The Ubuntu Shopping Lens Debacle

It seems that Canonical are attempting to raise some money by inserting affiliate links into your Unity Dash when you type in a search term. Currently the main target for these links is Amazon, but I’m sure others will be added over time.

I’m not a fan of the Dash at all. I find it slow and cumbersome to operate with a mouse, and frustratingly ineffectual when I try to type a search term. Of course it doesn’t help that my 1980s vintage clacky keyboard lacks a Windows key, so all the “just hit the META key and type…” posts are useless to me. My dislike of the Dash aside, however, I think adding affiliate links to the desktop is a great idea. Free software often struggles to become financially self-sufficient, so more experimentation in this area is a good thing.

Except that the implementation in Ubuntu was an obvious PR disaster from the outset. Did they really think that people would be happy that the search terms they use when looking for files and applications on the local disk are also being sent to Amazon and other retailers as a matter of course? Mark Shuttleworth was quick to point out they’re not “putting ads” into Ubuntu and Jono Bacon posted that no user-identifying data is sent, but that just ignores the fact that there could be user-identifying data in the search terms themselves.

Mark Shuttleworth’s answer, early in the comments on his post, seems a little short-sighted to me:

…the Home lens of the Dash is “search everything”. If you want to search locally only, use the hotkey to specify the specific scope you want, like Super-A for apps, or Super-F for files.

So if I don’t want to send my search terms to Amazon, I have to search each separate scope individually (remembering a few more keyboard shortcuts along the way). That sucks.

It looks like there may be an option to disable these searches coming along as a result of the backlash. But even that solution is overkill – it becomes all-or-nothing, you either get affiliate links or you don’t. Wouldn’t it be better to just put a button at the bottom of the local search results to “Search our online shopping partners”? Perhaps beside a more general “Search online” button to perform a search using the user’s preferred search engine. No information would be sent out until one of the buttons was pressed, allowing the user to keep their local searches local, but making it trivially easy to perform affiliate and other searches when they want to share their search terms with the world.

I hope that Canonical, and other Free software vendors, can find sustainable ways to make money. But treating your users’ data – and that includes their local search terms – as anything less than confidential by default is not the way to go about it.

It’s not over ’til the fat Chumby sings

I’ve written about my Chumby on this blog in the past (and this one, too). Alas! Chumby Indistries is effectively no more, the staff having moved on and any worthwhile intellectual property in the hands of a corporate trustee.

Fortunately the servers are still serving, so my Chumby is still working as well as ever. There will come a day when they’re switched off, but one advantage of the Chumby’s open source nature is that a couple of the users over at the Chumby forum have been able to create ‘untethered’ versions of the firmware which don’t rely on the Chumby Industries servers. I’m sure I’ll lose some functionality when the servers go dark, but at least my squishy little friend won’t turn into a brick.

Make Magazine has a long and interesting interview with Andrew ‘Bunnie’ Huang talking about his time a Chumby Industries, and more. It should be required reading for all those Kickstarter projects hoping to create the next big thing in hardware…

There’s a certain irony to Chumby Industries closing down, right at a time when other people have raised millions of dollars with a similar idea. Yes, the Pebble Watch may be more portable than a Chumby and fill a slightly different niche, but the idea of a clock/watch that can switch between various single-purpose applications and feed you with information from the internet makes them more similar than different. There’s clearly a demand for such “third screen” devices and I think the Chumby was simply an idea ahead of its time.

So while my Chumby still works as Bunnie intended, I’ll continue to enjoy the eclectic delights it offers up. With luck an untethered firmware will extend its life even further. Chumby Industries may be gone, but Chumbys live on.

End of life for Ubuntu 10.10 (Maverick Meerkat)

Today I turned on my computers at home and at work to be presented with an alert telling me that the operating system on them, Ubuntu 10.10 “Maverick Meerkat”, has reached its end of life. This event has reminded me just how frustrated I am with some of the decisions Canonical has made in the transition to their Unity interface…

I’ve been a Ubuntu user since its first release, choosing to live life on the bleeding edge of the regular six-monthly releases, rather than relax with the LTS releases. Generally this approach worked well for me, until the problem trilogy of 10.04, 10.10 and 11.04.

  • 10.04, “Lucid Lynx”, was an LTS (long term support) release which used the old Gnome 2 interface. It’s still supported for another year, until April 2013.
  • 10.10, “Maverick Meerkat” was a normal six-monthly release which used the Gnome 2 interface. Support has just expired for this version.
  • 11.04, “Natty Narwhal” was a normal six-monthly release which used the Unity interface and is supported until October 2012.

Back in 2010 I went through my usual two upgrades, the first putting me on an LTS release, and the second taking me back off that track to the six-monthly cycle. I had expected to upgrade to 11.04, but then Unity happened.

I’ll admit that I’m one of the people who doesn’t like Unity. In its current form I find it far less efficient than the workflow I’d established with Gnome 2. It doesn’t work with my preferred choice of focus-follows-mouse. Most of all, it’s fundamentally broken with my multi-monitor setup (something that the developers are actively addressing, though, so I might be in luck with 12.04). That last point meant that upgrading to Unity just wasn’t an option, regardless of my opinions of it as a user interface.

That’s my real gripe. If Unity had first appeared in 10.10 then I would have found that it didn’t work, stuck with 10.04, and still have until 2013 for Unity to get fixed, or for me to find an alternative. So please, Canonical, if you decide to make any more significant changes that may stop people upgrading by failing to work with their not-very-exotic hardware, at least do it in the version immediately following an LTS release.

The League of Extraordinary Hypocrisy

So it would seem that DC comics are creating a prequel series for the seminal 1980s work, “Watchmen“. I’m not going to discuss whether or not this is a good thing, but rather consider the quotes on that page from the original creators of Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

Let’s deal with the quote from Dave Gibbons first:

“The original series of Watchmen is the complete story that Alan Moore and I wanted to tell. However, I appreciate DC’s reasons for this initiative and the wish of the artists and writers involved to pay tribute to our work. May these new additions have the success they desire.”

Now compare that with the quote from Alan Moore:

I tend to take this latest development as a kind of eager confirmation that they are still apparently dependent on ideas that I had 25 years ago. […] I don’t want money. What I want is for this not to happen. As far as I know, there weren’t that many prequels or sequels to Moby Dick.

Hmmm… this is the same Alan Moore whose League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series is based almost entirely on characters created by other people (most of them far more than 25 years ago), and which includes Moby-Dick’s Ishmael in the first volume. The same Alan Moore whose Lost Girls puts a pornographic twist onto other writers’ characters.

So, Mr Moore, why is it okay for you to use other people’s creations in your own work, but when it comes to somebody creating stories based on your own characters you want it “not to happen”?

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.

Open Educational Resources for Typography

Typography is an art form all of its own. It combines aesthetic and stylistic concerns with elements of ergonomics, cultural history and science. While most of us happily plod along with a few basic fonts in our arsenal, the right typography can transform words significantly. The letter forms in a font can carry meaning and evoke feelings which can reinforce or even subvert the words themselves.

I find typography to be a fascinating part of the graphic design process. Which is why I have thrown a few dollars in to support the Open Educational Resources for Typography project on Kickstarter. Although it’s now been fully funded, there’s still a week to run so it’s not too late to make a contribution to help them out. I’m looking forward to receiving my PDF next year, and hopefully learning more about this hugely difficult subject that we all take for granted each time we turn on a computer, read a book or notice a sign.

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.

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…