Archive for September, 2008

When you present yourself on the web, you have 15 seconds to make an impression, so aspiring champions of the web 2.0 industry have converged on a good recipe for success:

  1. Make your site visually appealing,
  2. Do something different and do it very, very well,
  3. Call users to action and give them an immediate, rewarding experience.

We need the same urgency, immediacy and elegance as part of the free software desktop experience, and that’s is an area where Canonical will, I hope, make a significant contribution. We are hiring designers, user experience champions and interaction design visionaries and challenging them to lead not only Canonical’s distinctive projects but also to participate in GNOME, KDE and other upstream efforts to improve FLOSS usability.

Fortunately, we won’t be working in a vacuum. This is an idea that is already being widely explored. It’s great to see that communities like GNOME and KDE have embraced user experience as a powerful driver of evolution in their platforms. Partly because of the web-2.0 phenomenon and the iPhone, there’s a widely held desire to see FLOSS leap forward in usability and design. We want to participate and help drive that forward.

There’s also recognition for the scale of the challenge that faces us. When I laid out the goal of “delivering a user experience that can compete with Apple in two years” at OSCON, I had many questions afterwards about how on earth we could achieve that. “Everyone scratches their own itch, how can you possibly make the UI consistent?” was a common theme. And it’s true – the free software desktop is often patchy and inconsistent. But I see the lack of consistency as both a weakness (GNOME, OpenOffice and Firefox all have different UI toolkits, and it’s very difficult to make them seamless) and as a strength – people are free to innovate, and the results are world-leading. Our challenge is to get the best of both of those worlds.

I don’t have answers to all of those questions. I do, however, have a deep belief in the power of the free software process to solve seemingly intractable problems, especially in the long tail. If we articulate a comprehensive design ethic, a next-generation HIG, we can harness the wisdom of crowds to find corner cases and inconsistencies across a much broader portfolio of applications than one person or company could do alone. That’s why it’s so important to me that Canonical’s design and user experience team also participate in upstream projects across the board.

In Ubuntu we have in general considered upstream to be “our ROCK”, by which we mean that we want upstream to be happy with the way we express their ideas and their work. More than happy – we want upstream to be delighted! We focus most of our effort on integration. Our competitors turn that into “Canonical doesn’t contribute” but it’s more accurate to say we measure our contribution in the effectiveness with which we get the latest stable work of upstream, with security maintenance, to the widest possible audience for testing and love. To my mind, that’s a huge contribution.

Increasingly, though, Canonical is in a position to drive real change in the software that is part of Ubuntu. If we just showed up with pictures and prototypes and asked people to shape their projects differently, I can’t imagine that being well received! So we are also hiring a team who will work on X, OpenGL, Gtk, Qt, GNOME and KDE, with a view to doing some of the heavy lifting required to turn those desktop experience ideas into reality. Those teams will publish their Bzr branches in Launchpad and of course submit their work upstream, and participate in upstream sprints and events. Some of the folks we have hired into those positions are familiar contributors in the FLOSS world, others will be developers with relevant technical expertise from other industries.

One strong meme we want to preserve is the idea that Ubuntu, the platform team, is still primarily focused on integration and distribution. We will keep that team and the upstream work distinct to minimise the conflict of interest inherent in choosing the patches and the changes and the applications that actually ship each six months as part of an Ubuntu release.

Of course, there’s a risk to participation, because you can’t easily participate without expressing opinions, visions, desires, goals, and those can clash with other participants. It’s hard to drive change, even when people agree that change is needed. I hope we can find ways to explore and experiment with new ideas without blocking on consensus across diverse and distributed teams. We have to play to our strengths, which include the ability to diverge for experimental purposes to see what really works before we commit everyone to a course of action. It will be a challenge, but I think it’s achievable.

All of this has me tapdancing to work in the mornings, because we’re sketching out really interesting ideas for user interaction in Launchpad and in the desktop. The team has come together very nicely, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the processes, brainstorming and prototyping. I can’t wait to see those ideas landing in production!