And with that news I shed a tear

As I come to the end of another day wrestling with code in an effort to get it to run in Internet Explorer 8, I find this post about some real world statistics from a large UK healthcare site.

Internet Explorer accounts for 55% of the numbers…

With 47% IE8 is the most used browser, followed by IE7 with 24% and IE6 with 19%. IE9 only accounts for 10%.

So 55% of visitors are using IE, and 90% of those are on an old version. If people really must continue to use Windows XP (and I appreciate that sometimes there isn’t a choice), then please at least switch to a different browser… you know, one from a vendor who hasn’t abandoned support for your platform like Microsoft has. Until you do, your just helping to hold the web back for everyone else.

A Decade of Free Museums

There’s an article running on the Guardian’s website written by former Culture Secretary Chris Smith to celebrate 10 years since he put the necessary motions in place to remove the entry fee from many of Britain’s museums and galleries. For me the most important part is from the very first paragraph:

…free admission is all about giving everyone, no matter what their means, the chance to see the greatest works of art, science and history that our nation has.

I’m a firm believer that culture and education should be accessible to all, regardless of their financial status. It’s also why I love The Proms and Shakespeare’s Globe – although they’re not free, they both offer the chance to see world-class performances for as little as £5.

But I don’t think it’s enough to see great works of art; it’s important that people have access to the tools they need to produce their own creations – whether artistic or otherwise – and the opportunity to learn how. It’s why I’m excited about the possibilities offered by the Raspberry Pi – a real computer for as little as $25. It’s why I’m a huge advocate of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). And it’s the reason that my webcomic is created entirely using the FOSS program Inkscape, and why I make the Inkscape source files available for download in the hope that people can learn something from them.

Free museums and galleries, or cheap theatres and concerts are wonderful, but a raft of cheap or free (and Free) software and hardware will mean that some of those visitors will become more than just consumers of culture. They’ll become creators.

Bring back the GNOME 2 Clock applet

One thing I missed from my previous list of gripes about Ubuntu 11.10’s interface was the loss of the GNOME 2 clock applet. It fell through the cracks, not because I’m happy with the replacement, but rather because my list was long enough already and it wasn’t the most pressing issue.

But I was reminded of how flexible and useful the GNOME 2 clock applet is by Monty Taylor’s post on the subject.

I don’t need information about multiple timezones as there are only a couple of people overseas that I’m in regular contact with. I can do the maths on my fingers, or Google for their local time if I need to. But those approaches both interfere with my workflow and distract me from the task in hand. With the GNOME 2 clock it just took a single click to check their local times, or to bring up a handy calendar.

It’s a minor thing in isolation, but the fact that Monty’s post is titled “Death by a thousand cuts” is no accident. The move to Ubuntu 11.10 brings with it lots, and lots, and lots of these minor things. Each one is a slight annoyance in isolation, but when combined they can quickly become too much for a user to take.

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Joe Consumer has the Same Unity Problems as Me

The recent Ubuntu Developer Summit included a session on Canonical’s user testing of Unity and Ubuntu. Have a read of the results over on OMG! Ubuntu! Here’s my favourite bit from the introduction:

Although a small number of testers are used in the qualitative testing, they are selected very specifically to best demonstrate the target audience of Ubuntu. They are a mix of Windows and Mac users who spend at least 10 hours a week on a computer. They tend to know how to download music, attach peripherals and other fault sedate computing affair [sic].

Perhaps this is one caveat in the data accrued thus far: the focus has been with “Joe Consumer” representatives and not those more advanced or all ready [sic] familiar with Linux.

So the testing isn’t aimed at more advanced users, or those already familiar with Linux. I’d count myself in both those groups. Yet interestingly the main issues they found with with Unity and the Dash were exactly the same as my complaints. Okay, my list also add a few extra techy issues, but for the main part my problems with Ubuntu 11.10 aren’t due to me being an ‘advanced user’ who is ‘already familiar with Linux’ – they’re the sort of problems that affect even Joe Consumer.

The article tries to put a positive spin on the results, but I can’t help feel that in producing a system which elicits similar complaints from both Joe Consumer and advanced users, Canonical may have managed the incredible task of uniting geeks and noobs into one coherent unified group, bound by the issues they face using Ubuntu these days.

Unity indeed!

Piracy: Not just about price, but availability

Here’s an interesting read from the Open Rights Group about the (lack of) availability of UK films as legitimate digital downloads.

The short summary version of it is that many British films are not legally available to download in the UK – and if they are, it’s often at a price that is comparable to buying it on DVD, but for a lower quality version.

I’m pleased to see that they also included figures that exclude iTunes (which result in even more dismal numbers): as a Linux user I don’t have access to iTunes at all, so my choices are even more limited. Unfortunately history suggests that even if the availability lessons of this report are heeded, the results will only practically be available to Mac and PC users.

