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Linux: Ugly Duckling to Beautiful Swan

Linux Will Beat Apple

April 10, 2009

Last summer, Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of the Ubuntu distribution and of Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial sponsor, challenged the free and open source software (FOSS) to deliver a desktop experience superior to Apple's.

Now in the process of introducing the first steps in meeting this challenge, recently Shuttleworth took the time to talk to Datamation about the origins of his interest in usability, the difficulties in implementing it, and the organization and road maps he's creating to focus upon it.

To a casual observer, Shuttleworth's focus on usability might seem less than a year old. However, Shuttleworth himself describes it as the latest stage in a lifelong interest.

"Thinking very carefully about what you are trying to deliver is essential in a successful process," he says. "Personally, I've been fascinated by product design for a long time. I'm drawn to companies and processes that deliver great product. If you look back at the work I've been involved in elsewhere and in Ubuntu, there's a consistent pattern of trying to make things simpler, clearer, and more useful."

Shuttleworth explains that usability was the main reason for Ubuntu standardizing on the GNOME desktop. Specifically, Shuttleworth was drawn to GNOME because of its Human Interface Guidelines, which, while not officially adopted for many years, were unofficially a major influence on GNOME developers.

Shuttleworth describes the guidelines as "a rallying call for specificity and clarity in the software user experience. When we were picking a platform for Ubuntu, we wanted to pick a platform that already believed in the idea of making something easy to use -- and GNOME met that challenge."

With GNOME as a foundation, he adds, in making Ubuntu, "we invested a tremendous amount in how you put the pieces of free software together to form something that feels designed. I think that's why Ubuntu has a reputation of being something very rich that you can install and that works out of the box, where the pieces fit together in an elegant way."

Increasingly, however, Shuttleworth suggests that "we've reached the limits of that. So the question is: Where else can we apply this energy? And, at that point, I started to want to drive Canonical in the direction of being a community leader in design. So I articulated the challenge to the free software community to show that we would aim to show that you can deliver great design inside something that is effectively crowd-sourced.

"Now, I don't imagine that bringing these two forces together will be easy, because there are elements of both that are inimical to one another. But I think that if we can unify those forces, then we can transform the free software experience from something of the ugly duckling of the software world to the powerful swan that it really is."

Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu founder
Mark Shuttleworth

The Challenges of Usability

Shuttleworth acknowledges that the goal of combining radical changes in the name of usability with FOSS community development is a controversial one. "The open source community is always fractious. 'The proposal' certainly generated a lot of opinions, right? Sort of loudly-expressed opinions," he adds as an aside.

A large part of the controversy stems from the fact that, until the last few years, FOSS has been written by developers for developers, with little concern for the user experience of those less expert than themselves.

However, Shuttleworth suggests that now, "More and more open source projects are interested in the idea of making something very easy to use, the challenge of making something beautiful. They're starting to realize that it's not a meaningless exercise. There are some elements in the approach that we are going to be taking that are already controversial and will be more controversial, but there is also a lot of support for the idea that bringing user experience to the front is essential if we want to grow the base of Linux users beyond those who are self-selecting for what's different and what's more powerful."

Another major concern is how to implement changes on the scale Shuttleworth envisions: in a single giant leap forward, as KDE did with its 4.x series of releases, or incrementally, as the GNOME desktop project prefers.

On the one hand, Shuttleworth says that "The KDE team ought to be commended for the quality of the default 4.2.2, which is the latest version, and for tackling the challenge of making a transition. A major transition is a special thing -- it's very tough to pull off, right?" On the other hand, Shuttleworth also maintains that GNOME's record of doing point releases every six months is also "an extraordinary achievement."

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