My first 48 hours enduring Ubuntu 5.04

Thirteen months ago, I wrote about 48 usability problems I’d encountered in my first 48 hours enduring Mac OS X. Just over a year later, a week after my iBook came out of warranty, its logic board failed. So, while I attempt to persuade my Apple dealer that no, they cannot contract out of New Zealand’s Consumer Guarantees Act and yes, that does mean they have to pay for the repairs, I am using a laptop my boss has lent me. This laptop is running Ubuntu.

Sponsored by Canonical, Ubuntu is the latest and greatest operating system built on the Linux kernel, Gnome, the GNU utilities, and the Debian packaging system. Ubuntu 5.04, otherwise known as “Hoary Hedgehog”, was released a little over 48 hours ago. It is the first Linux-based system I have encountered that is tolerable enough for me to use for everyday work. That is a great achievement. But Ubuntu is still rife with design flaws, some of them severe.

This is not a review. Nor is it a list of the most important design flaws in Ubuntu. It is merely the flaws I have noticed, in the programs I’ve been using, over the past two days. Many of these flaws probably exist in other Gnome-based systems, and some of them also exist in Microsoft Windows and/or Mac OS.

General layout and appearance

  1. Every window that has menus puts them in a separate menu bar inside the window. This (a) wastes screen real estate, (b) is confusing (even experts occasionally click the wrong menu bar by accident), (c) does not work for narrow windows (as demonstrated by the Gimp), (d) works badly for windows near the bottom or right of the screen (for which menus unexpectedly open upward or leftward), and (e) works even worse if those menus have submenus.

    Worst of all, because under Fitt’s Law their vastly smaller target size outweighs their somewhat closer proximity, (f) menu bars inside each window are several hundred percent slower to use than a menu bar at the top of the screen.

  2. Ubuntu is not entirely ignorant of Fitt’s Law: the target area for clicking to reveal the Desktop is usefully enormous, because it includes the bottom-left-most pixel of the screen. Unfortunately this effort will be wasted on many people, because the button’s corners are rounded, so it does not look like it includes the bottom-left-most pixel of the screen. (The “Start” button in Windows 2000, and in Windows XP’s Classic theme, snatches defeat from the jaws of victory in a similar way.)

  3. By default, many — but not all — push buttons and menu items have an icon as well as text. As well as making the interface more cluttered, this slows people down by misleading them into thinking that they can decipher a transient control’s icon faster than they can read its text, which is rarely if ever true.

  4. The default color scheme uses white text on light brown background for selections in focused entry fields, and white on dark brown for unfocused entry fields. This is backward: unfocused elements should have less contrast (as Ubuntu does correctly with window title bars), not more. As a result, focused fields look like unfocused ones and vice versa, causing input errors. (In any case, defaulting to white on a dark color, rather than black on a light color, makes selected text unnecessarily difficult to read.)

  5. Some listboxes (such as the package list in Synaptic, and the message list in Evolution) alternate blue and white highlighting to distinguish consecutive items, while others (such as the confirmation list in Synaptic, and the mailbox list in Evolution) do not. This variation exists for no apparent reason.

  6. Until you start dragging, resize handles and scrollbar thumbs give no indication of whether you clicked on them successfully or whether you missed.

  7. Many controls change their appearance when the mouse pointer is over them, which is misleading because they’re not changing their state, and distracting if the pointer is just passing over the control on the way to something else. It can also be extremely confusing. For example, the window switcher, file dialogs, and Evolution’s “window buttons” all use a recessed button to show the current selection. But when you click a button, it looks like it hasn’t worked, because the pointer is still over the button so it still appears raised.

  8. The keyboard equivalents displayed in menus are right-aligned, instead of being aligned from the end of the last + symbol. So in a menu full of Ctrl+something keyboard equivalents, the Ctrl+ rarely lines up in any two consecutive items, making the menu as a whole look messy.

  9. By default, the rightmost two items in the top panel are a speaker icon and some text (the date and time). As expected, these are two separate controls. At the opposite end of the panel, the same distance away from each other, the leftmost two items are a foot icon and some text (the word “Applications”). Unexpectedly, these are a single control.

  10. … A foot icon? What’s that about, anyway? Ubuntu’s logo isn’t a foot.

