Archive for the 'free software' Category

A kind invitation

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

Delighted to receive this today, and to proxy it through to Planets U and G:

Dear Ubuntu Community Council members,

on behalf of the openSUSE Board, I would like to extend this
invitation to you and your community to join us at the
openSUSE Conference in Nuremberg, Germany October 20-23, 2010.

This year more than seventy talks and workshops explore the theme of
‘Collaboration Across Borders‘ in Free and Open Source software
communities, administration and development. We believe that the
program, which includes tracks about distributions, the free desktop and
community, reaches across the borders between our projects and we
would like to ask you to encourage your community to visit the
conference so we get the chance to meet face to face, talk to and
inspire each other.

More information including the program and details about the event you
can find in our announcement at

Thank you in advance and see you in October! :-)

Henne Vogelsang
openSUSE Board Member

We’ll gladly sponsor a member of the Ubuntu community council to go, busy finding out if anyone can make it. I can’t, but appreciate the sentiment and the action and think it would be great if members of the Ubuntu community can take up the invitation.

Regardless, best wishes for the conference!

Daily dose of Scribus trunk

Friday, September 10th, 2010

We’ll be using Scribus for much of the DTP internal to Canonical. Our templates etc will be published in Scribus, so folks who need to knock up a flyer or brochure have the pieces they need ready to hand. However, there’s a problem, in that the stable Scribus package is really quite old.

The Scribus team is making good progress on the next version of Scribus, but I couldn’t find an easy way to test their trunk. So I thought to make a PPA with a daily build. Whenever I’m testing or evaluating a new app I like to check out trunk, just to get a feel for the pace of activity and quality of the work. A crisp, clean, stable trunk is a sign of good quality work, which will likely mean good quality elsewhere like documentation and project governance. Chaos on trunk means… chaos generally, as a rule.

I wrote to Oleksander Moskalenko, one of the upstream developers and Debian maintainer of the Scribus packages, including a complete set of Ubuntu packages with pretty awesome documentation for how to get the newer versions for testing. He kindly offered to review the package and made some suggestions for things to look out for. And then I got lucky, mentioning that I wanted to do this on #kubuntu-devel, because Philip Muskovac turns out to be in the middle of a quest to do daily build PPA’s of most of KDE!

We already had a Bzr import of Scribus trunk for some reason, so tip is easily accessible via LP and bzr.

Philip knocked up a package recipe combining trunk with a clean packaging branch based on Oleksandr’s scribus-ng package. Et voila, LP is now doing all the work to deliver us a nice dose of Scribus goodness every day. So here’s an invitation to DTP-heads everywhere: if you’d like to see the very latest work of the Scribus team, just add that PPA to your sources and grab scribus-trunk:

sudo apt-add-repository ppa:scribus/ppa
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install scribus-trunk

Generally, if the packaging branch is clean, a daily build is pretty stable, it might need a tweak now and then but that work is useful to the packager as an early warning on packaging changes needed for the next version, anyway. And it’s usually easier to fix something if you know exactly what changed to break it :-)

I’d like to thank Philip and Oleksandr for rocking the park, and the Scribus folks for a wonderful tool that will get wider use now within Canonical and, hopefully, elsewhere too.

The Scribus trunk packages seem to work very well on Unity, the Qt/dbusmenu integration is tight in this newer version, so it’s very usable with the panel menu and launching it full-screen feels right on my laptop. I’m enjoying the extra detailed control that Scribus gives with the use of fonts over apps like OO.o and AbiWord, since I’m becoming a font nerd these days with all the work on Ubuntu.

There is a flag day transition to be aware of, though, as newer Scribus files are not compatible with those of the stable scribus. Nevertheless, both this trunk build and the scribus-ng packages Oleksandr maintains seem pretty stable to me, so we’ll be using the newer format and holding our breath till the actual release. No pressure, team Scribus ;-)

Update: Philip’s published Lucid packages as well!

Gestures with multitouch in Ubuntu 10.10

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Multitouch is just as useful on a desktop as it is on a phone or tablet, so I’m delighted that the first cut of Canonical’s UTouch framework has landed in Maverick and will be there for its release on 10.10.10.

You’ll need 4-finger touch or better to get the most out of it, and we’re currently targeting the Dell XT2 as a development environment so the lucky folks with that machine will get the best results today. By release, we expect you’ll be able to use it with a range of devices from major manufacturers, and with addons like Apple’s Magic Trackpad.

The design team has lead the way, developing a “touch language” which goes beyond the work that we’ve seen elsewhere. Rather than single, magic gestures, we’re making it possible for basic gestures to be chained, or composed, into more sophisticated “sentences”. The basic gestures, or primitives, are like individual verbs, and stringing them together allows for richer interactions. It’s not quite the difference between banging rocks together and conducting a symphony orchestra, but it feels like a good step in the right direction ;-)

The new underlying code is published on Launchpad under the GPLv3 and LGPLv3, and of course there are quite a lot of modules for things like X and Gtk which may be under licenses preferred by those projects. There’s a PPA if you’re interested in tracking the cutting edge, or just branch / push/ merge on LP if you want to make it better. Details in the official developer announcement. The bits depend on Peter Hutterer’s recently published update to the X input protocols related to multi-touch, and add gesture processing and gesture event delivery. I’d like to thank Duncan McGreggor for his leadership of the team which implemented this design, and of course all the folks who have worked on it so far: Henrik Rydberg, Rafi Rubin, Chase Douglas, Stephen Webb at the heart of it, and many others who have expanded on their efforts.

