Archive for April, 2010

In the netbook edition for 10.10, we’re going to have a single menu bar for all applications, in the panel.

Our focus on netbooks has driven much of the desktop design work at Canonical. There are a number of constraints and challenges that are particular to netbooks, and often constraints can be a source of insight and inspiration. In this case, wanting to make the most of vertical space has driven the decision to embrace the single menu approach.

It’s all about vertical pixels

Netbooks are conventionally small-and-wide-screen devices. A common screen format is 1024×600. There’s plenty of horizontal space, but not a lot of vertical space. So we’ve been lead to explore options that really make the most of the vertical space.

This is important because the main thing people do with a netbook is surf the web. And most pages will fit horizontally in a netbook screen, but they require quite a lot of vertical scrolling. The more we can optimise the use of vertical space, the more enjoyable it will be to spend time on the web, with your netbook.

In the first few iterations of Ubuntu’s netbook-oriented UI, we concentrated on collapsing the window title into the top panel. In 10.10, we’re going to put the menu there.

Only on the Netbook Edition UI

We’re going to put the menu in the panel on the netbook edition of Ubuntu, and not on the desktop edition, because that’s where the screen real-estate is most precious. There are outstanding questions about the usability of a panel-hosted menu on much larger screens, where the window and the menu could be very far apart. Those questions are greatly diminished in the netbook environment, by definition.

Also, the netbook edition has a reduced application load. That will reduce the number of applications we need to get this working on.

However, it will be straightforward to use this on your desktop too, if you want, and we’d encourage people to try with that configuration. The more testing we have early on, the better we’ll understand how it works with different applications. It will be easy to add to the standard desktop panel for people who want to try it out, or prefer to work that way.

Innovation: combining title and menu in a single panel

It’s not confirmed yet, but we will aim to go beyond what Apple and others have done with panel menus, to consolidate both the window title (and window controls) into the panel along with the menu.

By default, we’d display the contents of the title bar. When you mouse up to the panel, or when you press the Alt key, the contents would switch to the menu. That way, you’re looking at the document title most of the time, unless you move towards it to click on the menu.

In mockups and prototype testing, the result was a leaner, cleaner feeling netbook interface. Less clutter, less wasted space, and improved clarity of purpose. We’ll have to get running code in front of users to evaluate the usability of it and tweak transitions and presentation.

Generally, people use netbooks with a small set of applications running, all maximised. In that case, putting the menu in the panel will save 24 pixels, about 4% of the vertical space. Combined with other work on the netbook interface, we’re confident there is no better OS for surfing the net on your ultra-mobile netbook.

Under the hood: d-bus menu transport

The technical approach we are taking in this work is to build on the d-bus menu work that Cody Russel and Ted Gould have pioneered for our work on indicators.

Essentially, this lets us map a menu into d-bus space, where a different application can take responsibility for rendering it. The technology works across both Gtk and Qt applications, so we are confident that it will work for the common cases of GNOME and KDE apps running on the Ubuntu netbook edition.

Of course, there is a lot of work to be done to support applications that use different toolkits, notably the Mozilla suite of Firefox and Thunderbird, and OpenOffice.

And there will be many applications which need some thought as to how best to map the experience from the current world of “one menu per window” to a single, panel-displayed menu.

We’ve started working on this with the existing Global Menu project. While there are differences in the technical approach we want to take, that team has already identified many of the common issues, and there are great opportunities for us to collaborate. I’m looking forward to seeing the result in action in 10.10!

Regional Membership Board nominations

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

One of the most important things we do in Ubuntu is recognize the contributions of fantastic participants across the wide range of activities that make up something as broad as Ubuntu.

We have the guiding principle that we should be able to recognize the merits of any kind of contribution, coming from any part of the globe. Whether someone is spending time helping people on IRC, or answering questions in the Forums, or translating Ubuntu into Amharic, or leading local events to raise awareness of Ubuntu, or leading a team that deploy Ubuntu in schools, or building Ubuntu based virtual machines on EC2, or fixing bugs, or triaging bugs, or filing really good bug reports….. contributions of all forms make Ubuntu more useful to a broader audience, and so we set out to recognize them with Membership.

The actual decisions are taken by the Regional Membership Boards. We set up three of them to cover the America’s, EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa), and Asia-Pacific. People who are seeking membership present their work to the RMB’s, who confer membership on those who they believe have made a “substantial, and sustained” contribution, in any field. We also allow specialist leadership teams to confer membership for contributions in their fields, on the basis that they may have more insight into the dynamics of that particular work.

The RMB’s play a big role in sustaining the culture of Ubuntu, in who and what they recognize and in the advice that they offer applicants.

