|Ubuntu continues to be a joke
||[Aug. 21st, 2011|02:57 pm]
Two and a half years ago I wrote that Ubuntu was a joke. After upgrading to 11.04 recently, I'm here to report that unsurprisingly, Ubuntu remains a joke.
First of all, the new tablet-inspired interface, Unity, is simply not ready to be taken seriously yet. Maybe it will mature in a year or two, but right now it's more-or-less unusable for a work machine.
But hey, a six-monthly release cycle has its constraints, and if I want polish I should stick with the Long Term Support releases, right? Actually that strategy only works in theory, because of the amount of third-party software that depends on the latest libraries. So I went for the next best option, which is to disable Unity and go back to the Classic interface.
And the first thing I noticed was Fitts's law violations of a particularly horrific kind.
When a window is maximized, the top right corner doesn't activate the close button — there's a one-pixel gap. It you haven't experienced this, it's an egregious sort of user-interface bug that's been referred to as snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. "Throwing" the mouse to the top right corner to close the window is a deeply-ingrained muscle-memory feature for most experienced computer users, and breaking these expectations tends to make us rather acutely uncomfortable.
This is a regression. The bug wasn't in previous versions. If I remember correctly, some themes had it, but you could change the theme to get rid of the problem. That doesn't work anymore.
It gets worse. It's not that the top right corner does nothing — it passes the click through to the window underneath. This is just bizarre and results in a tragicomedy of errors. I always have a maximized Chrome window open, and since Chrome, bless its soul, uses its own titlebar, it doesn't suffer from the bug. So whenever I'm working on a maximized app that I try to close, Chrome receives and processes the click, and I end up unexpectedly closing an average of 23.7 tabs.
If that's not infuriating I don't know what is.
There are other "features" that laugh in the face of Fitts's law such as "overlay scrollbars" which you have to squint to even see. As a bonus, these scrollbars make it impossible to throw the mouse to the right edge of the screen to drag them, breaking another hardwired habit. There are many more UI problems, but this should give you a sense of the I-can't-believe-they-pushed-this-out-without-testing feeling that you get with every release of every Linux distro, ever.
There's a common thread in the annoyances I described, and it's a sign of a deeper problem. Ubuntu is trying to adapt itself to tablets — hence Unity; hence overlay scrollbars — which is great, but they're going about it all wrong. Touchscreen devices are fundamentally different from mouse-based ones, and an OS that targets them needs to be rethought from the ground up. There's a nice article on Ars Technica that discusses how Windows 8 is trying to do this.
I believe that the only tenable course is to fork the interface. Instead, Canonical seems to be mutating Ubuntu into a platypus, attempting to create something that will work on both types of devices. It seems to me that this approach is prone to disaster and the problems I described will inevitably get worse in future releases. 
Finally, since my rants on the subject seem to attract numerous random Linux apologists, I feel the need to declare that I use Ubuntu as my main system because programmability, security, and open-sourceness (is that a word?) easily trump the usability drawbacks for me. The point of this post is that the "Linux for human beings" ideal doesn't seem to be getting any closer to reality.
 Note the irony: Chrome is the only app I never actually try to close.
 Fitts's law in Gnome is something I've been writing about since 2004.
 I don't follow Planet Ubuntu or other development channels any more; maybe they know what they're doing. This is just my impression as a user.
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