User interface design changes are often contentious, but when the changes are to something
fundamental that users are accustomed to, the outcry is even louder. On
the flipside, though, good UI design is best done within a small group of
dedicated folks, who may—should—be willing to think "outside
the box". Innovations often come from setting aside historical precedents,
but, if the process is done quietly, and presented suddenly, the shock value alone can be enough to anger users.
Ubuntu's recent bug
report flamewar shows just how that can play out.
As part of the Ubuntu rebranding
effort, there were some obvious changes, like the move from brown to
purple, but there were some more subtle changes as well. In the new Gtk theme as
presented in that new brand, there were changes to the window controls.
Instead of the traditional—for Linux anyway—buttons in the
upper right of a window, they had moved to the upper left. But the "close"
button stayed in the same relative position, so that it was no longer in
the corner, but was to the right of the "maximize" and "minimize" buttons
(which had swapped positions).
When the rebranding was announced, most observers focused on the
color, logo, and other changes; few noticed, or mentioned, the window
control changes—until those
changes landed in the first Lucid Lynx (10.04) beta. Once users were faced
with actually using the change, they ended up noticing it—and
many weren't very happy about it. A bug was filed in Launchpad on March 5,
arguments broke out in the bug entry about whether it was a bug, whether it
was a good change or not, what the bug status should be, and who it should
be assigned to. As is often the case when users don't feel that a bug report is
being handled correctly, there were many status, importance, and assignment
changes, with others resetting the values back to what they
were—pretty typical bug tracker gamesmanship.
There were also lots of comments
about the change—376 at the time that this was written. There are, of
course, ways to revert the behavior, either via a personal
package archive (PPA) or the command line:
$ gconftool-2 --set /apps/metacity/general/button_layout \
--type string "menu:minimize,maximize,close"
One of the concerns expressed is that Lucid is a long-term support (LTS)
release, so any change will be supported (and lived with) for three years.
Another was the way in which the change came about, i.e. with essentially
no warning or explanation. "Conscious User" described
how it looked:
For the button positioning, however, there was absolutely no official
stance from the design team on the reasoning behind it. In a recent Ars
Technica article, Ryan Paul states that Ivanka Majic posted explanations in
her blog [here
]. As I previously stated in this bug report, not only her blog post
mentions only the questions and no answers, but clearly states that she
does not agree with the design herself.
I doubt that revealing the reasoning would satisfy all users, but at least
they would have a base to build arguments on. Right now, a lot of people
are *assuming* the reasons and criticizing Canonical based on those
assumptions. This is wrong, but there's little else possible when an
official statement does not exist.
Mark Shuttleworth did provide
something of an "official statement" further down in the bug comments:
The default position of the window controls will remain the left,
throughout beta1. We're interested in data which could influence the
ultimate decision. There are good reasons both for the change, and
against them, and ultimately the position will be decided based on what
we want to achieve over time.
Moving everything to the left opens up the space on the right nicely,
and I would like to experiment in 10.10 with some innovative options
But that explanation wasn't really satisfying to many of the commenters.
It didn't really explain why the change was done, other than the
somewhat vague statement that it opened up space on the right for unnamed
"innovative options". As several commenters noted, leaving the buttons on
the right opens up the left side, so it is not clear why moving the
controls was needed to support these innovations. Conscious User, among
Shuttleworth for "concrete, non-vague arguments in favor of the left
side", but, so far at least, those arguments have not been forthcoming.
In noting that the change "landed without
warning" and that there "aren't any good reasons for
that", Shuttleworth tried to defuse the situation to some extent.
But much of the underlying unhappiness is not just that there was no
warning, but that the reasons behind the change are, at best, murky.
Without knowing what the innovative plans for the right-hand side are, it
makes it harder for people to understand and accept as Adam Williamson points
You've said a couple of times that the idea is to free up the right hand
corner for Other Stuff You Will Put There Later, which is a valid
idea. What I don't get, though, is why you think it makes sense to do the
freeing-up before you've got around to inventing the Other Stuff. It gives
people all the drawbacks of the re-arranging with none of the benefits of
the Cool New Stuff, so it's not that surprising that they wind up
There are some hints, though, that the "Other Stuff" has been invented, or
at least discussed, by the design team. That
leads some to speculate
that there might be Canonical business reasons not to disclose these new
ideas. That runs counter to how some people believe that community
distributions should be run. There is concern that important distribution
decisions are being taken out of the hands of the community. Shuttleworth
doesn't completely shy away from that characterization, while noting that
there is room for more experts on the decision-making teams:
We have a kernel team, and they make kernel decisions.