In order to keep the RMB’s fresh, we renew the membership of the RMB’s on a regular basis. Folks stand for a term, and we seek nominations regularly. Like now :-)

We’re seeking nominations to all three Regional Membership Boards. Ideal candidates have a track record good judgment – and a willingness to support positive contributions matched only by their willingness NOT to be drawn into supporting factions, personalities and cabals. In any community of scale (and Ubuntu is at a larger scale than most) there will always be people making fascinating and unexpected (and hard to evaluate) contributions, as well as people who want to further their own ambitions at the expense of others. Being able to tell the difference, and recognizing those who are going to continue to raise the bar for Ubuntu, is a skill.

If you know someone who does, please seek their assent to nominate them for their Regional Membership Board. You can chat with dholbach on IRC, or mail the RMB’s for further information.

The mails from RMB’s announcing new members are one of the most interesting kinds “pulse” for the project – who’s doing what, where. So I’d like to thank the folks who have lead the RMB’s over the past cycle, and say again how much I appreciate their work!

When we set up Project Ayatana to improve the usability of the whole desktop, we called it Ayatana because we were focused on the “sphere of consciousness”, one’s awareness of what’s going on outside of the current application. There are two key aspects to the work:

  1. Notifications are “awareness distilled” in the sense that you cannot interact with them at all.  We designed them as ephemeral “click-transparent” messages, implemented in Notify-OSD. Their sole purpose is to notify you of transient events.
  2. Indicator Menus combine persistent awareness of a state with a set of options for modifying that state.

In this blog I’ll outline the arc of our work on indicator menus to date, and the trajectory we expect it to follow. We’re about a year into the effort, all told, and I think it will take another 18 months before we can consider it baked. It should be done by 12.04 LTS. This is an iterative process, and things are in flux right now. I hope, when we are happy that we can commit to ABI stability, that Gnome and KDE will adopt the work too. For the moment, the rapid pace of evolution has meant that we’re depending on fantastic upstreams to keep up with us as things move.

Goals of the Ayatana Indicators

The indicators are designed to create a persistent awareness of state, or an awareness of a persistent state. They complement notifications: they are persistent, when notifications are ephemeral. You might miss a notification, but you should always be able to check your indicators. You can interact with indicators, using their menus, in contrast with the un-clickable notifications.

We value:

  • Support for both GNOME and KDE. Both desktop environments are important in Ubuntu. We encourage the teams to reflect a pure vision of each, but it’s also the case that users will want to run a GNOME application on Kubuntu occasionally, or vice versa. So we have to make sure the work is considered from the perspectives of developers on either side, and we have to provide APIs and libraries that work in both environments.
  • Accessibility. Indicators are critical elements of awareness. Whether you are connected, what the time is, whether you are online, whether your battery will last long enough for you to finish your work, whether you have messages… these are all vital to a complete computing experience. We have to make sure that visual and other disabilities can be addressed.
  • Familiarity and Innovation. As always, these are in tension with one another. Innovation helps us put free software at the front of the curve, but it creates the risk of breaking people’s habits and expectations.
  • Consistency and Usability. We want the end result to be more usable in the whole, and we are willing to lose individual nuggets if that helps make the whole more valuable.
  • Streamlining. There are too many indicators, that aren’t clear enough about their intent. There are also many indicators from different applications which do roughly the same thing, but in slightly different ways. The value of all the indicators is enhanced if there are fewer of them, and they are more obvious to discover and use.

Some firm decisions

Those values lead us to some anchor decisions:

  1. D-Bus for communications. A messaging approach makes it straightforward to adopt consistent patterns across different desktop environments. We will provide wrapper libraries for both Gtk and Qt applications to access the indicator capabilities. A Qt application running on Ubuntu should “feel native” when it’s using indicators correctly. And vice-versa. The messaging approach also lets us handle accessibility in a better way: we don’t have to accommodate every possible disability visually, because we can have agents that interpret the indicator messages and handle it in ways that are appropriate for a particular disability.
  2. Opinionated placement. We will place all indicators at the top right of the screen on GNOME. We’ll place them in a particular order, too, with the “most fundamental” indicator, which controls the overall session, in the top right. The order will not be random, but predictable between sessions and screen sizes. There will be no GUI support for users to reorder the indicators.
  3. Constrained behaviour. All the indicators will take the form of an indicator (icon or text), and a menu. Clicking on an indicator will open its menu. Keyboard navigation will always work, and left and right arrows will translate either into submenu navigation or flipping from indicator to indicator. The whole set of indicators on the panel will be navigable as a single menu, in essence. We won’t support “right click” on indicators differently from “left click”, and there’ll be no ability for arbitrary applications to define arbitrary behaviours to arbitrary events on indicators.
  4. Symbolic visuals. We want to pare back the visual representation of status presented by the icons. We don’t believe that visual accessibility for the disabled need drive the design of the standard icon set, as there will be both alternative icons, renderings, and entirely different options such as speech or custom devices to handle those. Colors on the indicators should have semantic purpose and be used mainly for alerts and awareness, while the shape of the icon should define its purpose.