Why I’ll be skipping Ubuntu 11.10

My normal desktop machine runs Ubuntu 10.10. I decided to skip 11.04 because the UI changes introduced were, quite simply, downright broken with my particular dual monitor setup. A few days ago version 11.10 (Oneiric Ocelot) was released, so I decided to give it a spin to see if it was worth upgrading to.

By “give it a spin”, I mean that I have run it in a virtual machine, and live from CD. I’m using the latter to write this post. I haven’t done a full install to my machine so it’s possible that some of the problems I’ve seen are a side-effect of running it “live”. But most of the problems I’ve faced are fundamental UI issues which would certainly affect a real installation as well.

I started out writing a wordy description of each of the issues I found, and how it affected me, but I realised I was going to be typing for a very long time. So I’ve decided to just list the obvious issues I’ve stumbled across so far as little more than bullet points (albeit wordy bullet points). I might expand on some of these in future posts.


General Issues and Annoyances

  • No Focus Follows Mouse option
  • No option to “shade” the window when double clicking on the title bar
  • No “Show Desktop” button for getting to files and folders on the desktop when you’ve got windows open and covering them
  • The Nautilus toolbar has been neutered to the point of just being a location bar with a search button. Any other options require a keyboard shortcut or a trek up to the menu at the top of the screen.
  • The four default workspaces are arranged as a 2×2 grid. I prefer a 1×4 linear arrangement so that I only have to bind keys for moving left and right, and don’t need to maintain a mental map of the workspaces locations. I couldn’t find a way to change this.


The Application Launcher

  • On my dual screen setup the launcher is always over to the far left of the leftmost monitor – which is a long way to go if I’m working at the right of the rightmost one. At least with 10.10 I was able to add extra launchers or even a whole application menu to the Gnome panel wherever it suited me (I’ve got two application menus, one on each monitor).
  • The conflation of launcher and task manager means that clicking on the launcher icon for an already running app brings that app to the front – it doesn’t launch a new instance. If you want to launch a second Nautilus window or another terminal – both perfectly reasonable requests – you have to middle-click on the launcher icon. But that’s not exactly discoverable; where is the context menu option to launch another instance?
  • I’ve got plenty of screen space; I don’t want the launcher to auto-hide, but it seems that I have no choice.
  • When testing 11.10 in Virtualbox with Ubuntu in a window, the auto-hiding of the launcher can make it very difficult to regain access to it when the mouse moves to the left of the window. It’s better than it was in 11.04, but could still more easily be solved by letting me turn off the auto-hide option. I suspect the same issue would cause problems with remote desktop use.


Problems with the Dash

  • The Dash application launcher appears to have four launcher icons with limited customisation options. Only one of those would I use regularly – why can’t I change the other three to launch whatever I want (e.g. replace “View Photos” with a launcher for Inkscape or Chromium – rather than just a different photo viewer)
  • The keyboard shortcut for opening the Dash isn’t obvious. If you press ALT on the Unity launcher bar, the other launchers get a number associated with them as a keyboard shortcut, but not the Dash. It turns out that it’s bound to the Windows key, but nothing tells you that, you just have to guess. I haven’t found a way to change this, which is a problem given the lack of a Windows key on my keyboard (1984 vintage, with buckling spring keys – far better than the squishy membranes that pass for a modern keyboard)
  • “More Apps” in the Dash gives an uncategorised list that’s essentially useless. You can apply a filter to limit by categories, but that entails an additional click for browsing through each category. At least with the old “Applications” menu, browsing through all the installed applications – by category – was simply a case of moving the mouse.
  • The Dash uses its own UI widgets including “window” buttons which don’t match your chosen theme, and a scrollbar which is only a couple of pixels wide, and sometimes doesn’t respond at all.
  • If you do apply a filter, then close the Filter panel, there’s no indication that the filter’s even applied, which can leave you wondering where all your apps have gone.
  • Do I really need to see “Apps available for download” all the time? With icons the same size as my installed apps? This just distracts me from the visual target I’m actually looking for. If you must include something like this, use much smaller icons aligned to the bottom of the window. Non-installed apps are not as important as my installed ones, don’t give them the same visual priority.
  • The Dash has room for at least three rows of icons. Why do I get one row of installed apps, one row of downloadable apps, and some blank space? Why not show me some more of my installed apps instead?


The Menu Bar

  • My screen is wide enough to easily accommodate both the title of an application and its menu bar – so why does the menu have to be positioned so far to the left that the app name has to fade out beneath it?
  • For that matter, why not show the menu all the time – faded a bit until you mouse over it, if necessary – so that I can see the destination for my mouse moves before I start moving.
  • Of course all this would be a non-issue if I were allowed to turn off the unified single menu and return to the days of in-window menus. Believe me, I’ve got enough screen space for that. But Canonical would prefer to save me a few vertical pixels in each window instead, whether I want it or not (FWIW I have the same issue with the single menu bar on a large-screen Mac; it works well on the smaller screens of old, but is far less efficient when your mouse has to perform a rodent marathon across a large desktop.