You don't get to make kernel decisions unless you're in that kernel
team. You can file bugs and comment, and engage, but you don't get to
second-guess their decisions. We have a security team. They get to make
decisions about security. You don't get to see a lot of what they see
unless you're on that team. We have processes to help make sure we're
doing a good job of delegation, but being an open community is not the
same as saying everybody has a say in everything.
This is a difference between Ubuntu and several other community
distributions. It may feel less democratic, but it's more meritocratic,
and most importantly it means (a) we should have the best people making
any given decision, and (b) it's worth investing your time to become the
best person to make certain decisions, because you should have that
competence recognised and rewarded with the freedom to make hard
decisions and not get second-guessed all the time.
But the secrecy and way that these decisions have been handled led some to
wonder whether there is an autocratic element at play. Atel Apsfej wondered
about Shuttleworth's credentials:
"Who certified him an expert designer? He may be passionate about
design but it doesn't automatically make him good at it." Further,
Apsfej thinks that the Ubuntu community has the responsibility to push
[Who's] in a position to tell him his designs are bad if not the external
Ubuntu community? You can't really expect Canonical employees to go
toe-to-toe with him when he's made up his mind. That's the problem with
organizational structures that are built on cults-of-personality... the
lines between what it means to be a meritocracy and an autocracy get a
While Apsfej was one of the harsher critics, his points seem to sum up the
concerns of quite a few commenting on the thread. There is concern that
Shuttleworth is not quite meeting the transparency promises that he has
made. As Ubuntu matures, and fixing Bug #1
("Microsoft has a majority market share") becomes more and
more important, is there a need for Shuttleworth and Canonical to take a
stronger hand on the rein? Apsfej explains the difference, though in
characteristically stark terms:
Ubuntu is utterly and completely Shuttleworth's baby. If he wants to
collaborate with the community that has been drawn into the project's
promise of transparency..then he should make good on that promise and be
transparent and communicate about plans. If he wants to be Steve Jobs 2.0
and wow potential consumers with innovative product offerings born from
behind closed doors with no community input then he can be that instead. He
just needs to decide be consistent about how he wants to interact with the
Ubuntu community. Consumer or collaborators...his choice.
For his part, Shuttleworth does recognize that mistakes were made in how
the design team made this change. The change is not fixed in stone, and
may be reverted
before the final release of Lucid. But he is not
concerned about shipping
a change like this in an LTS release: "If I'm confident that
10.10, 11.04 and future releases will have the controls on the left, it
makes even more sense to do it now (because the LTS will then not look
dated compared to newer releases)". He notes the precedent of
shipping Firefox 3.0 beta for the 8.04 LTS release, which "caused an uproar but was the right
decision given that 2.0 was nearing its end of life at the time".
There are risks to any change, and Shuttleworth is cognizant of those, but
he also sees
Look, I understand this is risky. In my judgment, it's worth the risk.
Being able to tackle risky things is one of the things that gives us the
chance to catch up to the big guys, and beat them. That doesn't mean we
should be cavalier, but I'm not going to shy away from an opportunity to
do something much better now just because Microsoft did something a
particular way 20 years ago.
In the end, though, Shuttleworth is defending how decisions are made in and
for Ubuntu, including this one. Because it affects every window that
people use, and is thus in their faces many times a day, the level of
outrage got particularly high. But that kind of backlash can't stop the
Ubuntu is plenty big enough that there is an area where anybody can make
themselves an expert, take on responsibility, and lead. But it's also
big enough that if we try to make everybody feel like they can weigh in
on *every* decision, we'll grind to a halt.
This is a flashpoint, but most decisions are not as contentious as this
one. I'm backing this decision because I think it's the right one in the
long term. It may be right, it may be wrong, but I have a mandate to
take the decision. The same is true of our kernel lead, and our
community governance leads. They are fallible (I certainly am) but they
are nevertheless empowered to take decisions.
It is unfortunate that, for whatever reason, more details about the future
plans for the right-hand side of a window's title bar are not available.
One gets the sense that much of the anger and unhappiness that was spewed
into the bug report would have been lessened, perhaps greatly, by a better
communication of the "Cool New Feature" that may wind up there.
Presumably in time we will see what the plans are and can judge at that
point whether the secrecy was worth it. For now it seems to have gotten a
lot of people up in arms, possibly without a very good reason.
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