Over the past year, Ubuntu has become one of the centers for usability design on the Linux desktop. You might criticize this effort because it takes place in the distribution, rather than as contributions to the GNOME desktop, but at least it is happening. Moreover, this effort is being discussed far beyond the outer reaches of the Ubuntu community.
Part of the reason for this discussion is because Ubuntu's popularity automatically makes it influential.
Yet an even more important reason for the interest is that Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth has made usability his personal obsession. Not only has he withdrawn from managing the business affairs of Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial arm, in order to devote his full attention to it, but -- what really matters -- he blogs about usability decisions as they are announced.
In these blog entries, Shuttleworth gives observers a rare chance to see the rationales behind usability decisions, and to measure the rationales against the results.
A case in point is the Unity desktop, announced two weeks ago as the basis of the next Ubuntu Netbook Edition. In the future, Unity will also be the basis of Ubuntu Light, which the release describes as "intended for the dual-boot 'instant-web' market" -- that is, web-centered machines that have both Windows and Ubuntu installed.
Shuttleworth's blog mentions four main design assumptions or goals: a "finger-friendly" layout (one suitable for touch screens on mobile devices), a faster boot, an effort to use horizontal more than vertical space because of the present prevalence of widescreens, and a limited number of local applications.
The Ubuntu Unity desktop
By downloading Unity to an existing copy of Lucid Lynx, the latest Ubuntu version, and comparing it to Shuttleworth's comments on Unity, anyone who is interested can compare the reality to the rationales that created it, and evaluate the results on their own terms, as well as measure them against reality.
The opportunity is very nearly unique -- and completely irresistible. By my evaluation, the current version of Unity misses three of Shuttleworth's goals, and meets only one of them.
The first missed goal is that of making Unity ready for touch screens. The icons on the panel on the left seem large enough for selection with a finger (or, more likely, a thumb), but are possibly too close together to avoid mistakes, although Shuttleworth does promise that "well expand that left-hand launcher panel so that it is touch-friendly."
The top panel is even worse, having been ported unchanged from standard Ubuntu into Unity. Clearly, more work remains to be done with this goal.
The second miss is a fast boot time, a goal that is apparently a pre-occupation in Ubuntu development circles. During development of Lucid, one of the goals was to reduce the boot time on test workstations to ten seconds.
Personally, though, I have yet to hear of any installation of Lucid that came within six seconds of that goal. Although that is still impressive, if that gap between the goal and the reality is typical, it suggests why Shuttleworth begins his blog on Unity by describing the new desktop as "the fruit of that R&D."
In other words, the goal has been transferred to Unity as something still unobtained, although the news release raises the stakes by declaring the goal as "under ten seconds."
Shuttleworth may also imply that Ubuntu cut some corners in the effort to boot quickly, since he adds that one of the lessons learned from observing users is that "Its not about how fast you appear to boot. Its about how fast you actually deliver a working web browser and Internet connection. Its about how fast you have a running system that is responsive to the needs of the user."
At any rate, the current release of Unity has yet to reach that goal on my test machines. In fact, if I set the installation to log in automatically to Unity, I can use the desktop in more or less the same time as when booting GNOME.