All these efforts will be coordinated by an umbrella organization within Canonical known as Ayatana, a name that Shuttleworth defines as "the Zen term for your sphere of consciousness."
However, Ayatana is still in the progress of being created. Meanwhile, the first efforts in usability have focused on notification messages, and are due to make their first appearance in the upcoming 9.4 release of Ubuntu.
This choice has received some criticism on GNOME and Ubuntu mailing lists -- not least from people who wonder where the Canonical Design team suddenly appeared from -- but Shuttleworth defends the decision as a necessary testing of the waters.
"There is the thing that, if you have a grand vision, where do you start?" he asks. "And notifications were very carefully chosen as a starting point. We wanted something which affects multiple applications, so we wanted something systemic. We also wanted something on which good progress had been made, and where there was some consensus on a need for a common approach."
Yet another element in the decision to start with notifications was that "we also wanted to work on something that would be slightly controversial. We wanted to make some tough choices, like removing actions from notifications, and we knew that that would trigger discussion and debate about the design process. You know, 'How can we have a design process that takes something away?' That's something that's very difficult in the open source community.
We are used to having every version giving us stuff -- more options, more features. So it was important to pick something where part of the design process would be a whittling away. So, for all of those reasons, notifications were chosen. [They are] small enough that we believed that 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."
What Shuttleworth and his supporters will tackle next remains to be determined, although Shuttleworth suggests that it will be something that involves "existing design and user experience processes" -- perhaps becoming involved in the development of the GNOME Shell, a revisioning of the desktop that, according to current thinking, will be a major part of GNOME 3.0.
However, although every milestone may not have been declared, Shuttleworth is firm on the end goal.
"In eighteen months," he says, "I would like us to have proven that the combination of a strong design-led process and open source can produce something really stunning and remarkable. I don't expect it to be complete by then, but, by Ubuntu 10.10, I expect each of the major threads that we now have in play, either publicly or privately, to be integrated into Ubuntu, and to start to be setting the pace on those elements for desktop user experience."
In other words, Shuttleworth's goal is to have Ubuntu leading desktop innovation by October 2010. "I don't think it's interesting to do this unless we can set the pace," he says, speaking with a quiet determination.
Shuttleworth explains that he chose Apple as the competitor to beat because "they bring that philosophy [of usability] to a complete operating environment and the set of products to go with them. I think we need that holistic view if we are to achieve the same thing in the free software environment."
However, Shuttleworth now adds that other models of individual elegance in usability exist. "Google Maps, for example, is a wonderful example of how Web 2.0 has driven innovation in user experience and made it tangible to open source developers. It's just a wonderful piece of web work."
Mention of Google Maps also raises the point that, today, desktop design must include web connectivity. "We must blur the line between the web and the desktop," Shuttleworth declares, "so both elements are connected."
But, always, Shuttleworth keeps returning to the problem of how to implement major changes without provoking hostile responses.
"The most important thing that we want to figure out is how to have participation without conflict. It is very clear that, in order to challenge Apple, we're going to have to make a lot of changes. Nobody would make the case that the free software environment, whether on Ubuntu or any other distribution, is a world-beating experience from a design and user perspective. It's world-beating for other reasons, right? But it certainly doesn't win from a design and user perspective.
"If we're going to put ourselves at the forefront, we're going to have change a lot. That change is going to be controversial and difficult, and it will not serve our purposes at all if that becomes an excuse for vicious argument. The folks with passion need to get invested in it, either as part of a process like the GNOME 3 discussion, or as part of the Ayatana effort that Canonical is leading, or just by diving into their favorite application and being passionate about user experience.
"We will disagree with each other occasionally. But if we allow those disagreements to become destructive, then we ensure that we will fail. So, to me that's the greatest challenge: how we are going to marry the community processes that often lead to visceral disagreement with the need to design something that is consistent and holistically designed."