May 02 2010

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ubuntu 10.04 – minor, and some not so minor, irritations

If and when the teething problems in 10.04 are fixed and the distro looks stable enough to supplant my current preferred version, I will be faced with one or two usability issues. In this version, canonical have taken some design decisions which seem to have some of the fanbois frothing at the mouth. The most obvious change in the new “light” theme applied is the move of the window control buttons from the top right to the top left (a la Mac OSX). Personally I don’t find this a problem, but it seems to have started all sorts of religious wars and has apparently even resulted in Mark Shuttleworth being branded as a despot because he had the temerity to suggest that the ubuntu community was not a democracy. Design decisions are taken by the build team, not by polling the views of the great unwashed. In my view that is how it should be. The great beauty of the free software movement is the flexiibility and freedom it gives its users to change anything they don’t like. Hell, you can even build your own linux distro if you don’t like any of the (multiple) offerings available. Complaining about a design decision in one distro simply means that the complainant hasn’t understood the design process, and further, probably doesn’t understand that if he or she doesn’t like it, then they are perfectly free to change that decision on their own implementation.

In fact, it is pretty easy to change the button layout. To do so, simply run “gconf-editor” then select apps -> metacity -> general from the left hand menu. Now highlight the button_layout attribute and change the entry as follows:


i.e. move the colon from the right hand end of the line to the left and relocate the close button to the outside. Bingo, your buttons are now back where god ordained they should be and all is right in the universe.

Presentation issues aside, there are some more fundamental design issues which are indicative of a worrying trend. As I noted in the post below, it is now pretty easy to install restricted codecs as and when they are needed. Rhythmbox will happily pull in the codecs needed to play MP3 encoded music with only a minor acknowledgement that the codecs have been deliberately omitted from the shipped distribution for a reason – the format is closed and patent encumbered. Most users won’t care about the implications here, but I think it is only right that they should know the implications of using a closed format before accepting it. It is also worth bearing in mind that some software (including that necessary to watch commercial DVDs) is deliberately not shipped because the legal implications of doing so are problematic in many countries.

So, whilst from a usability perspective, I may applaud the decisions which have made it easy for the less technically savvy users to get their multimedia installations up and running with minimal difficulty, I find myself more than a little unhappy with the implications.

But it gets worse. Enter ubuntu one.

Ubuntu one attempts to do for ubuntu what iTunes does for Apple (but without the DRM one hopes….). The new service is integrated with rhythmbox and allows users to search for and then pay for music on-line. The big problem here is that the music is all encoded in MP3 format when ubuntu, as a champion of free software, could have chosen the (technically superior) patent free ogg vorbis format. The choice smacks of business “realpolitick” in a way that I find disappointing from a company like Canonical. Compare and contrast this approach with the strictly free and open stance taken by Debian and you have to wonder where Canonical is going.

Watch this space. If they introduce DRM in any form there will be an unholy row.

Permanent link to this article: http://baldric.net/2010/05/02/ubuntu-10-04-minor-and-some-not-so-minor-irritations/