In Maverick, quite a few Gtk applications will support gesture-based scrolling. We’ll enhance Evince to show some of the richer interactions that developers might want to add to their apps. Window management will be gesture-enabled in Unity, so 10.10 Netbook Edition users with touch screens or multi-touch pads will have sophisticated window management at their fingertips. Install Unity on your desktop for a taste of it, just apt-get install ubuntu-netbook and choose the appropriate session at login.

The roadmap beyond 10.10 will flesh out the app developer API and provide system services related to gesture processing and touch. It would be awesome to have touch-aware versions of all the major apps – browser, email, file management, chat, photo management and media playback – for 11.04, but that depends on you! So if you are interested in this, let’s work up some branches :-) Here’s the official Canonical blog post, too.

Healing old wounds

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

Greg, thank you for your sincere and gracious apology.

When one cares deeply about something, criticism hurts so much more. And the free software world is loaded with caring, which is why our differences can so easily become vitriolic.

All of us that work on free software share the belief that our work has meaning far beyond the actual technology we produce. We are working to achieve goals that transcend the merits of the specific products we build: putting software freedom on a firm economic footing means that it can realistically become the de facto standard way that the software world works, carried forward by powerful forces of investment and return and less dependent on what feels like the heroic efforts of relatively few software outsiders swimming against the tide.

Red Hat’s success in proving a viable business model around a distribution was a very significant milestone in that quest, for all of us. I don’t mean to diminish that achievement when I point out that it’s come at the cost of dividing the world into those that buy RHEL, and those that can’t or won’t. Red Hat’s success is well deserved, and our work at Canonical is not in any sense motivated by desire to take that away. Red Hat is here to stay, there will always be a market for the product, and as a result, we all have the reassurance that our contributions can find a sustainable path into the hands of at least part of the world’s population.

Canonical’s mission is to expand the options, to find out if it’s possible to have a sustainable platform without that dividing line. We know that our quest would not be possible without your pioneering, but we don’t feel that’s riding on anybody’s coat-tails. We feel we have to break new ground, do new things, add new ingredients, and all of that is a substantial contribution in turn. But we don’t do it because we think Red Hat is “wrong”, and we don’t expect it to take anything away from Red Hat at all. We do it to add to the options, not to replace them.

We should start every discussion in free software with a mutual reminder of the fact that we have far more in common than we have differences, that individual successes enrich all of us far more in our open commons-based economy than they would in a traditional proprietary one, that it’s better for us to find a way to encourage others to continue to participate even if they aren’t necessarily chasing exactly the same bugs that we are, than to chastise them for thinking differently.

On that note, let’s shake hands.


Unity, and Ubuntu Light

Monday, May 10th, 2010

A few months ago we took on the challenge of building a version of Ubuntu for the dual-boot, instant-on market. We wanted to be surfing the web in under 10 seconds, and give people a fantastic web experience. We also wanted it to be possible to upgrade from that limited usage model to a full desktop.

The fruit of that R&D is both a new desktop experience codebase, called Unity, and a range of Light versions of Ubuntu, both netbook and desktop, that are optimised for dual-boot scenarios.

The dual-boot, web-focused use case is sufficiently different from general-purpose desktop usage to warrant a fresh look at the way the desktop is configured. We spent quite a bit of time analyzing screenshots of a couple of hundred different desktop configurations from the current Ubuntu and Kubuntu user base, to see what people used most. We also identified the things that are NOT needed in lightweight dual-boot instant-on offerings. That provided us both with a list of things to focus on and make rich, and a list of things we could leave out.

Instant-on products are generally used in a stateless fashion. These are “get me to the web asap” environments, with no need of heavy local file management. If there is content there, it would be best to think of it as “cloud like” and synchronize it with the local Windows environment, with cloud services and other devices. They are also not environments where people would naturally expect to use a wide range of applications: the web is the key, and there may be a few complementary capabilities like media playback, messaging, games, and the ability to connect to local devices like printers and cameras and pluggable media.

We also learned something interesting from users. It’s not about how fast you appear to boot. It’s about how fast you actually deliver a working web browser and Internet connection. It’s about how fast you have a running system that is responsive to the needs of the user.

Unity: a lightweight netbook interface

There are several driving forces behind the result.

The desktop screenshots we studied showed that people typically have between 3 and 10 launchers on their panels, for rapid access to key applications. We want to preserve that sense of having a few favorite applications that are instantly accessible. Rather than making it equally easy to access any installed application, we assume that almost everybody will run one of a few apps, and they need to switch between those apps and any others which might be running, very easily.

We focused on maximising screen real estate for content. In particular, we focused on maximising the available vertical pixels for web browsing. Netbooks have screens which are wide, but shallow. Notebooks in general are moving to wide screen formats. So vertical space is more precious than horizontal space.

We also want to embrace touch as a first class input. We want people to be able to launch and switch between applications using touch, so the launcher must be finger friendly.

Those constraints and values lead us to a new shape for the desktop, which we will adopt in Ubuntu’s Netbook Edition for 10.10 and beyond.

First, we want to move the bottom panel to the left of the screen, and devote that to launching and switching between applications. That frees up vertical space for web content, at the cost of horizontal space, which is cheaper in a widescreen world. In Ubuntu today the bottom panel also presents the Trash and Show Desktop options, neither of which is relevant in a stateless instant-on environment.

Second, we’ll expand that left-hand launcher panel so that it is touch-friendly. With relatively few applications required for instant-on environments, we can afford to be more generous with the icon size there. The Unity launcher will show what’s running, and support fast switching and drag-and-drop between applications.

