Archive for March, 2010

Less is more. But still less.

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

One of the driving mantras for us is “less is more”. I want us to “clean up, simplify, streamline, focus” the user experience work that we lead. The idea is to recognize the cost of every bit of chrome, every gradient or animation or line or detail or option or gconf setting. It turns out that all of those extras add some value, but they also add clutter. There’s a real cost to them – in attention, in space, in code, in QA. So we’re looking for things to strip out, as much (or more) as things to put in.

I’m not sure we’ll go as far as Microsoft has with their new Windows Phone 7 UI (links to .PPTX), which uses a design language called Metro. It’s radically pared back, and very cool work. It will be interesting to see if they’ve gone too far, or if users take to the more abstract feel of it.

It’s not hard to get people enthusiastic about the idea that less is more. However, it’s quite hard to get people to agree on which bits can be less. It turns out that one person’s clutter is another person’s most useful and valued feature.

Less, it turns out, is still less.

So, for example, consider tooltips on the panel. In bug #527458, there’s some discussion about a decision I made to deprecate tooltips on panel indicators. For quite a lot of people, that’s a little less too far.

On that particular decision, we’ll have to let time tell. For the moment, the decision stands. I’m the first to admit fallibility but I also know that it would be impossible to get consensus around a change like that. If those tooltips are, on balance, really just clutter, then unless someone is willing to take a decision that will be unpopular, they will be clutter forever. And it’s easier for me to make a decision like that in Ubuntu than for virtually anybody else. I apologise in advance for the mistakes that I will certainly make, and which others on the design team may make too, but I think it’s important to defend our willingness to pare things back and let the core, essential goodness shine through. We have to balance innovation and change with clarification and focus. We can’t *stop* innovating and changing, and we have to be willing to remove things that someone will miss.

The bug is a good place to continue the discussion about that particular issue. But I thought it would be useful to issue a call to arms, and invite suggestions from people on the Ayatana list as to what elements of the existing Ubuntu desktop can be trimmed back, on balance making the whole better.

There’s a growing awareness and excitement about the importance of design in free software. A few years ago, folks laughed out loud when it was suggested that design is a good thing for the free software community to build expertise in.  And it’s been slow going, admittedly. It’s hard to bring clarity in a crowd. Or mob. We’ve been doing our part to lead that at Canonical and in the Ubuntu community, both through internal work and through public forums. If you’re interested in design and Free Software, then Ubuntu and Ayatana and related forums are great places to participate. And your participation is welcome!

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.

Light: the new look of Ubuntu

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

Jono Bacon, Alan Pope, and many others have written, yesterday we published a new visual story and style for Ubuntu. The core design work was lead by Marcus Haslam, Otto Greenslade and Dominic Edmunds, who are the three visual artists leading our efforts in the Canonical Design team. Once we had the base ideas in place we invited some anchor members of the Ubuntu Art community to a design sprint, to test that the concept had the legs to work with the full range of forums, websites, derivatives and other pieces of this huge and wonderful project. And apparently, it does!

Here are some additional thoughts.

Embracing both Ubuntu and Canonical

One of the real challenges for us has been to find a branding and design strategy which spans the spectrum of audiences, forums and dialogues that we cover.  With Ubuntu, it’s my specific dream to find a constructive blend of commercial and community interests, not only for Canonical but for other companies. That has made our design and branding work difficult – the distinctive look of Ubuntu lent itself well to pure community messaging, but it was hard to do a brochure for Canonical data center services for Ubuntu on servers. We have not only Ubuntu, but also Kubuntu and an important range of derivatives that all have a role in our ecosystem.

So we spent a lot of time trying to distill the requirements down into a set of three dimensions:

Dimensions for our visual language

We found a set of ideas which each represent those spectrums, and which work together.

For example, we identified a palette which includes both a fresh, lively Orange, and a rich, mature Aubergine, which work together. The use of Aubergine indicates Commercial involvement of one form or another, while Orange is a signal of community engagement. The Forums will use the Orange elements more strongly, and a formal product brochure, with descriptions of supporting services, would use more of the Aubergine.

