Ironically, he observes, the two major desktops are now switching places, with KDE edging towards incremental releases after focusing on its major transition, and GNOME debating whether to abandon incremental releases in favor of a major leap forward in order to realize GNOME 3.0.
What Shuttleworth concludes from these contrasting experiences is that both methods have to be balanced over the long term.
"A really predictable release cycle is very energizing, as GNOME has learned," he says. "Conversely, what KDE showed is that you can make substantial jumps forward if you have a well-run program and you're bold in your vision. So putting those two together is really exciting. Within the open source desktop, we have the experience we need to make big transitions, and we also have the knowledge to have predictable, energetic regular release cycles."
The question, of course, is which approach to use when -- knowing that, no matter what choice you make, some parts of the FOSS community will criticize you and your timing.
Asked whether the problem is as much one of diplomacy as of software engineering, Shuttleworth replies, "There is an element of that. And the challenge is that we very consciously know that we're not going to be able to give everyone what they want. I don't know how that's going to work out. I know that that's going to be socially very challenging. But I also strongly believe that, in the absence of a will to make tough decisions, all of this will lead to failure."
Because Ubuntu supports all three major free desktops, Shuttleworth suggests that "Canonical is in a good position to help this process. Because we embrace the whole free desktop, we are able to drive an idea forward across the whole desktop."
Since Shuttleworth issued his usability challenge, Canonical has been hiring employees to answer it, dividing them into three main groups: The Design group, which studies usability and makes recommendations based upon their work, as Matthew Thomas did in evaluating the Pidgin and Empathy messaging tools; the Desktop group, that writes the code to express the usability ideas that are approved; and the Platform team, that integrates new code into the desktop.
All these groups work closely with upstream projects, the producers of the software affected by changes. Together, these teams consist of about twenty-five people -- a "significant focus," considering that these comprise about ten percent of Canonical employees, "but only part of the broad thrust of what goes on in Canonical and Ubuntu."
As you would expect in FOSS, community members play an additional role in meeting the challenge. Accordingly, Canonical and Ubuntu are active in developer sprints and conferences held by upstream projects. In addition, "we have a variety of public conversations in GNOME, KDE, and Ubuntu," Shuttleworth says, referring, no doubt, to the regular rounds of discussions in project forums.
"I also expect that we will offer to open source projects the ability to come to London to work directly with the Design and User Experience teams," he adds. "We recognize that, ultimately, the free software desktop experience is made up of the individual experiences of each of the applications that make up that desktop. So we want to engage with each of those projects and invite them to work with [our] usability professionals."
What might be less expected, though, is that part of the usability challenge is being met privately. "There are other process that being developed internally in Canonical by projects that we have underway with commercial partners, and those I can't speak about at this stage. Those will obviously only be available when the products themselves are available. But, in each case, we engaged partners on the understanding that, as soon as the products are available, we can move that code into the public area under a license like the GPL [GNU General Public License], and we can integrate that code and that experience within Ubuntu, and make it available to projects like GNOME and KDE directly."