Third, we will make the top panel smarter. We’ve already talked about adopting a single global menu, which would be rendered by the panel in this case. If we can also manage to fit the window title and controls into that panel, we will have achieved very significant space saving for the case where someone is focused on a single application at a time, and especially for a web browser.

We end up with a configuration like this:

Mockup of Unity

Mockup of Unity Launcher and Panel with maximised application

The launcher and panel that we developed in response to this challenge are components of Unity. They are now in a state where they can be tested widely, and where we can use that testing to shape their evolution going forward. A development milestone of Unity is available today in a PPA, with development branches on Launchpad, and I’d very much like to get feedback from people trying it out on a netbook, or even a laptop with a wide screen. Unity is aimed at full screen applications and, as I described above, doesn’t really support traditional file management. But it’s worth a spin, and it’s very easy to try out if you have Ubuntu 10.04 LTS installed already.

Ubuntu Light

Instant-on, dual boot installations are a new frontier for us. Over the past two years we have made great leaps forward as a first class option for PC OEM’s, who today ship millions of PC’s around the world with Ubuntu pre-installed. But traditionally, it’s been an “either/or” proposition – either Windows in markets that prefer it, or Ubuntu in markets that don’t. The dual-boot opportunity gives us the chance to put a free software foot forward even in markets where people use Windows as a matter of course.

And it looks beautiful:

Ubuntu Light

Ubuntu Light, showing the Unity launcher and panel

In those cases, Ubuntu Netbook Light, or Ubuntu Desktop Light, will give OEM’s the ability to differentiate themselves with fast-booting Linux offerings that are familiar to Ubuntu users and easy to use for new users, safe for web browsing in unprotected environments like airports and hotels, focused on doing that job very well, but upgradeable with a huge list of applications, on demand. The Light versions will also benefit from the huge amount of work done on every Ubuntu release to keep it maintained – instant-on environments need just as much protection as everyday desktops, and Ubuntu has a deep commitment to getting that right.

The Ubuntu Light range is available to OEM’s today. Each image will be hand-crafted to boot fastest on that specific hardware, the application load reduced to the minimum, and it comes with tools for Windows which assist in the management of the dual-boot experience. Initially, the focus is on the Netbook Light version based on Unity, but in future we expect to do a Light version of the desktop, too.

Given the requirement to customise the Light versions for specific hardware, there won’t be a general-purpose downloadable image of Ubuntu Light on

Evolving Unity for Ubuntu Netbook Edition 10.10

Unity exists today, and is great for the minimalist, stateless configurations that suit a dual-boot environment. But in order embrace it for our Netbook UI, we’ll need to design some new capabilities, and implement them during this cycle.

Those design conversations are taking place this week at UDS, just outside Brussels in Belgium. If you can’t be there in person, and are interested in the design challenges Unity presents for the netbook form factor, check out the conference schedule and participate in the discussion virtually.

The two primary pieces we need to put in place are:

  • Support for many more applications, and adding / removing applications. Instant-on environments are locked down, while netbook environments should support anybody’s applications, not just those favored in the Launcher.
  • Support for file management, necessary for an environment that will be the primary working space for the user rather than an occasional web-focused stopover.

We have an initial starting point for the design, called the Dash, which presents files and applications as an overlay. The inspiration for the Dash comes from consoles and devices, which use full-screen, media-rich presentation. We want the Dash to feel device-like, and use the capabilities of modern hardware.

Unity Dash

The Unity Dash, showing the Applications Place

The instant-on requirements and constraints proved very useful in shaping our thinking, but the canvas is still blank for the more general, netbook use case. Unity gives us the chance to do something profoundly new and more useful, taking advantage of ideas that have emerged in computing from the console to the handheld.

Relationship to Gnome Shell

Unity and Gnome Shell are complementary for the Gnome Project. While Gnome Shell presents an expansive view of how people work in complex environments with multiple simultaneous activities, Unity is designed to address the other end of the spectrum, where people are focused on doing one thing at any given time.

Unity does embrace the key technologies of Gnome 3: Mutter, for window management, and Zeitgeist will be an anchor component of our file management approach. The interface itself is built in Clutter.

The design seed of Unity was in place before Gnome Shell, and we decided to build on that for the instant-on work rather than adopt Gnome Shell because most of the devices we expect to ship Ubuntu Light on are netbooks. In any event, Unity represents the next step for the Ubuntu Netbook UI, optimised for small screens.

The Ubuntu Netbook interface is popular with Gnome users and we’re fortunate to be working inside an open ecosystem that encourages that level of diversity. As a result, Gnome has offerings for mobile, netbook and desktop form factors. Gnome is in the lucky position of having multiple vendors participating and solving different challenges independently. That makes Gnome stronger.

Relationship to FreeDesktop and KDE

Unity complies with standards, and is helping to shape them, too. We would like KDE applications to feel welcome on a Unity-based netbook. We’re using the Ayatana indicators in the panel, so KDE applications which use AppIndicators will Just Work. And to the extent that those applications take advantage of the Messaging Menu, Sound Indicator and Me Menu, they will be fully integrated into the Unity environment. We often get asked by OEM’s how they can integrate KDE applications into their custom builds of Ubuntu, and the common frameworks of greatly facilitate doing so in a smooth fashion.

Looking forward to the Maverick Meerkat

It will be an intense cycle, if we want to get all of these pieces in line. But we think it’s achievable: the new launcher, the new panel, the new implementation of the global menu and an array of indicators. Things have accelerated greatly during Lucid so if we continue at this pace, it should all come together. Here’s to a great summer of code.

