Ubuntu 11.04, Natty Narwhal: Successes and Failures

Ubuntu’s latest Linux desktop release is an ambitious effort, though not an unqualified success.
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Few releases of any distribution have received as much attention as Ubuntu 11.04 (codenamed Natty Narwhal). Most of the buzz is about the switch to the new Unity desktop -- and deservedly so, since it is radically different from the GNOME desktop it replaces. However, Natty also features some changes to widgets, the installer, and the Ubuntu Software Center, many of which -- like Unity itself -- reflect Ubuntu's ongoing concerns about usability and design issues, while having mixed levels of success.

This concern has always loomed large in Ubuntu. However, it became even stronger several years ago, when Shuttleworth decided that usability and design were areas where Ubuntu and its corporate arm Canonical could "make a significant contribution" to open source software. Since then, Ubuntu has introduced such innovations as the app indicators, the repositioning of title bar buttons, and a new color-coded default theme reminiscent of Apple's.

In 11.04, this concern continues on all levels. At the level of widgets -- the pieces of windows used to manipulate them -- you might notice that Natty has done away with the traditional scroll bar.

Instead, Natty offers what its developers call "overlay scrollbars": a red gauge a few pixels thick to indicate the current position in the window. When you need to change your position in the window, running the cursor over the gauge summons a set of arrows outside the window that you can drag upon.

This novelty is economical, but you might wonder about the point of it -- on today's wide screen monitors, do we really need to save the few pixels required by the scroll bar? On a netbook especially, the new gauge can be hard to see (which is no doubt why it is colored red).

The same sort of minimalist widget appears -- more successfully -- on the launcher, the replacement for the main menu, favorites menu, and taskbar. Instead of the space-stealing taskbar, the launcher marks open applications with an arrow to the left of its icon, and adds an arrow to the right to indicate the currently active application.

A second innovation on the launcher is seen when the icons on the launcher fill the entire height of the screen. When that happens, icons on the bottom of the launcher are collapsed. Run a mouse over a collapsed icon, and the launcher's display repositions itself to show the collapsed icons.

Although finding an application among the collapsed icons can sometimes be challenging, the fact that several collapsed icons display at once means that you do not have to be completely accurate when you choose collapsed icons. On the whole, it's another elegant alternative to the scroll bar.

The Language of the Installer

Another area where you can see usability tinkering in Natty is the built-in help for the installer. However, like the widgets, Ubuntu's installer help is a mixed success.

At its best, the installer help is colloquial and clear, using contractions to create a casual tone. For example, the title for the installer page for setting the time zone is simply, "Where Are You," and the field for manually entering a location is annotated, "[type here to change]."

At its worst, though, the clarity of the language degenerates into an unhelpful vagueness. Glossing "Your computer's name" as "the name it uses when it talks to other computers" is not particularly helpful, and neither are the partitioning choices of "Erase disk and install" and "Something Else."

As for the list of features that displays while files are being copied and installed, I seriously doubt that any apps will "make your computer delightful to use," no matter how magical or handy they are. At such points, the language of the installer seems to have become pure marketing-speak, and ceases being useful.

Package Reviews

Desktop tools like the Ubuntu Software Center are not new. However, in the past, many of them have been weakened by the fact that the descriptions of packages were taken directly from those included in the packages -- and, being written by developers, those descriptions were often terse and vague to the point of being cryptic.

Now, in Natty, the Ubuntu Software Center includes reviews and ratings by users, creating an Amazon-like atmosphere. Not only can you now get a variety of opinions, but the reviews are almost always more complete and more thoughtful than the package descriptions.

Once you install a package, you can return the favor and create an account with Ubuntu Software Center to write your own review.

These reviews are potentially such a strong idea that you can only marvel that nobody has implemented them before. Sadly, though, the reviews are only available through Ubuntu Software Center, which is simple enough to use, but lacks the advanced and troubleshooting features of other desktop package managers like Synaptic or of the apt-get command itself. Instead of being a benefit to the Ubuntu Software Center alone, the reviews and ratings could have been a benefit to the package management system and all its interfaces.

The Unity Stakes

Originally Ubuntu Netbook Edition, Unity has been anticipated both eagerly and fearfully ever since the announcement that it would replace GNOME in Natty.

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