I found Canonical to be the bravest company that has the courage to introduce a new UI for an LTS version just two months before its release. I don't know why it has taken Microsoft so many years to release Windows 8! I was shocked when Mark Shuttleworth announced that they are working on HUD, which will ultimately replace menus in Unity applications.
We published a great article by Jo-Erlend Schinstad who highlighted the advantages of HUD. It is an impressive idea, as a concept, and must attract a lot of users. But when I look at it from a user's point of view I struggle to understand what is Canonical trying to achieve here. Ubuntu is undoubtedly looking at tablets and the smart-phone market, it is also positioning itself as a player in the smart TV segment and icon-based Unity UI was its bet. Unity is already taking a lot of criticism for lacking the needed customization and it was expected that Canonical will invest its resources in polishing Unity in 12.04. And we are greeted with yet another new UI which will have its own share of bugs and problems. More than the problems that HUD will create for the Ubuntu user, I am struggling to understand where does it fit in Ubuntu's strategy.
Let's see what markets Ubuntu is trying to target and how HUD will help that.
Mobile Devices: Tablets and Smart-phones
Tablets and Smart-phones are touch-based devices and require least little typing. The sole purpose of an input device like the mouse or touch was to eliminate the need of for typing. Instead of hitting four keys 's.a.v.e' you hit one button and the job is done. It's extremely easy to touch the icon and access the item from the drop-down menu than to type the name of the item using the virtual keyboard. For example if I have to enable of or disable wifi on my tablet, instead of sliding the button to the on/off position, now I will have to type w.i.r.e.l.e.s.s.o.f.f or w.i.r.e.l.e.s.s.o.n? I think HUD is an absolute failure on mobile devices. If I am in Wallmart and I have to buy a device I will never pick the one where I have to do more typing. So, I don't know how HUD helps Ubuntu in their mobile ambitions.
How comfortable will you feel when you have to type 'Browser' on your smart phone to open the browser instead of touching the icon?
We have a Samsung Smart TV and we love it. One thing that we hate about the TV is when we want to search YouTube videos. TV remotes are the worst thing you can have to type. We resorted to installing the Samsung app for Android so that we can use the keyboard of the tablet to do the search. However, in this case, typing was necessary as we were searching for the online content.
I don't know how HUD is going to fit in the Ubuntu TV. I wonder who is going to type 'France 24', 'Discovery' or 'CNN' just to surf through channels instead of hitting 84, 200 or 210 buttons. Am I missing something here?
Desktop is a complicated market. There are so many usage patterns in the desktop segment. Everyone uses it for a different purpose. I will consider a few scenarios and see how HUD fits in there.
What Kind Of Users Is Ubuntu HUD Targeting?
1. New User: Who has never used a PC before ?
I take my kid to Wallmart to buy a PC. There is an Ubuntu PC and an Apple MC next to each other (dream come true). I give her Ubuntu with HUD. She opens Firefox, opens a website and then doesn't know what more she can do. There is no menu. So, I told her she can start typing alphabets from A-Z in the HUD and can learn what options there are. I give her a Mac. She opens Firefox, sees the menus on top and starts exploring. Within 5 minutes she knows how to use it and what features it has. Let's take GIMP, for example, which has gazillions of options. I won't even know that there is something called 'Gradient Flare' unless I explore the menus. A new user with HUD will never know about any of these features. HUD will be the the worst thing for a new user as a new user doesn't know what options there are.
2. A Windows user who wants to migrate to Linux
I want to convert a Windows user to Ubuntu, but she has the impression that Ubuntu is complicated. 'They user command lines which scares me'. I say no, its very easy. We boot into Ubuntu and ask her to just go ahead and use it. She uses GIMP on Windows so she opens GIMP and there is no menu. She doesn't remember any filters by name so just can't use GIMP on Ubuntu while she is almost an expert on it under Windows. So, suddenly a GIMP expert is turned into a clueless user. She opens LibreOffice and instead of the familiar menu there is a HUD which requires her to type everything. 'Why do I have to type 'save' for HUD to show me save and then select it which will open a save window and then again I have to type the file name and then hit enter? Why can't I just Ctrl+S and save or select save from the menu using the mouse and get it done in fewer steps?
