Sunday, April 21, 2024

Raving Ringtail: The Mixed Motives of Ubuntu 13.04

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In October 2012, Ubuntu’s founder Mark Shuttleworth, blogged that Ubuntu 13.04 would be developed in private, so that the release would be a “magician’s reveal.”

However, judging from the betas, you have to wonder why he bothered. Short of a last second surprise during the official release later this week, little in the 13.04 (codenamed Raring Ringtail) justifies this approach. Like the last few Ubuntu releases, this one is largely about tweaking the Unity GUI. There are a few cosmetic changes to the launcher, a handful of minor enhancements to dash searches and not a whole lot more besides that’s visible.

Don’t get me wrong—Unity users will find Ubuntu’s latest version easier to use in dozens of minor ways, even if they don’t notice most of the individual changes. But they might also find a confused inconsistency as well.

The Peculiar Case of the Launcher

Embedded on the left side of the screen, the launcher is Unity’s answer to the traditional panel, menu and taskbar. In keeping with the idea that design is “the central Ubuntu experience,” the launcher has undergone another round of minor tweaks in the 13.04 release.

To start, they tweaked a few icons. The dash icon is enhanced with a swirl that suggests either a spiral galaxy or a flushing toilet. Similarly, the transparent recycling bin has been replaced by an equally transparent cylinder.

However, the exact reason for these changes remains obscure, since none of them make the feature behind the icon any clearer. The change of the mouse-over help from “Dash Home” to “Search your computer and online sources” seems a more practical change.

Another change is the removal of the virtual workspace control from the default launcher. Presumably, this is an attempt to address the crowding created by the determination of Canonical, Ubuntu’s corporate avatar, to promote commercial services in the hopes of turning a profit.

If you want, you can still turn on virtual workspaces by selecting System Settings -> Appearance -> Behavior -> Enable Workspaces. If you do, you will find that the workspace icon now indicates which workspace you are currently on.

These features suggest that Canonical’s Design Team is suffering from a serious case of mixed motives. The default crowding wouldn’t exist if Canonical was less intent on thrusting largely unwanted services on users. Yet instead of eliminating the icons for some of these services, Ubuntu has chosen to remove a widely used feature, burying the remedy so obscurely that casual users are likely to conclude that it has been removed.

It’s bad enough that Unity reduces users’ choice to turning four virtual workspaces on or off instead of setting the number for themselves. Now, users have to search for a basic desktop feature.

Equally strange is the fact that, from the same location where workspaces can be toggled on or off, you can choose to add a Show Desktop icon. This is a useful feature in a traditional desktop, in which several windows can quickly hide the desktop. But since Unity opens most windows just short of maximum size, a choice that discourages opening more than one window at a time, you might conclude that the vision behind Unity might need some corrective lenses (and I don’t mean the filters used in the dash, either).

Strange Doings at the Dash

The controversy over the inclusion of Amazon online search results in the dash, Unity’s combination menu and file manager marred Ubuntu’s 12.10 release. Users were understandably puzzled about why they should be exposed commercial come-ons while searching their hard drives, and both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Richard Stallman criticized Ubuntu for violation of users’ privacy.

To be fair, in response to criticism, Ubuntu did add a legal statement and the ability—assuming you’re in a trusting mood—to turn off online search results and opt out of being tracked. However, 12.10 continued to include online searches at the dash by default, a choice the 13.04 release perpetuates and enhances.

Of all the changes at the dash, the typing completion feature is probably the most welcome. Just as you can press the Tab key to complete a command entered at the BASH command line, so you can now pause in your typing at the Unity dash to see if the interface has managed to second-guess you.

Or, at least, that is the theory. And in practice, it sometimes shows a handy sense of context. For instance, type “work” (for workspace), and LibreOffice’s major applications display. Since office apps are where many people’s work is done on a computer, the choice makes sense.

Similarly, typing “system” while searching for “system settings” offers the choice of a text editor, the class of tools generally used by administrators for editing configuration files.

However, although the feature is talked about online as being able to correct typos, that ability will presumably be added—or at least perfected—in a later release. In 13.04, entering “steting” for “setting” only puzzles dash search. So does “flieroller” for “fileroller,” the compression and archiving utility. Apparently, the feature still has a ways to go.

However, while typing completion may be non-controversial, the dash is enhanced by additional lenses and scopes, which potentially compound the privacy problems created by the Amazon search results.

The trouble is, many of these scopes and lenses draw on other online sources for search results. Some are commercial. Because there are dozens, some of which are installed by default and some that aren’t, the challenge of keeping track of them is vastly compounded. Users who might not object to using the dash to search online manual pages or even LibreOffice documentation are likely to get peevish when they understand that data from their searches is potentially going to even more corporations. What’s worse, Ubuntu is not providing the controls that might help users administer their privacy.

Admittedly, the 13.04 release does not have the promised smart scopes that are supposed to provide better results based on past searches—but that is only because smart scopes were not ready for the release.

Meanwhile, 13.04 does include an ominous hint or two. In particular, the default installation is configured to send Ubuntu error reports, while in the 12.10 release this feature was turned off by default. Similarly, the 13.04 legal notice and privacy statement continue to assert Canonical’s right to personal data unless users specifically opt out.

To skeptical eyes, it looks as though, after making a few changes, Ubuntu and Canonical are set on expanding online dash searches despite the objections to it. Given that Ubuntu continues to enable online dash searches by default, rather than leaving them as a feature that users can opt in to, it is difficult to believe that many of the changes in the latest version of Unity are designed with the best interests of users in mind.

Such issues continue to overshadow more innocuous changes, such as the verbose new confirmation dialog that opens when you log out of 13.04.

When Principles Collide

The more you examine Ubuntu 13.04, the more it seems the victim of confusion.

On the one hand, Unity is now a mature interface, much simpler than most by design. At this point, not much remains to change cosmetically, except perhaps when fashions in modern interfaces change. Yet for the better part of four years, Canonical has become obsessed with design. Although little is left to do, it looks as though parts of the development team are simply unable to let go and are obsessively making changes solely for the purpose of making changes.

On the other hand, Canonical seems divided between its original principle of simplicity and efficiency and its new priority of profitability. Too often, what is good for making money from Ubuntu is simply bad for users. Instead of standing up for users and either protecting or—better yet—educating them out of their ignorance, Canonical seems increasingly focused on its own interests.

The fact that Shuttleworth and other key Ubuntu figures continue to use the catchphrases about being responsible towards users only highlights the perceived discrepancy between their words and their actions.

The result of these dilemmas is a release like Raring Ringtail—one that is by no means inadequate, but one whose design suffers from mixed motives that simply cannot be reconciled.

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