There are other issues, but already this is sounding like a whiney list of gripes, so I’ll stop there. The fact is that a lot of these issues don’t need to exist, if it wasn’t for the arrogance of Canonical’s design team and their vision for how a desktop should operate. I don’t want a return to the days of a thousand and one configuration options, but the choices they’ve made increasingly seem aimed at small screens, netbooks, phones and tablets. Are desktop users with large screens really so much of a dying breed that decades of user interface choices can be thrown out so easily?

And I’m aware that some of these issues can be “solved” via hidden configuration options or by downloading additional software. But if you focus on that, you’re missing the point entirely. It’s not that I want every possible configuration option exposed (that’s what drove me away from KDE in the past), it’s that I want at least enough flexibility to be able to set up my launchers and documents where I want them on my computer without having to resort to searching the web for solutions.

I’ve been using Ubuntu since the first release, but increasingly I think 10.10 will be my last. I’m prepared to hang on until 12.04 – the next long term release – to see if things improve, but in the meantime I might just go and grab some other live CDs to give Gnome 3.2, KDE, XFCE and some other options a try…

RIP Steve Jobs

Today the world lost a great man with the sad passing of Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computers.

I’m no Apple fanboy – in fact over the past few years I’ve increasingly stopped using their products as they’ve become more and more locked into their own ecosystem. I prefer something more open in nature.

But there’s no denying that their products are things of beauty. That they have pushed the boundaries of manufacturing and user experience to new levels. Much of this is due to the drive and vision of Steve Jobs.

It always amazes me that no other PC manufacturer has realised that there is a market for well designed, aesthetically beautiful products. Instead they produce wave after wave of machines covered in stickers and logos, and filled to the brim with crapware. Apple, under Steve Jobs’ leadership, has thrown down a design gauntlet. Unfortunately the rest of the computer world has chosen to walk away from it.

There will be obituaries, reminiscences and retrospectives about Steve Jobs tenure at Apple, but for me the thing that best sums up his influence is this parody video:

I still wish he hadn’t killed off the Newton, though. I wonder just how much more advanced the new iPhone would be if Apple hadn’t wandered away from the portable PDA-like device market for a few years.

I’m sure his influence will be felt within Apple for many years to come — but I can only hope that influence will spread. The computer industry needs people like Steve who understand that technology isn’t just about specifications, it’s about people.

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Good News for Bletchley Park

It was great to hear today that Google are financially backing some of the restoration work taking place at Bletchley Park.

It’s a site with an incredible history and is well worth a trip. Much of the commentary about it online focuses on the World War II code breaking efforts, the works of Alan Turing, or the world’s first programmable computer, Colossus. But there’s much more to the site than that. The very human stories of the people who worked there so many years ago offer a fascinating insight into one of the war’s best kept secrets – and if you’re lucky you might get shown round by one of the guides who actually worked there during those crucial years.

Google’s input is a great step forward. But the thing that will really keep Bletchley Park, and its history, alive is for people to visit it. If you’ve never been, you should definitely add it to your list of things to do. And if you have been, you should add it to your list of things to do again.

An idle thought…

With all the Kinect hacks out there, why hasn’t anyone created a real-time Max Headroom implementation?

Why Firefox’s new numbering is a problem

Mozilla recently released Firefox 5, (quietly) announcing that this represented the end of life (EOL) for Firefox 4. The problem is that Firefox 4 was released less than a two months ago.

This has led to an ongoing discussion about the effects that the new release schedule is having on corporate users – first from Daniel Glazman then from Mike Kaply. The storm of comments that has arisen resulted in both of them writing several follow-up posts, so if you’re interested in this topic do continue further into their blogs and comments (especially Mike’s site, as that seems to have been the target of more comments).

One of the most common responses I’ve seen is that Firefox 5 only adds a few relatively minor features, so it’s just like a 4.1 update really. But it’s the fact that it only contains minor changes which is a big part of the problem.

With a 4.1, 4.2 numbering system it’s usually a fair bet that the changes between versions are small. Jump to 5.0 and you would expect some more major changes, possibly affecting the UI in a way that will need you to retrain your staff. But when every version bump might only contain small changes, or might have massive changes it’s very difficult to plan ahead. And when there’s no distinction between a security release and one that adds significant UI changes, corporations have to treat every release as a major one.

If Mozilla really want to carry on with six-weekly releases then that’s up to them – but at least provide occasional islands of stability that will see security updates for (say) 18 months. Not everyone wants to live in the constant churn of the upgrade cycle – and that includes some ordinary users as well as corporations. For these people an annual “blessed” release would be a blessed relief!

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