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.