Ubuntu Jaunty Tries to Set the Usability Agenda: Page 2

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A Technical Reaction

When users see a notification, many are probably more focused on the message than on its format. For such users, the change in notifications is likely to go entirely unnoticed, and therefore not be an issue at all.

With users, though, the changes are harder to ignore, because they affect how an application should be written. A blogger called Glyph details some of the problems. For example, all notifications that require actions must become the active window; you cannot, as Glyph wanted, have a notification that required action but did not steal the focus. Similarly, you could not keep a notification on screen until the time an action was required without having it constantly reappear.

Glyph also complained about the lack of formatting, including links in the notifications, and the inability to move notifications from the upper right corner of the desktop. He did acknowledge that the Indicator icon helped a bit, but added that it was largely undocumented and just as constraining as the notification standards.

Ironically, Glyph noted, the new notification standards were based on the first version of OS X's notification tool Growl -- apparently without anyone noticing that many of the feature they removed have been added to later versions of Growl.

Nor are the new standards well-documented, according to Glyph. "I want an API that I can call, not a picture of a window I need to re-create myself," he writes.

Community Reactions and Over-Reactions

Glyph's comments are polite, and end by saying that the new system is an improvement over the old, and should evolve over time. Others, however, are less concerned about the technical details than with alleged violations of the way that members of the free software community are supposed to interact.

A particularly scornful reaction comes from a blogger called Ryan. Referring to the changes as a "crapfest" and "foistware," Ryan suggests that the situation reveals a lack of dedication to the community.

"Mark Shuttleworth has given kind of an impression that he’s not some dictator over the project who uses veto power and thugs to muscle in whatever he damned well pleases," Ryan writes. Then referring to Brainstorm, a kind of suggestion box for Ubuntu, he continues, "If this is the case though, there would have been some kind of vote or some Brainstorm blueprint, or at least making it appear like they care about your feedback."

Ryan goes on to explain that, with Ubuntu insisting on implementing the changes itself, rather than in GNOME, the distribution has effectively forked GNOME. As a result, developers will either have to do some work twice, or choose to develop only for one version of GNOME -- and, given Ubuntu's popularity, he worries that the version they choose will be Ubuntu's.

"This reminds me a lot of what Microsoft did during the browser wars,” he writes. "They made IE incompatible so that developers would start *only* bothering to correctly support them. . .what I believe Ubuntu is doing is adding an extra hurdle just because they know they can. They want to make it harder on developers to know how their app will behave outside of Ubuntu. . . . it’s just patently unethical too, a bid to manipulate developers into not caring about how their stuff works on other distros, this is just a beachhead and they’ll be back with more pointless/stupid changes to come. Embrace, Extend, Extinguish."

An Innovation Too Fast?

Such criticisms should not be exaggerated. Usability is something everyone thinks they know something about, and rarely do. Moreover, many users sound delighted with the new notifications.

However, while users and developers are often the same people in free software, developers can still be a separate community in free software. No matter how well Jaunty is received in general, you have to wonder whether, in his hurry to answer his own challenge, Shuttleworth has made a major mis-step, not only technically but socially.

Accusations of Microsoft behavior often fly around too easily in the free software community. They are a sort of equivalent to comparing opponents to Adolf Hitler in other online discussion. However, in this case, the appearance of high-handedness makes the comparison understandable, if hardly excusable. Both Ubuntu community developers and GNOME developers in general seem to have been presented with the notification changes fully developed, with little room offered for their input.

Perhaps, too, the comparison has revived the community's latent distrust of business. Some in the community cannot forget that Shuttleworth is primarily an entrepreneur, nor that his millions have helped Ubuntu to its prominent position as much as its concrete achievements. But, until now, this distrust has had very little to focus on, because Shuttleworth and Ubuntu have shown every sign of respecting community standards.

So far, the grumblings are soft and far from universal. However, the real question is whether Ubuntu's future usability improvements will add fuel to them, and force what is most likely a temporary fork into becoming a more permanent one, especially if Shuttleworth's agenda conflicts with the changes to be implemented in GNOME 3.0 over the next few years. Either GNOME developers could refuse to accept Ubuntu's changes, Ubuntu could decide to implement the changes alone, or, more likely, both could happen at once.

In any of these situations, what's most important could easily be lost: the fact that Ubuntu's emphasis on usability, although perhaps not always implemented well, is something that the free desktop needs to take it to the next level. And if that is forgotten, then who is to blame becomes irrelevant. We will all be poorer for the lapse from common sense.

ALSO SEE: How to Run Ubuntu Safely

AND: The Secret Lives of Ubuntu and Debian Users

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Tags: developer, Ubuntu, Mac, desktop

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