The first part of our work was pure housekeeping. The panel in Ubuntu is very generic, it lets you put all sorts of different gadgets in all sorts of different places, and those gadgets can behave in all sorts of different ways. The result has been to stimulate innovation, but it has also made the panel very inconsistent and ultimately less useful.

We reviewed the way Ubuntu-specific applications were using the panel, and set out to clean them up. Update-manager lost its persistent notification in favour of the more direct popup window. Others will follow.

We decided to introduce a new gadget on the panel which would be a container for all the indicators which follow our new Ubuntu Ayatana pattern. And we started work on a set of indicators that would fit inside that container. Thus far, we’ve done the session, “me”, and sound indicators.

We also created a framework for applications which want to display their own indicator. That’s the AppIndicators work, which has been fantastically lead in 10.04 LTS by Jorge Castro, coordinating with many upstreams to ensure that their applications feel tightly integrated into the panel.

The icon visual design turned into a conversation about “-symbolic” icons at UDS in Dallas, and is now being realised in the ubuntu-mono icon theme in 10.04 LTS. There is work under way to make symbolic icons a more formal and rigorous construct that can be themed, and we’ll participate in that effort or offer an alternative implementation.

9 parts perspiration, 1 part innovation

The detailed design of a large set of systemic indicators, together with the work to make them all look, feel and behave in a consistent fashion, has been substantial effort involving MPT, Ted Gould, Cody Russell and many others. There’s still a lot of work to do. Conor Curran and Kalle Valo joined the team in this latest cycle. There is a great deal that remains to be done.

We also aspire to introduce some new and innovative concepts.

Category Indicators

In order to reduce the number of indicators and improve the persistence and usefulness of the indicators that remain, we’ve introduced the idea of “category indicators”. These are indicators into which multiple, similar applications can embed themselves. Instead of having a different indicator each application, we have one indicator for the whole category.

The messaging indicator, which aggregates awareness about many different types of messages from real people, is an example. Instead of having three different icons for email, IM and Identi.ca or Twitter, Ubuntu has just one messaging indicator, which can make you aware of important messages in any of those applications.

The three default applications for those lines of communication all share the same indicator. They are part of the same category. There are custom API’s for messaging applications which let them:

  1. Insert entries in the messaging menu which are displayed even when the application is not running. Useful for helping people go straight to the activity. Instead of having to check if the email client is running, then switching to it or launching it, then going to the message composition window, I should *always* be able to compose a new message with just two clicks, regardless of whether or not the mail client is running initially.
  2. Add custom menu entries to the messaging menu that are relevant to them. Each applications gets a “section” in the category indicator menu, and they can add custom menu entries to their section.
  3. Register themselves as applications that should be shown in the messaging menu, or remove themselves from that menu. The default applications will show up there unless they are uninstalled or expressly configured not to use the messaging menu. Other applications will put themselves there by default when they are run by that user, who can also configure them not to display there.
  4. Show whether they are running, a state which is indicated with a small “play” style triangle next to the application icon in the menu.

There are also some behaviours which are collective across all the applications in the category. For example, any of the applications can set the messaging indicator to an alert state, signalling that it’s worth clicking on.

Each category indicator supports a unique API that’s relevant for that category. There are some common features, for example the ability of applications to register and de-register for the indicators and the ability to add menu entries, but the details might vary substantially from one category to another.

The underlying goal is to make it clearer to users “what all of those icons are about”. There are fewer of them, and the ones that are there are more persistent – they are always there, and they always do the same sort of thing. “You’ve got a message” is useful no matter which channel the message came through. The net result is that the whole set of indicators feels tighter and better defined.

The session indicator, which displays the shutdown / restart menu, has a similar capability that replaced the “restart required” panel icon in 10.04 LTS. Since the session menu already contains the “restart” menu option, the session menu will now be set into an alert state when you need to restart. The “Restart…” menu option is changed to “Restart Required…” (though I would now prefer something like “Restart, completing updates…”).

The battery indicator shows the status of all of your batteries, from laptop to UPS to mouse and wireless keyboard. Other applications and devices which have battery information should be able to insert themselves there appropriately.

Similarly, all the calendar and alarm applications might fit into the Clock Indicator. And perhaps all the applications which have downloads might use a single category for that – there’s some discussion along those lines on the Ayatana list at the moment.