Even though the idea of formal alignment between the freezes of Debian and Ubuntu didn’t hold, there has been some good practical collaboration between the maintainers of key subsystems. There are real benefits to this, because maintainers have a much more fruitful basis for sharing patches when they are looking at the same underlying version.

Harmonization for Ubuntu 10.04 LTS and Debian Squeeze

I think this is where we stand now:

Ubuntu Debian RHEL SLES
Kernel 2.6.32 + drm-33 2.6.32 + drm-33 2.6.32 2.6.32
GCC 4.4 4.4
Python 2.6 2.6 3.2 3.2
Perl 5.10.1 5.10.1
Boost 1.40 1.40
X Server 1.7 1.7
Mesa 7.7 7.7
Mono (thanks Jo Shields) 2.4-snapshot 2.4-snapshot

I’m sure there are inaccuracies, please help me keep this up to date, sabdfl on freenode is the best way to reach me. The RHEL and SLES numbers are third-hand, so up-to-date information would be appreciated.

The actual release dates of Ubuntu LTS and Debian will vary of course, because of different priorities. And there’s no requirement that the same base version be used for every major component – there may well be differences allowing for different approaches. But where we do have it, we’ll be able to collaborate much more effectively on bug fixes for key upstream pieces. If a lot of distributions pick the same base upstream version, it greatly increases the value of extended shared maintenance and point releases of that upstream.

Why every two years?

Two years is a compromise between those who want 1 year releases for better support of cutting-edge hardware and those who want 7 year releases so their software stack doesn’t change before their job description does ;-).

A whole-year multiple has several advantages. It means we can schedule the processes that are needed for collaboration at the same time of year whenever we need them – unlike 1.5 or 2.5 year cycles. Three years was felt to be too long for hardware support. Two years is perceived to be the Goldilocks Cadence – just right.

What are the criteria for choosing a common base version?

In both the Ubuntu and Debian cases, we’ll be making a release that we support for many years. So be looked for versions of key upstreams that will pass the test of time. Sometimes, that means they can’t be too old, because they’ll be completely obsolete or unmaintainable in the life of the release. And sometimes that means they can’t be too young. In general, it would be better to be reviewing code that is already out there. But there are also lots of upstreams that do a credible job of release management, so we could commit to shipping a version that is not yet released, based on the reputation of the community it’s coming from.

What if there’s no agreement on a particular kernel, or X or component-foo?

We will almost certainly diverge on some components, and that’s quite OK. This is about finding opportunities to do a better job for upstreams and for users, not about forcing any distro to make a particular choice. If anyone feels its more important to them to use a particular version than another, they’ll do that.

Open invitations

It’s really helpful to have upstreams and other distributions participate in this process.

If you’re an upstream, kick off a thread in your mailing list or forums about this. Upstreams don’t need to do anything different if they don’t want to, we’ll still just make the best choices we can. But embracing a two year cadence is the best way you have to be sure which versions of your software are going to be in millions of hands in the future – it’s a great opportunity to influence how your users will experience your work.

Of course, we’d also like to have more distributions at the table. There’s no binding commitment needed – collaboration is opportunistic. But without participating in the conversation one can’t spot those opportunities! If you represent a distribution and are interested, then please feel free to contact me, or Matt Zimmerman, or anyone on the Debian release management team about it.

I think this is a big win for the free software community. Many upstreams have said “we’d really like to help deliver a great stable release, but which distro should we arrange that around?” Upstreams should not have to play favourites with distributions, and it should be no more work to support 10 distributions as to support one. If we can grow the number of distributions that embrace this cadence, the question becomes moot – upstreams can plan around that cycle knowing that many distributions will deliver their work straight to users.

Six-month cycles are great. Now let’s talk about meta-cycles: broader release cycles for major work. I’m very interested in a cross-community conversation about this, so will sketch out some ideas and then encourage people from as many different free software communities as possible to comment here. I’ll summarise those comments in a follow-up post, which will no doubt be a lot wiser and more insightful than this one :-)

Background: building on the best practice of cadence

The practice of regular releases, and now time-based releases, is becoming widespread within the free software community. From the kernel, to GNOME and KDE, to X, and distributions like Ubuntu, Fedora, the idea of a regular, predictable cycle is now better understood and widely embraced. Many smarter folks than me have articulated the benefits of such a cadence: energising the whole community, REALLY releasing early and often, shaking out good and bad code, rapid course correction.

There has been some experimentation with different cycles. I’m involved in projects that have 1 month, 3 month and 6 month cycles, for different reasons. They all work well.

..but addressing the needs of the longer term

But there are also weaknesses to the six-month cycle:

  • It’s hard to communicate to your users that you have made some definitive, significant change,
  • It’s hard to know what to support for how long, you obviously can’t support every release indefinitely.

I think there is growing insight into this, on both sides of the original “cadence” debate.

A tale of two philosophies, perhaps with a unifying theory

A few years back, at AKademy in Glasgow, I was in the middle of a great discussion about six month cycles. I was a passionate advocate of the six month cycle, and interested in the arguments against it. The strongest one was the challenge of making “big bold moves”.

“You just can’t do some things in six months” was the common refrain. “You need to be able to take a longer view, and you need a plan for the big change.” There was a lot of criticism of GNOME for having “stagnated” due to the inability to make tough choices inside a six month cycle (and with perpetual backward compatibility guarantees). Such discussions often become ideological, with folks on one side saying “you can evolve anything incrementally” and others saying “you need to make a clean break”.