'I don't want to 'relearn' how to save a file, just to save it. She, like many, did not want to waste time in learning a new system and goes back to Windows.
3. Creative people
I am a heavy GIMP, Inkscape and KdenLive user. I use gazillions of plug-ins and don't remember their names. I don't need to. When my hand is on the mouse I don't want to leave it and use both hands to struggle and type (guess) the name of the plugin. I would simply click on the menu and apply the filter. I keep adding new filters and plug ins and don't even know what they're called. I do know where it will be nested though and can easily access it. HUD will never find it for me. There is another big problem with HUD. The new versions of applications sometimes come with new features. It is extremely easy to know about such features by the traditional menus. With HUD I will never know what's new.
There is another problem with creative people, which I faced but failed to understand the cause unless I read this by Brad on Mark's blog:
When you go on a memory course, they teach you to associate textual information such as someone’s name, with visual cues- eg: Paul can be remembered by picturing him as a PALLbearer, carrying a coffin on his shoulder. This is especially good advice to people who are creative or “right brained”
So, with that in mind, People often remember the functions position in the menu rather than the name. So lets say for example that I have extracted an image from the but there is still a thin line of background colour left around the image. I know exactly where to go to remove this, but I wont necessarily remember that its menu name is “Matting>defringe”
Another example: If I want to know if my colour selection is printable, I enable the menu option- "Gamut warning." Once again, not a name that is easy to remember.
Yes I can try to describe it to the HUD, but I would imagine that this could drag you from a right brained creative and almost automated “zone” to a left brained logical state, which could become disruptive.
4. Average users
Average users are not keyboard-happy. Most of the users that Ubuntu is targeting (I know as I converted a lot of Windows users) are single finger typists. They have to look at the keyboard to type. They love their mice.
I often get frustrated with with my wife as she always uses the Edit > Copy / Edit > Past option from the menu instead of Ctrl+C and V. She has been doing that since 2003 when she got her Apple Mac. Same is the case with my mother in law who can do everything as long as the Firefox icon is on the desktop. She religiously goes through the menu to perform tasks. Then comes my friend who also runs Kalkion.com. He also uses the Edit > Copy / Edit > Past option.
When I showed him HUD, I could see the discomfort on his face. He used to be a Windows user converted to Ubuntu a year ago. He also succeeded in talking his wife into replacing Windows with Ubuntu on her netbook. He is one of those millions of guys who use computers just to do a few things and neither have the time nor the inclination to learn the name of all menu items. He would find it easier to change the OS than to relearn a new thing every six months just to do exactly what he has been doing.
5. Dual Booters
Many Ubuntu users, I think, are dual booters and they use the same applications (Firefox, Chrome, GIMP, LibreOffice) on Windows as well as on Ubuntu. One of the greatest advantages we had was that they did not have to relearn everything to use Ubuntu. It doesn't matter if you are using LibreOffice on Ubuntu or Windows, it's the same. But, HUD will change it. If you are using Ubuntu, you will have to relearn everything about using that app. Your muscle memory will be challenged every time you boot into Ubuntu. The user may feel more comfortable staying with Windows than to boot into Linux.
6. Enterprise users
Ubuntu is slowly becoming popular among business users. We reported recently that Indian courts made a switch to Ubuntu. It takes a lot of time and resources to train people on using a new operating system. The advantage, as I stated before, was that 'there is not much difference'. Now, when the same LTS users (some 50+ year old judges) will see HUD they will be clueless about how to use the system.
It will be a huge challenge for the agency to retrain all these important people to use the new Ubuntu. Will they want to waste resources and time in retraining to do basically the same thing? Then what is the guarantee that it won't change again after six months?
Organisations don't change UIs in decades, let alone every six months. I can clearly see that either they will either completely close doors on Linux (due to the inconsistent UI) and move to 'more' stable Windows or go to 'standard' Linux -- openSUSE or Red Hat. I can clearly see IT admins sweating at the idea of being called by their bosses to fix this mess. What are they going to do? I fear a lot of organization will throw Ubuntu out. Looking at this inconsistent UI, a lot of IT admins will refrain from installing Ubuntu on the client machines.
