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Defending Ubuntu's Honor

Usability First

  • March 2, 2011
  • By Bruce Byfield

"Ubuntu: Where Did the Love Go?" suggests that the honeymoon is over, Ubuntu has lost its way, and that Canonical raises unrealistic expectations. Jono Bacon responds that perceptions are not reality, and the tech press fuels the flames.


Bruce Byfield

Last week, in "Ubuntu: Where Did the Love Go?" I presented one view of Ubuntu and its relationship with other parts of the free and open source software (FOSS) community. One of the first and most articulate responses to the article came from Ubuntu's community manager Jono Bacon.

In Bacon's view, far from being increasingly inward-looking and commercially-oriented, Ubuntu today is what it has always been: A company well-grounded in FOSS values that continues to innovate. Although he admits that relationships with the GNOME project could be improved and that Ubuntu/Canonical has sometimes made mistakes, he continues to see Ubuntu as a major force in bringing FOSS to people outside the traditional community.

Bacon was cautious in his criticisms of the original story, saying twice that "the last thing I want to be perceived as is as stomping on journalists." All the same, he characterized it as "one side of the story," suggesting that "if both sides had been presented, it would have provided a really interesting story."

Bacon also points out that some aspects of Canonical are never seen by outsiders. The implication is that, as a long-time employee, he is in the position to present that insider's perspective. If his perspective is a biased one, it is also an informed one, and that makes it worth hearing, and not only in the interests of developing a balanced perspective.

Usability Vs. FOSS Values

"I want to do everything I can to bring free software to everybody," Bacon says. "And that's why I'm passionate about Ubuntu. Canonical as a company is incredibly committed to that goal. But you know what? With the best intentions in the world, people make mistakes."

Bacon suggests that there is currently a "natural tension" in FOSS between those who want the configurability and full set of options that is part of the traditional philosophy and those who emphasize usability.

He personally favors focusing on usability first on the grounds that it "is additive and the other isn't. If you take Ubuntu and design it around end-users, so it's really simple, really easy, and there's no unnecessary clutter -- if you make some opinionated decisions, which we've always done -- it's easier to then build configurability on top of that. Giving my Mom and Dad an incredibly configurable distribution for Linux enthusiasts and trying to make that easier is harder. So that's why I think the approach we've taken Ubuntu is a good one."

Similarly, although Bacon spends considerable time as community manager communicating FOSS values, he considers usability more important than educating users in FOSS values.

"It's the same way that I don't know the full history of freedom of speech"...Read the rest of Bruce Byfield's interview with Jono Bacon at Datamation.com

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