Ubuntu's Intrepid Ibex: Usability is Hard to Do

Wednesday Nov 5th 2008 by Bruce Byfield
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Ubuntu’s new features show how difficult it can be to address usability with breaking something else -- in particular, security.

Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu's dictator-for-life, has been discussing usability in public and on his blog for the last six months. His call for a GNU/Linux desktop that surpasses Apple's for usability sounds promising, and you might hope, like me, that Ubuntu 8.10 – a.k.a. Intrepid Ibex -- is the first effort towards fulfilling this ambition.

But, if anything, the release suggests that the goal may take a bit longer than anyone hopes. Like any GNU/Linux distribution, Ubuntu 8.10 benefits from the constant increases in usability by the developers of GNOME and other desktops. It also draws upon the usability added in past releases, which have made Ubuntu one of the most user-friendly distributions available. But sadly, whether Intrepid's new features add to usability is hit and miss. Moreover, not only do one or two new features raise minor security issues, and one was so harmful that it was removed between the betas and the final release.

Installation

Ubuntu's default installer has changed little in Intrepid Ibex. It is still the seven-step process in which you set the language, time zone, keyboard, partitioning and users. If you want more control -- including a choice of packages -- you still have to download a CD image with the alternate installer, which is a modified version of Debian's. A merging of the two installers would seem a logical step in usability, but it hasn't happened in Intrepid.

The two major changes in the default installer are both partly unsatisfactory. The first is the option to install only free software, which is available on the startup screen by selecting F6 -> F6 -> Free software only. This option addresses the wish by some users to avoid kernel modules that depend on proprietary firmware blobs. The option greatly reduces the chances that wireless cards will work, but those who want a completely free system may be willing to take that risk.

Unfortunately, according to the release notes, this option is broken. However, you can still achieve the intent of the option after installation by removing the linux-restricted-modules-2.6.27-7-generic package, which apparently contains all the proprietary blobs.

The other change is a graphical depiction of hard drives on the partition. If you select Guided partitioning, you can use the graphic to resize partitions. The only trouble is, the graphic lacks a legend. You need to select manual partitioning in order to discover that the graphic uses blue for Ubuntu, green for other versions of GNU/Linux, and orange for the swap partition -- and that these colors do not, in fact, represent filesystem formats, as an experienced user probably expects.

Ubuntu's default installer is still more or less the same reliable and simple tool it has always been. But, paradoxically, these two efforts at increased usability actually decrease its usability slightly.

Desktop and Software

Ubuntu's default desktops have never been things of beauty. However, Intrepid's default wallpaper has to be the ugliest yet. Think of stained particle board smeared with fingerprints and inexpertly stained brown, and you have the idea. The most you can say is that those with color-blindness should have no trouble with it.

However, once you change the wallpaper, Intrepid's desktop is a thoroughly modern one, built on a 2.6.27 Linux kernel and GNOME 2.24.1. Other software matches this base, with Firefox 3.03, GIMP 2.6, and Pidgin 2.5.2 heading the list. The sole exception is OpenOffice.org, whose version is 2.4, although version 3.0 was released a week before Intrepid.

Those who chose to install only free software may also be surprised that Mono-based apps like Tomboy and F-Spot are included. However, Shuttleworth has stated publicly that he is unconcerned about rumors of patent problems with Mono, which probably explains why such apps aren't excluded when you choose the free software option.

Behind the scenes, x.org 7.5 improves the desktop experience by offering an X Window System with more support for tablets, as well as the hot-swapping of peripherals. Yet, against these improvements, users will need to weigh the lack of support for some proprietary drivers, and the loss of /etc/X11/xorg.conf as a configuration file. Details of all these changes are given in the release notes.

On the desktop, the changes in productivity apps are slight. One noticeable feature is a link to free BBC content available from the Playlist in Totem's sidebar, an arrangement apparently exclusive to Ubuntu.

Those who move between computers might also appreciate the self-explanatory Make USB Startup Disk utility in the System -> Administration menu. The utility's window steps you easily through the steps of choosing a CD or disk image, selecting a USB drive, and setting the amount of storage space -- if any – for your files on the USB drive. The only other thing you might want to know is that, although the instructions in the window talk only about making an Ubuntu live USB drive, you can choose a disk image from another distribution to use as well.

Administration Tools and Security

The Intrepid release is especially rich in new administration and security tools. One of the first you are likely to come across is the Network Connections tool. Not only does it automatically detect networks present at boot time or added later, but it is divided by tabs into Wired, Wireless, Mobile Broadband, VPN and DSL, which makes individual connections easier to track.

Another welcome addition is encryptfs-setup, a tool that you can download to create an encrypted folder called Private in your home directory. To create the Private folder, all you need to do is enter your account password, and a password for mounting the folder to use it. Although users might prefer the ability to encrypt any folder, you can easily transfer all your files into the Private folder if you want to protect them.

A somewhat more questionable new feature is the creation of a Guest account. This feature is available from the Presence Manager on the right side of the panel, and is intended to allow you to demonstrate Ubuntu's features without violating your own privacy or creating a new user. Alternatively, another user might want to use something like a web browser without logging in.

Guest accounts are severely limited in what they can do. You cannot run sudo from one, nor view configuration files or other users'. Nor can you save permanently to a hard disk. But you can mount a USB device and write to it --the system warning to the contrary -- and system administrators might be happier if the temporary home directory for a guest account was deleted from /tmp as soon as you switch back to the original user, instead of lingering until the original user logs out. For that matter, the ability to disable guest accounts might also be a good idea. While guest accounts seem relatively and properly isolated, the security-minded might suspect that they are more of a potential problem than their minor convenience would justify.

Worst of all is system-cleaner -- or Cruft Remover, as its name appears on the System -> Administrator menu. The only instructions with this tool is that it "helps you to get ride of cruft," which might lead you to suspect that it is a feature like apt-get autoremove that removes packages that are no longer needed, or perhaps apt-get autoclean, which removes unneeded package files. However, during Intrepid's development, several users found that it deleted other packages as well. Sensibly, Ubuntu removed the package from the default install in the final release, but it is still available in the repositories when it should probably be removed for further testing.

Conclusion

These comments should not be read as unduly negative so much as fine-tuned. In general, Intrepid Ibex is no less usable than previous Ubuntu releases. The problem is that it is not that much more usable, either, although Shuttleworth's musings might lead you to expect it would be. If anything, its new features show how difficult it can be to address usability with breaking something else -- in particular, security.

Perhaps expecting major usability improvements in Intrepid Ibex is unrealistic. After all, by the time Shuttleworth began raising the issue of usability, the plans for Ubuntu 8.10 were already finalized and the first alpha releases were coming out. Under these circumstances, perhaps there was only time in Intrepid for minor usability issues, such as the tweaking of the arrangement of items in the Presence Manager menu that Shuttleworth mentions on his blog. If that is so, then it is Ubuntu 9.04, codenamed Jaunty Jackalope that will be the first release to reflect Shuttleworth's priorities.

Meanwhile, Intrepid Ibex is a worthy successor to earlier Ubuntu releases. But, like most recent Ubuntu releases, it's an incremental improvement at best, not a revolutionary one. And, if, like me, you hoped that the talk about usability meant that one distribution was finally getting the right idea, then it's a little disappointing.

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