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Ubuntu is the Linux Usability Leader
More Opinions Than People
May 7, 2009
With the first release in 2004, Ubuntu established itself as one of the most user-friendly GNU/Linux distributions available. Since then, each release has reaffirmed this reputation, although recent versions have coasted a little.
However, with the supposedly improved notifications system in the recently-released Jaunty Jackalope (aka 9.0.4), Ubuntu unintentionally raises a new issue in usability -- that is, whether a distribution can or should set the usability agenda by itself?
The fact that Ubuntu should be the distribution where this issue arises seems inevitable. Admittedly, a GNU/Linux user's experience these days is usually determined by changes to the GNOME and KDE desktop rather than the choice of distribution. However, you only have to compare Ubuntu to its parent distribution Debian to see how much Ubuntu has made usability issues their own.
Debian is perfectly usable on the desktop (partly because many of those who improve Ubuntu also work on Debian), but Ubuntu is far ahead in support for multiple languages and keyboard locales, and offers desktop tools like Computer Janitor and Software Sources for tasks that in Debian usually require the command line if they are available at all.
And while some other distributions like Fedora and Mandriva also have an interest in usability, few have such a long and extensive history of desktop improvements, nor such an apparent hurry to improve the user experience.
In many ways, Jaunty continues this usually uncontroversial history. Nobody is likely to complain about Jaunty's faster boot time, its more reliable suspend and resume, or its increased support for wireless cards. Nor is anybody going to question the availability -- but not default use -- of the ext4 filesystem, or Eucalyptus, the roll-your-own cloud computing application.
But notifications -- the messages about events in the system that appear near the system tray -- are another matter. Neither users nor developers appear to have been complaining about their existing conventions, and the change in how they operate is due largely to the insistence of Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu and Canonical, its corporate face. And while users might not notice the changes, much less complain about them, developers seem less certain about them.
Where the Changes Come From
The changes in notifications are directly traceable to Shuttleworth's challenge last summer to make the free desktop rival OS X's by late 2010.
"If you have a grand vision, where do you start?" Shuttleworth said in an interview a few weeks ago. "Notifications were very carefully chosen as a starting point. We wanted something which affects multiple applications. . . . We also wanted something that would be slightly controversial. We wanted to make some tough choices, like removing actions from notifications, and we knew that would trigger discussion and debate about the design process. . .it is small enough that we believed we could do it in a single cycle, but meaningful enough and visible enough that it would draw attention to the work that we're doing."
With these perspectives in mind, Shuttleworth set to work with the Canonical team and announced the proposed changes on his blog in February, pointing readers to a description of the new notification standards.
These standards depend on the exact message being transmitted. If the message does not require any action by a user and can wait, then the message should display within the application it applies to. There is no need, for instance, for a desktop notification when Firefox crashes because Firefox has its own system for displaying messages. However, if no action is needed but the user should read the message immediately -- for instance, if a new USB drive has been plugged in -- then the message should go in a notification bubble (so-called for its rounded corners) near the system tray.
Conversely, messages that require actions but not immediate ones, such as a message about a lack of system space, use a standard alert button. Those messages that require immediate actions, such as the expiry of a laptop's battery, go into a morphing alert box that changes shape and background color to call attention to itself. All these standards are strictly enforced, apparently without exceptions.
These changes immediately sparked discussion on the ubuntu-devel mailing list, including some questioning of the power of Canonical's Design team to impose them. They were similarly discussed on the gnome-desktop-devel list, where reception of them has been reluctant enough that Jaunty was released with a package called gnome-stracciatella-session, which allows users to press F10 when they login and get a GNOME desktop with standard notifications. In addition, an alpha release of Jaunty included a configuration tool for notifications, but was omitted from the official release. However, Jaunty does include an Indicator applet for the panel that signals that something on the desktop requires your attention.