Timelines and iterations

The basic “add an indicator with a menu” capability is there now, and was used for Application Indicators in 10.04 LTS.

What complicates the picture from a delivery perspective is our evolving understanding of how best to organise the category indicators. For example, at the moment we are aggregating received messages in the messaging indicator, but the send or broadcast elements of those same communications channels are accessed through the Me menu, where we track presence. That has been controversial – sensible folks think we should perhaps restructure that to bring the elements together.

Each arrangement of category indicators involves shaping the API’s in new ways, because the categories are fundamentally different from one another, and we want to design custom indicators for each category. Not only are the individual category indicator designs changing, but the arrangement of categories themselves is subject to active debate and experimentation, which is important to getting a crisp final result.

We can’t be certain that the current configuration is the best one, and want the flexibility to continue to evolve and reshape the APIs accordingly. We expect it will take at least three iterations of Ubuntu to be certain, and that we can commit to ABI stability for 12.04 LTS onwards.

It’s time to put our heads together to envision “the perfect 10″.

This is a time of great innovation and change in the Linux world, with major new initiatives from powerful groups bringing lots of new ideas, new energy and new code. Thanks to the combined efforts of Google, Intel, IBM, Canonical, Red Hat, Oracle, Cisco, ARM, many other companies, Debian and other projects, a hundred startups and tens of thousands of professional and inspired contributors, the open source ecosystem continues to accelerate. We need to bring the best of all of that work into focus and into the archive. For millions of users, Ubuntu represents what Free Software can do out of the box for them. We owe it to everybody who works on Free Software to make that a great experience.

At the Ubuntu Developer Summit, in May in Belgium, we’ll have a new design track, and a “cloud and server” track, reflecting some major focal points in 2010. They will complement our ongoing work on community, desktop, kernel, quality assurance, foundations and mobile.

Our new theme is “Light”, and the next cycle will embrace that at many levels. We have a continued interest in netbooks, and we’ll revamp the Ubuntu Netbook Edition user interface. As computers become lighter they become more mobile, and we’ll work to keep people connected, all day, everywhere. We’ll embrace the web, aiming for the lightest, fastest web experience on any platform. The fastest boot, the fastest network connect, the fastest browser. Our goal is to ensure that UNE is far and away the best desktop OS for a netbook, both for consumers and power users.

On the other end of the spectrum, we’ll be lightening the burden of enterprise deployment with our emphasis on hybrid cloud computing. Ubuntu Server is already very popular on public clouds like EC2 and Rackspace, and now that Dell supports the Ubuntu Enterprise Cloud for private cloud infrastructure, it’s possible to build workloads that run equally well in your data center or on the cloud. We’ll focus on making it even easier to build those workloads and keep them up to date, and managing the configurations of tens, or tens of thousands, of Ubuntu machines running in the cloud.

It’s not all about work. We don’t just want to be connected to the internet, we want to be connected to each other. Social from the Start is our initiative to make the desktop a collaborative, social place. For the past five years, we’ve all been shifting more and more data into the web, to a series of accounts and networks elsewhere. Now it’s time to start to bring those social networks back into our everyday computing environment. Our addressbooks and contact lists need to be synchronized and shared, so that we have the latest information everywhere – from mobile phones to web accounts.

So there’s a lot to do. I hope you’ll join us in shaping that work.

Introducing the Maverick Meerkat

Our mascot for 10.10 is the Maverick Meerkat.

This is a time of change, and we’re not afraid to surprise people with a bold move if the opportunity for dramatic improvement presents itself. We want to put Ubuntu and free software on every single consumer PC that ships from a major manufacturer, the ultimate maverick move. We will deliver on time, but we have huge scope for innovation in what we deliver this cycle. Once we have released the LTS we have plenty of room to shake things up a little. Let’s hear the best ideas, gather the best talent, and be a little radical in how we approach the next two year major cycle.

Meerkats are, of course, light, fast and social – everything we want in a Perfect 10. We’re booting really fast these days, but the final push remains. Changes in the toolchain may make us even faster for every application. We’re Social from the Start, but we could get even more tightly connected, and we could bring social features into even more applications. Meerkats are family-oriented, and we aspire to having Ubuntu being the safe and efficient solution for all the family netbooks. They are also clever – meerkats teach one another new skills. And that’s what makes this such a great community.

Here’s looking at the Lynx

Lucid is shaping up beautifully, but there’s still a lot to be done to make it the LTS we all want. Thanks to everyone who is bringing their time, energy and expertise to bear on making it outstanding. And I’m looking forward to the release parties, the brainstorming at UDS, and further steps on our mission to bring free software to the world, on free terms.