At the time of course, KDE was gearing up for KDE 4.0, a significant and bold move indeed. And GNOME was quite happily making its regular releases. When the KDE release arrived, it was beautiful, but it had real issues. Somewhat predictably, the regular-release crowd said “see, we told you, BIG releases don’t work”. But since then KDE has knuckled down with regular, well managed, incremental improvements, and KDE is looking fantastic. Suddenly, the big bold move comes into focus, and the benefits become clear. Well done KDE :-)

On the other side of the fence, GNOME is now more aware of the limitations of indefinite regular releases. I’m very excited by the zest and spirit with which the “user experience MATTERS” campaign is being taken up in Gnome, there’s a real desire to deliver breakthrough changes. This kicked off at the excellent Gnome usability summit last year, which I enjoyed and which quite a few of the Canonical usability and design folks participated in, and the fruits of that are shaping up in things like the new Activities shell.

But it’s become clear that a change like this represents a definitive break with the past, and might take more than a single six month release to achieve. And most important of all, that this is an opportunity to make other, significant, distinctive changes. A break with the past. A big bold move. And so there’s been a series of conversations about how to “do a 3.0″, in effect, how to break with the tradition of incremental change, in order to make this vision possible.

It strikes me that both projects are converging on a common set of ideas:

  • Rapid, predictable releases are super for keeping energy high and code evolving cleanly and efficiently, they keep people out of a deathmarch scenario, they tighten things up and they allow for a shakeout of good and bad ideas in a coordinated, managed fashion.
  • Big releases are energising too. They are motivational, they make people feel like it’s possible to change anything, they release a lot of creative energy and generate a lot of healthy discussion. But they can be a bit messy, things can break on the way, and that’s a healthy thing.

Anecdotally, there are other interesting stories that feed into this.

Recently, the Python community decided that Python 3.0 will be a shorter cycle than the usual Python release. The 3.0 release is serving to shake out the ideas and code for 3.x, but it won’t be heavily adopted itself so it doesn’t really make sense to put a lot of effort into maintaining it – get it out there, have a short cycle, and then invest in quality for the next cycle because 3.x will be much more heavily used than 3.0. This reminds me a lot of KDE 4.0.

So, I’m interesting in gathering opinions, challenges, ideas, commitments, hypotheses etc about the idea of meta-cycles and how we could organise ourselves to make the most of this. I suspect that we can define a best practice, which includes regular releases for continuous improvement on a predictable schedule, and ALSO defines a good practice for how MAJOR releases fit into that cadence, in a well structured and manageable fashion. I think we can draw on the experiences in both GNOME and KDE, and other projects, to shape that thinking.

This is important for distributions, too

The major distributions tend to have big releases, as well as more frequent releases. RHEL has Fedora, Ubuntu makes LTS releases, Debian takes cadence to its logical continuous integration extreme with Sid and Testing :-).

When we did Ubuntu 6.06 LTS we said we’d do another LTS in “2 to 3 years”. When we did 8.04 LTS we said that the benefits of predictability for LTS’s are such that it would be good to say in advance when the next LTS would be. I said I would like that to be 10.04 LTS, a major cycle of 2 years, unless the opportunity came up to coordinate major releases with one or two other major distributions – Debian, Suse or Red Hat.

I’ve spoken with folks at Novell, and it doesn’t look like there’s an opportunity to coordinate for the moment. In conversations with Steve McIntyre, the current Debian Project Leader, we’ve identified an interesting opportunity to collaborate. Debian is aiming for an 18 month cycle, which would put their next release around October 2010, which would be the same time as the Ubuntu 10.10 release. Potentially, then, we could defer the Ubuntu LTS till 10.10, coordinating and collaborating with the Debian project for a release with very similar choices of core infrastructure. That would make sharing patches a lot easier, a benefit both ways. Since there will be a lot of folks from Ubuntu at Debconf, and hopefully a number of Debian developers at UDS in Barcelona in May, we will have good opportunities to examine this opportunity in detail. If there is goodwill, excitement and broad commitment to such an idea from Debian, I would be willing to promote the idea of deferring the LTS from 10.04 to 10.10 LTS.

Questions and options

So, what would the “best practices” of a meta-cycle be? What sorts of things should be considered in planning for these meta-cycles? What problems do they cause, and how are those best addressed? How do short term (3 month, 6 month) cycles fit into a broader meta-cycle? Asking these questions across multiple communities will help test the ideas and generate better ones.

What’s a good name for such a meta-cycle? Meta-cycle seems…. very meta.

Is it true that the “first release of the major cycle” (KDE 4.0, Python 3.0) is best done as a short cycle that does not get long term attention? Are there counter-examples, or better examples, of this?

Which release in the major cycle is best for long term support? Is it the last of the releases before major new changes begin (Python 2.6? GNOME 2.28?) or is it the result of a couple of quick iterations on the X.0 release (KDE 4.2? GNOME 3.2?) Does it matter? I do believe that it’s worthwhile for upstreams to support an occasional release for a longer time than usual, because that’s what large organisations want.

Is a whole-year cycle beneficial? For example, is 2.5 years a good idea? Personally, I think not. I think conferences and holidays tend to happen at the same time of the year every year and it’s much, much easier to think in terms of whole number of year cycles. But in informal conversations about this, some people have said 18 months, others have said 30 months (2.5 years) might suit them. I think they’re craaaazy, what do you think?