7. Power User & Enthusiasts
HUD, I assume, is targeted at power-users or mainly developers who are used to running their entire system from the Terminal. I have seen my brother-in-law who never leaves the terminal -- whether he is running a movie from VLC or playing a song. His life starts and ends at the terminal. HUD will be his favorite tool.
HUD may also find some interest in the new blood who are typically Windows users, but are always looking for something cooler. I have been there, done that. Hunting for new Windows themes, icons etc. HUD, due to its uniqueness will give them what they want. Six months later these users will get bored and want something newer.
HUD, from what I see makes perfect sense for these users, but it fails terribly for the rest. If this is the user-base Ubuntu is looking at as its overall user-base then HUD is the right decision.
Is Menu Really A Problem To Be Solved?
Ubuntu is already taking a lot of beating due to Unity and Global menus. I wonder if menus are really the problem for Ubuntu users. Personally speaking, I don't think so. I think Ubuntu is trying to solve a problem that doesn't even exist.
The world is becoming touch-sensitive. Look at Apple -- they are making Touch-pads and the mouse smarter. Microsoft is preparing Windows for the next breed of touch-based devices. Window's Metro interface is telling us that the future belongs to touch-based desktops, where your Monitor will be your PC and may be built into the table. Your entire table top will be your PC. There you will need a touch-aware OS and applications. There will be no place for text-input. Text-input will be limited to sending messages and mails. Think of the Minority Report. Do you see Tom Cruise entering text on the display? Touch is the future and not text. Looking at this, Ubuntu's HUD seems to be going backwards
It's a good idea
I don't think HUD is a bad idea if it does help some users -- such as developers. It must be developed. But not at the cost of regular users. I think its time for Ubuntu to be forked into two versions - Ubuntu X for power users and Ubuntu for casual users. Even better if they can have a package of tools and UI for power-users which can be easily installed by the desired users.
The main Ubuntu can stick to Gnome 3 Shell and take advantage of the work being done by the Gnome team. It should offer the standard Linux interface and keep the user who love Gnome Shell/ Unity. Ubuntu X can be developed as a separate IS targeted at developers and enthusiasts. This way Ubuntu will be able to keep their traditional customers as well as enthusiasts.
Ubuntu May Miss Yet Another Golden Opportunity
Windows 8 is coming with its new UI. Ubuntu could have taken the advantage of this change by offering a familiar interface to un-happy Windows users. It would have been far more easier for me to convert a Windows 8 user into an Ubuntu user purely on the basis of the new UI and the learning curve it brings with it. But since Ubuntu also offers a new UI (which is challenging according to me) a Windows user will prefer Windows over Ubuntu, knowing that Ubuntu will still have issues with applications.
Challenges For Ubuntu
Looking at the amount of resources Canonical is investing on Unity and HUD, I wonder if menus are the biggest challenges for Ubuntu.
I think the biggest challenge that an Ubuntu user faces is the lack of a good applications. There is no such media player which can be called on par with Windows Media Player or iTunes. Users are either swinging between Microsoft-technology based Banshee or Rhythmbox. I see more value if Canonical invested resources in creating a great music player for Ubuntu.
Android users are struggling to make their devices work well with Ubuntu (there are more Android users than Ubuntu users). What is Canonical doing to address the problem of such Ubuntu users? One of my friends who was converted to Ubuntu bought the Samsung Galaxy Tab and failed to connect it to his Ubuntu desktop. When he asked for my help I had no answers. He wanted to be able to put music and movies on his much loved tablet and copy the pictures that he takes from it. He wiped Ubuntu and put Windows on his machine so that he can use his tablet. If I were Ubuntu I would have rolled out an application which makes it easier for Android users to connect with Ubuntu.
There is no Flickr or Picasa client for Ubuntu? Ubuntu users can't play Netflix movies. And this is just a tiny bit part of the 'real' life challenges an Ubuntu user faces. What good is HUD when you can't do much with your PC? People don't use a PC just for the sake of using it, they use it to get their job done. There are a lot of things that Ubuntu can't do. I think that's what Ubuntu needs to change and not something that has been there for 30 years.
[Also read an excellent take on HUD by Martin Owens, once a dedicated Ubuntu developer - Ubuntu's Undiscoverable Country]