the scroll bar? On a netbook especially, the new gauge can be hard to see (which is no doubt why it is colored red).

The same sort of minimalist widget appears -- more successfully -- on the launcher, the replacement for the main menu, favorites menu, and taskbar. Instead of the space-stealing taskbar, the launcher marks open applications with an arrow to the left of its icon, and adds an arrow to the right to indicate the currently active application.

A second innovation on the launcher is seen when the icons on the launcher fill the entire height of the screen. When that happens, icons on the bottom of the launcher are collapsed. Run a mouse over a collapsed icon, and the launcher's display repositions itself to show the collapsed icons.

Although finding an application among the collapsed icons can sometimes be challenging, the fact that several collapsed icons display at once means that you do not have to be completely accurate when you choose collapsed icons. On the whole, it's another elegant alternative to the scroll bar.

The Language of the Installer

Another area where you can see usability tinkering in Natty is the built-in help for the installer. However, like the widgets, Ubuntu's installer help is a mixed success.

At its best, the installer help is colloquial and clear, using contractions to create a casual tone. For example, the title for the installer page for setting the time zone is simply, "Where Are You," and the field for manually entering a location is annotated, "[type here to change]."

At its worst, though, the clarity of the language degenerates into an unhelpful vagueness. Glossing "Your computer's name" as "the name it uses when it talks to other computers" is not particularly helpful, and neither are the partitioning choices of "Erase disk and install" and "Something Else."

As for the list of features that displays while files are being copied and installed, I seriously doubt that any apps will "make your computer delightful to use," no matter how magical or handy they are. At such points, the language of the installer seems to have become pure marketing-speak, and ceases being useful.

Package Reviews

Desktop tools like the Ubuntu Software Center are not new. However, in the past, many of them have been weakened by the fact that the descriptions of packages were taken directly from those included in the packages -- and, being written by developers, those descriptions were often terse and vague to the point of being cryptic.

Now, in Natty, the Ubuntu Software Center includes reviews and ratings by users, creating an Amazon-like atmosphere. Not only can you now get a variety of opinions, but the reviews are almost always more complete and more thoughtful than the package descriptions.

Once you install a package, you can return the favor and create an account with Ubuntu Software Center to write your own review.

These reviews are potentially such a strong idea that you can only marvel that nobody has implemented them before. Sadly, though, the reviews are only available through Ubuntu Software Center, which is simple enough to use, but lacks the advanced and troubleshooting features of other desktop package managers like Synaptic or of the apt-get command itself. Instead of being a benefit to the Ubuntu Software Center alone, the reviews and ratings could have been a benefit to the package management system and all its interfaces.

The Unity Stakes

Originally Ubuntu Netbook Edition, Unity has been anticipated both eagerly and fearfully ever since the announcement that it would replace GNOME in Natty.

Was Unity a calculated snub of the GNOME project, since it was being used in place of GNOME 3? Could the relatively small Ubuntu community deliver something as complex as a new desktop in less than a year? These were just the most basic questions people were debating about Unity. And, as early versions started to emerge, as many people seemed to welcome Unity as complained about Ubuntu's high-handedness at foisting a new interface on its users -- at least among the vocal.

With the release of Natty, we can now see that many of the apprehensions surrounding it were groundless. True, not even a release candidate of GNOME 3 is available in Natty, despite the fact that the timing of the releases could easily have made one possible. However, for those whose video drivers lack the hardware acceleration needed for Natty, a fallback version of GNOME 2.32 is available. Those who prefer the GNOME 2 series can also choose Ubuntu Classic when they log in.

Just as importantly, while Unity requires experienced users to make some adjustments, it is not difficult to learn. The main difference is the de-emphasis of the panel (including the lack of applets), and the replacement of the main menu with the launcher and dash button.

The dash is basically the menu placed on the desktop. It has the advantage of making the icons for items easier to see while having the disadvantage of making using the menu a greater disruption to your current activities. However, you can minimize your use of the dash by loading apps onto the launcher, or by creating desktop icons.

Unity has some omissions, notably a lack of configuration options for the launcher and dash. It also has some rough spots, such as requiring you to start an application before adding it to the launcher. Nor is it particularly fast for a desktop that was originally intended for netbooks; the suggested minimum RAM for Natty is 384 megabytes, as opposed to 256 for the previous Ubuntu release.

All the same, approach Unity with an open mind, and it is an acceptable addition to the list of free desktops. Experienced users might find it preferable to GNOME 3, and new users should have no more trouble learning it than any other desktop.

Still, while it is easy to see why Ubuntu's and Canonical's developers and executives prefer a code base that they dominate and that transfers easily to different hardware platforms, the advantages of Unity for users sometimes remains harder to see. Much of the time, Unity is not so much an improvement on GNOME as simply different.

Design and Ambition

Natty is an ambitious release. That ambition deserves a degree of respect. Ubuntu appears to be following a clear vision of where the free desktop is heading. You may disagree with vision (so far as it has been revealed), but it contrasts favorably with the timidity that most other distros have been showing in the last couple of years. Even when the efforts to fulfill that ambition have mixed results, as they do in Natty, they can still be useful in starting a dialog.

At times, though, the feeling is overwhelming that the tenets of usability are being implemented uncritically, and without enough regard for context. Using Natty, you have to wonder sometimes whether anyone has stopped to check if innovations provide a solution to an existing need, or whether more attention is being paid to following design principles down to the smallest element than to the question of whether the time spent working on some of the new features is worth the benefits that the features give to users.

A case in point: just as earlier Ubuntu releases left a gap on window title bars by shifting the control buttons to the left, so Unity left a similar gap on the desktop panel by removing or eliminating time-honored components.

Both these gaps may one day be filled. But, for now, they -- and maybe even Unity itself -- feels more like a student exercise in usability than anything that anyone was actually clamoring after.

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