If it’s 2 years or 3 years, which is better for you? Hardware guys tend to say “2 years!” to get the benefit of new hardware, sooner. Software guys say “3 years!” so that they have less change to deal with. Personally, I am in the 2 years camp, but I think it’s more important to be aligned with the pulse of the community, and if GNOME / KDE / Kernel wanted 3 years, I’d be happy to go with it.

How do the meta-cycles of different projects come together? Does it make sense to have low-level, hardware-related things on a different cycle to high-level, user visible things? Or does it make more sense to have a rhythm of life that’s shared from the top to the bottom of the stack?

Would it make more sense to stagger long term releases based on how they depend on one another, like GCC then X then OpenOffice? Or would it make more sense to have them all follow the same meta-cycle, so that we get big breakage across the stack at times, and big stability across the stack at others?

Are any projects out there already doing this?

Is there any established theory or practice for this?

A cross-community conversation

If you’ve read this far, thank you! Please do comment, and if you are interested then please do take up these questions in the communities that you care about, and bring the results of those discussions back here as comments. I’m pretty sure that we can take the art of software to a whole new level if we take advantage of the fact that we are NOT proprietary, and this is one of the key ways we can do it.

New notification work lands in Jaunty

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

Thanks to the concerted efforts of Martin Pitt, Sebastien Bacher and several others, notify-osd and several related components landed in Jaunty last week. Thanks very much to all involved! And thanks to David Barth, Mirco Muller and Ted Gould who lead the development of notify-osd and the related messaging indicator.

Notify-OSD handles both application notifications and keyboard special keys like brightness and volume

Notify-OSD handles both application notifications and keyboard special keys like brightness and volume

MPT has posted an overview of the conceptual framework for “attention management” at, which puts ephemeral notification into context as just one of several distinct tools that applications can use when they don’t have the focus but need to make users aware of something. That’s a draft, and when it’s at 1.0 we’ll move it to a new site which will host design patterns on

There is also a detailed specification for our implementation of the notification display agent, notify-osd, which can be found at and which defines not only the expected behaviour of notify-osd but also all of the consequential updates we need to make across the packages in main an universe to ensure that those applications use notification and other techniques consistently.

There are at least 35 apps that need tweaking, and there may well be others! If you find an app that isn’t using notifications elegantly, please add it to the notification design guidelines page, and if you file a bug on the package, please tag it “notifications” so we can track these issues in a single consistent way.

Together with notify-osd, we’ve uploaded a new panel indicator which is used to provide a way to respond to messaging events, such as email and IRC pings. If someone IM’s you, then you should see an ephemeral notification, and the messaging indicator will give you a way to respond immediately. Same for email. Pidgin and Evolution are the primary focuses of the work, over time we’ll broaden that to the full complement of IM and email apps in the archive – patches welcome :-)

There will be rough patches. Apps which don’t comply with the spec and send actions on notifications even when the display agent says it does not support them, will have their notifications translated into alerts. That’s the primary focus of the effort now, the find and fix those apps. Also, we know there are several cases where a persistent response framework is required. The messaging indicator gets most of them, we will have additional persistent tools in place for Karmic in October.

Notifications, indicators and alerts

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

Let’s talk about notifications! As Ryan Lortie mentioned, there was a lot of discussion across the Ubuntu, Kubuntu, GNOME, KDE and Mozilla communities represented at UDS about the proposals Canonical’s user experience design and desktop experience engineering teams have made for Ubuntu 9.04.

See the mockup as a Flash movie.

There are some fairly bold (read: controversial) ideas that we’d like to explore with, so the opportunity to discuss them with a broader cross-section of the community was fantastic. There were several rough edges and traps that I think we’ll avoid in the first round as a result, thanks to everyone who participated. Some of the things we work on in these teams are done directly with partners for their devices, so they don’t see this level of discussion before they ship, but it’s wonderful when we do get the opportunity to do so.

Some of these ideas are unproven, they boil down to matters of opinion, but since our commitment to them is based on a desire to learn more I think of them as constructive experiments. Experiments are just that – experiments. They may succeed and they may fail. We should judge them carefully, after we have data. We are putting new ideas into the free desktop without ego. We know those ideas could be better or worse than similar work being done in other communities, and we want to gather real user feedback to help find the best mix for everyone. The best ideas, and the best code, will ultimately form part of the digital free software commons and be shared by GNOME, KDE and every distribution. So, for those folks who were upset that we might ship something other than a GNOME or KDE default, I would ask for your patience and support – we want to contribute new ideas and new code, and that means having some delta which can be used as a basis for discussions about the future direction of upstream. In the past, we’ve had a few such delta’s in Ubuntu. Some, like the current panel layout, were widely embraced. Others, like the infamous “Ubuntu spacial mode”, were not. C’est la vie, and we all benefit from the evolution.

Experiments are also not something we should do lightly. The Ubuntu desktop is something I take very personally; I feel personally responsible for the productivity and happiness of every Ubuntu user, so when we bring new ideas and code to the desktop I believe we should do everything we can to make sure of success first time round. We should not inflict bad ideas on our users just because we’re curious or arrogant or stubborn or proud. Despite being occasionally curious, arrogant, stubborn and proud :-)

So, what are we proposing?

First, we are focusing some attention on desktop notifications in this cycle, as part of a broader interest in the “space between applications”.

I think Canonical and Ubuntu can best help the cause of free software by focusing on the cracks between the major components of the desktop. In other words, while there are already great upstreams for individual applications in the free software desktop (Novell for Evolution, Sun for OpenOffice, Mozilla for Firefox, Red Hat for NetworkManager), we think there is a lot of productive and useful work to be done in the gaps between them. Notifications are things that many apps do, and if we can contribute new ideas there then we are helping improve the user experience of all of those applications. That’s a nice force multiplier – we’re hopefully doing work that makes the work of every other community even more valuable.