On the consumer/enterprise spectrum, we took inspiration from the aerospace industry, and identified a texture of closely spaced dots. When you see more of that, it means we’re signalling that the story is more about the enterprise, less of that, and it’s more about the consumer. Of course, there are cross-overs, for example when we are talking about the corporate desktop, where we’ll use that closely space dot texture as a boundary area, or separator. We also identified shades of Aubergine that are more consumer, or more enterprise – the darker shades mapping to a stronger emphasis on enterprise work.

And on the end-user / engineer spectrum, we took inspiration from graph paper and engineering blue prints. When you see widely spaced patterns of dots, or outline images and figures, that’s signalling that the content is more engineering-oriented than end-user oriented.

And finally, we found a number of themes which enhanced and echoed those ideas. We use a warm gray supporting colour to give shape to pages and documents, and we built on the dots and circles to create a whole style for figures, illustrations and pictograms.

The beauty of this is that we can now publish content that spans the full range, and we generally know when we start the design process what sorts of visual cues we want to be signalling. Instead of having these different mental domains fight with one another, we can now convey quite subtle collaboration between community and corporate, or work which is aimed at engineers and developers from enterprises as opposed to developers working with consumers. Time will tell how it shapes up, but for now I’m celebrating the milestone and the efforts of the team that pulled it together. There’s something there for everyone who wants to participate in the great hubbub of Ubuntuness that is our shared experience of free software.

So, for example, here’s a conference banner. The strong use of Aubergine suggests that it’s more corporate messaging (Canonical is heavily involved). Orange is used here more as a highlight. The Aubergine is darker, and there’s quite a lot of the fine dot pattern. Below the image is a set of scales showing where on those spectra this work is pitched.

Cloud Banner

As another example, here’s a brochure with an emphasis on end-users who are thinking about adopting Ubuntu’s cloud infrastructure. Again, the fine dot patterns suggests a more enterprise focus, as does the use of the dark aubergine. You can see the circle metaphor used in the quote callout.

And here’s a similar brochure, but with a more developer or engineering oriented focus: note the use of the graph-paper theme with wide spaced dots, and outline shapes.

Finally, here’s an example of a brochure and CD cover for Ubuntu:

As you can see the idea is to signal a mix of both community and Canonical involvement in the message, addressing consumer audiences with a mix of developers and end-users.

A new Ubuntu font

We have commissioned a new font to be developed both for the logo’s of Ubuntu and Canonical, and for use in the interface. The font will be called Ubuntu, and will be a modern humanist font that is optimised for screen legibility. It will be published under an open font license, and considered part of the trade dress of Ubuntu, which will limit its relevance for software interfaces outside of Ubuntu but leave it free for use across the web and in printed documents.

It will take a few months for the font to be finalised, initial elements will be final in the next week which will be sufficient for the logo and other bits and pieces, but I expect to see that font widely used in 10.10. The work has been commissioned from world-renowned fontographers Dalton Maag, who have expressed excitement at the opportunity to publish an open font and also a font that they know will be used daily by millions of people.

Initial coverage will be Western, Arabic, Hebrew and Cyrillic character sets, but over time we may be able to extend that to being a full Unicode font, with great kerning and hinting for print and screen usage globally.  We are considering an internship program, to support aspiring fontographers from all corners of the world to visit London and work with Dalton Maag to extend the font to their own regional glyph set.

The critical test of the font is screen efficiency and legibility, and its character and personality are secondary to its fitness for that purpose. Nevertheless, our hope is that the font has a look that is elegant and expresses the full set of values for both Canonical and Ubuntu: adroitness, accountability, precision, reliability, freedom and collaboration. We’ll publish more as soon as we have it.

A good start

It’s been an exciting process, but I have the sense that we are just getting started. The language will get richer, we will find new things that we want to communicate, and new treatments and visual themes that resonate well with these starting points. We’ll find new ways to integrate this on the web, and on the desktop (look out for the two new themes, Radiance and Ambiance).  I hope we’ll see the language being used to good effect across everything we do, both commercial and community oriented. There’s a range of expression here that should be useful to artists across the spectrum. Let me know how it works for you.