Nevertheless, expect bumps ahead. Ideas we are exploring may / will / do conflict with assumptions that are present today in various applications. We can address the relevant code in packages in main, but I’m more focused on addressing the potential social disruption that conflict can create, and that’s more a matter of conversation than code.

Notifications are interesting, subtle and complex. There are lots of different approaches on lots of different platforms. There are lots of different use cases. We’re trying to simplify and eliminate complexity, while still making it possible to meet the use cases we know about.

There has been good work in the community on notifications, and even a spec that is *almost* at 1.0 in that community, with existing open source implementations. Our proposal is based on that specification, but it deprecates several capabilities and features in it. We will likely be compatible with the current API’s for sending notifications, but likely will not display all the notifications that might be sent, if they require features that we deprecate. If this experiment goes well, we would hope to help move that FD.o specification to 1.0, with or without our amendments.

The key proposals we are making are that:

  • There should be no actions on notifications.
  • Notifications should not be displayed synchronously, but may be queued. Our implementation of the notification display daemon will display only one notification at a time, others may do it differently.

That’s pretty much it. There are some subtleties and variations, but these are the key changes we are proposing, and which we will explore in a netbook device with a partner, as well as in the general Ubuntu 9.04 release, schedule gods being willing.

This work will show up as a new notification display agent, not as a fork or patch to the existing GNOME notification daemon. We don’t think the client API – libnotify – needs to be changed for this experiment, though we may not display notifications sent through that API that use capabilities we are suggesting be deprecated. We will try to ensure that packages in main are appropriately tuned, and hope MOTU will identify and update key packages in universe accordingly.

Why a completely new notification display agent? We are designing it to be built with Qt on KDE, and Gtk on GNOME. The idea is to have as much code in common as we can, but still take advantage of the appropriate text display framework on Ubuntu and Kubuntu. We hope to deliver both simultaneously, and have discussed this with both Ubuntu and Kubuntu community members. At the moment, there is some disagreement about the status of the FD.o specification between GNOME and KDE, and we hope our efforts will help build a bridge there. In Ubuntu 9.04, we would likely continue to package and publish the existing notification daemon in addition, to offer both options for users that have a particular preference. In general, where we invest in experimental new work, we plan to continue to offer a standard GNOME or KDE component / package set in the archive so that people can enjoy that experience too.

The most controversial part of the proposal is the idea that notifications should not have actions associated with them. In other words, no buttons, sliders, links, or even a dismissal [x]. When a notification pops up, you won’t be able to click on it, you won’t be able to make it go away, you won’t be able to follow it to another window, or to a web page. Are you loving this freedom? Hmmm? Madness, on the face of it, but there is method in this madness.

Our hypothesis is that the existence of ANY action creates a weighty obligation to act, or to THINK ABOUT ACTING. That make notifications turn from play into work. That makes them heavy responsibilities. That makes them an interruption, not a notification. And interruptions are a bag of hurt when you have things to do.

So, we have a three-prong line of attack.

  1. We want to make notifications truly ephemeral. They are there, and then they are gone, and that’s life. If you are at your desktop when a notification comes by, you will sense it, and if you want you can LOOK at it, and it will be beautiful and clear and easy to parse. If you want to ignore it, you can safely do that and it will always go away without you having to dismiss it. If you miss it, that’s OK. Notifications are only for things which you can safely ignore or miss out on. If you went out for coffee and a notification flew by, you are no worse off. They don’t pile up like email, there is no journal of the ones you missed, you can’t scroll back and see them again, and therefor you are under no obligation to do so – they can’t become work while you are already busy with something else. They are gone like a mystery girl on the bus you didn’t get on, and they enrich your life in exactly the same way!
  2. We think there should be persistent panel indicators for things which you really need to know about, even if you missed the notification because you urgently wanted that coffee. So we are making a list of those things, and plan to implement them.
  3. Everything else should be dealt with by having a window call for attention, while staying in the background, unless it’s critical in which case that window could come to the foreground.

Since this is clearly the work of several releases, we may have glitches and inconsistencies along the way at interim checkpoints. I hope not, but it’s not unlikely, especially in the first iteration. Also, these ideas may turn out to be poor, and we should be ready to adjust our course based on feedback once we have an implementation in the wild.

We had a superb UXD and DEE (user experience design team, and desktop experience engineering team) sprint in San Francisco the week before UDS. Thanks to everyone who took part, especially those who came in from other teams. This notifications work may just be the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a very cool tip :-)

One or more of our early-access OEM partners (companies that we work with on new desktop features) will likely ship this feature as part of a netbook product during the 9.04 cycle. At that point, we would also drop the code into a PPA for testing with a wider set of applications. There are active discussions about updating the specification based on this work. I think we should be cautious, and gather real user testing feedback and hard data, but if it goes well then we would propose simplifying the spec accordingly, and submit our notification display agent to Long term collaboration around the code would take place on Launchpad.

With Intrepid on track to hit the wires today I thought I’d blog a little on the process we followed in designing the new user switcher, presence manager and session management experience, and lessons learned along the way. Ted has been blogging about the work he did, and it’s been mentioned in a couple of different forums (briefly earning the memorable title “the new hotness”), but since it’s one of the first pieces of work to go through the user experience design process within Canonical I thought it would be interesting to write it up.

Here is a screenshot of the work itself in action:

New FUSA applet allows you to manage your presence setting, as well as switch to a guest or other user, and logout

New FUSA applet allows you to mange your presence setting, as well as switch to a guest or other user, and logout

In one of the first user experience sessions, we looked in more detail at the way people “stop working”. We thought it interesting to try and group those actions together in a way which would feel natural to users.

We have already done some work in Ubuntu around this – for a long time we have had a button in the top-right corner of the panel which brought up a system modal dialog that gave you the usual “end your session” options of logout, restart, shutdown, hibernate, suspend and switch user. That patch was always a bit controversial and had not been accepted upstream, so we looked at ways to solve the problem differently.

We decided to use the top-right location, because it’s one of the key places in the screen that’s quick and easy to get to (you can throw your mouse into a corner of the screen very easily and accurately) and because there was a strong precedent in the old Ubuntu logout button.

One key insight was that we wanted to make “switching user” less an exercise in guesswork and more direct – we wanted to let people switch directly to the specific user they were interested in rather than have an intermediate step where they login as that other user. So we started with the Fast User Switcher applet, or FUSA, as a base fr the design. Another key idea that emerged was that we wanted to integrate the “presence setting” into the same menu, because “going offline” or “I’m busy” are similar state-of-mind-and-work decisions to “log me off the system” or “shut down”.

Menu order
We discussed at length the right order for the menu items. On the one hand, putting the “other users” at the top of the menu would mean that all the user names – yours and the ones you can switch to – would appear “in the same place” at the top of the menu. On the other, we strongly felt that things that would be used more casually and more easily should be at the top. In the end we settled on putting the presence management options at the top (Available, Away, Busy, Offline). Right next to those (in the same set) we put the “Lock screen” option, because it feels like a presence setting more than a session management setting – you are saying “Away” more than anything else.

Ted did a lot of work to make the presence menu elements work with both Pidgin and Empathy because there was some uncertainty as to which would be used by default in the release. Since it all uses dbus, it should be straightforward to make it work with KDE IM clients too.

We then put the user switching options – including the Guest Session which is a cool new feature in Intrepid that as been widely blogged (check out the YouTube demo) and which uses AppArmor to enforce security.

And finally, the session termination options – log out, suspend, hibernate, restart and shutdown are at the bottom of the menu, because you’re only ever likely to use them once in a session, by definition!

The design of the menu is deliberately clean. We use very simple colours and shapes for the presence indicators, and replicate those colours and shapes in the actual GNOME panel so that you can see at a glance what your current presence setting is. Ted had to jump through some hoops, I think, to get the presence icons in the menu to line up with the current-presence-status indicator in the panel applet, but it worked out quite nicely. There’s some additional work to tighten up the layout which didn’t make it in time for the release but which might come in as a stable release update (SRU) or in Jaunty.

We decided not to put icons into the menu for each of the different statuses. Our design ethic is to aim for cleaner, less cluttered layouts with fewer icons and better choice of text. A couple of people have said that the menu looks “sparse” or “bare” but I think it sets the right direction and we’ll be continuing with this approach as we touch other parts of the system.

This work was discussed at UDS in Prague with a number of members of the GNOME community. I was also very glad to see that there’s a lot of support for a tighter, simpler panel at the GNOME hackfest, an idea that we’ve championed. The FUSA applet itself is going through a bit of a transformation upstream as it’s been merged into the new GDM codebase and the old code – on which our work is based – is more or less EOL’d. But we’ll figure out how to update this work for Jaunty and hopefully it will be easier to get it upstreamed at that point.

In Jaunty, we’ll likely do some more work on the GNOME panel, building on the GNOME user experience discussions. There was a lot of discussion about locking down the panel more tightly, which we may pursue.

Integration into Ubuntu
We realised rather late in the Ubuntu cycle that we hadn’t thought much about packaging. The Ubuntu team had kindly offered to help package and integrate the applet but we definitely learned the value of getting the packaging done earlier rather than later. We had the applet in a PPA for testing between developers fairly early, but we underestimated the difference between that and actual integration into the release.

The Ubuntu team rallied to the cause and helped to smooth the upgrade process for new users, so that we can try to get everyone onto the same footing when they start out with Intrepid whether as a new install or an upgrade. There are some challenges there, because the panel is so customisable, and we had to think hard about how we could ensure there was a consistent experience for something as important as logging out or shutting down while at the same time trying not to stomp on the preferences of folks who have customised their panels. Similarly, we were concerned that people who run different versions of Ubuntu, or different distributions entirely, with the same home directory, would have problems if those other OS’s didn’t have the same version of FUSA – we weren’t really able to address that satisfactorily.

We also realised (DOH!) that we hadn’t thought all the way through the process of integration, because we hadn’t figured out what to do with the old System menu options. It turned out that those were in a state of flux, with the Ubuntu folks having to choose between the current GNOME default which everyone said would change, the patches for the likely NEXT GNOME approach, and the old Ubuntu approach. Ted whipped up some patches to make the GNOME panel more dynamic with its menus, so that we could remove the System menu logout options when people have the same menu in the FUSA applet, but that landed too late for inclusion into Intrepid final.

All in all, I think it’s a neat piece of work and hope other distro’s find it useful too. It’s just a teaser of the work we plan to do around the desktop experience. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone at UDS Jaunty in Mountain View in December, when we can talk about the next round! Thanks and well done to Ted, Martin, Scott, Sebastien and everyone else who helped to make this a reality.

Well done to Team Ubuntu (thousands of people across Ubuntu, Debian and upstreams) who make the magic in 8.10 possible. Happy Release Day everyone!