  11. Incorrect menu item capitalization is found throughout the top-level menus: “Four-in-a-row”, “XSane Image scanning program”, “Recording level monitor”, “Volume monitor”, “Run as different user”, and “Shared folders”.

  12. The Applications menu itself contains several items that would make more sense accessed from the menus of the file manager. These are Archive Manager, CD Player, File Browser, and Floppy Formatter.

  13. The “Cancel” and “OK” buttons in many dialogs respond to Alt+C and Alt+O respectively instead of, or as well as, Escape and Enter. This is bad not just because Alt+C and Alt+O are slower to type than Escape and Enter, and not just because for every tab or panel in a dialog it removes the ability to use those access keys for something else, but also because it means people using the keyboard have to inspect the buttons in every dialog they use to see which set of keys they support. Having more than one similarly accessible method of doing the same thing slows people down.

  14. Windows that are not dialogs often have a “Close” button at the bottom in addition to the close button already present in the window’s title bar. This is bad not just because it makes them look confusingly similar to dialogs, and not just because it gives the false impression that changes are never applied instantly (when often they are), but also because people dither between the two close buttons wondering which one to click. Having more than one similarly accessible method of doing the same thing slows people down.

General behavior

  1. Dialogs themselves are not modal: they let you continue to use the parent window. This allows such nonsensical situations as a “Save as JPEG” dialog for a Gimp image that no longer exists, and a Print dialog for a Web page that is no longer open or even still in Firefox’s cache.

  2. The mouse pointer does not hide itself when it is stationary and I start using the keyboard. As a result, it frequently gets in the way of what I am typing or reading.

  3. There is no indication of whether an item in the top panel is intended for use with the left mouse button (such as the “Network Monitor”), the right mouse button (such as the rebelliously sentence-case “Modem monitor”), or neither (such as the “Battery Charge Monitor”). It’s like the Windows system tray mess all over again.

  4. Ubuntu supports the annoying and near-useless Insert and Caps Lock keys, with no obvious way to deactivate them. (Windows and Mac OS also make the mistake of supporting Caps Lock. I mention it here because Ubuntu — unlike Windows or Mac OS — offers no fewer than five options for “CapsLock [sic] key behavior”, but none of them are “Off”.)

  5. When a program needs administrator privileges to work properly, Ubuntu presents an alert asking for my administrator password. The title of this alert is “Changing user…”, which is incorrectly capitalized and incorrectly punctuated, but most of all, incorrectly worded. I’m not “changing” a “user”, I’m just altering some settings or running a program.

Starting and stopping

  1. A lot of technical gibberish is displayed when the computer starts up, and when it shuts down.

  2. In the “Time and Date Settings” control panel, I have checked the checkbox “Periodically synchronize clock with Internet servers“. If my Ethernet cable isn’t plugged in during startup, Ubuntu spends 63 seconds “configuring network interfaces”, in which I assume it learns that I’m not connected to the Internet. (If it doesn’t learn this, what is it doing all that time?) It then takes another 37 seconds trying to synchronize the clock with a time server, which can’t work because (surprise!) I’m not connected to the Internet. I don’t mind the clock synchronizing “periodically” — but please, not when I’m waiting for Ubuntu to start up.

  3. All the text in the login interface — including the login field itself — is too small, and most of it is too low-contrast, to read comfortably.

  4. The login screen uses the term “username”.

  5. The login screen uses the term “reboot”. (My shoes are fine as they are, thanks.)

  6. The dialog for choosing what language to use lists languages in a control that does not look clickable. Among other options, the list includes “Last” without telling me which language that was, “System Default” without telling me which language that is, and “POSIX/C English” which is an oxymoron.

  7. The dialog for choosing a session similarly includes “Last” without telling me which that was, and “Default System Session” without telling me which that is. It also offers “GNOME” and “Failsafe Gnome”; failsafe behavior, apparently, is achieved partly by not SHOUTING.

  8. Every day when I log in, I am presented not with the documents and Web pages that I had open when I logged out the day before, but with the documents and Web pages that I had open when I logged out on Monday March 7th.

    This is just a bug, not a design flaw, but it is symptomatic of a deep design flaw in Unix-derived systems: I have no idea how to fix the problem, and I’m unlikely to find the solution without help. All software has bugs, but if the system had been designed for usability from the ground up, I’d have a decent shot at being able to fix it myself. In a folder with a name like “Settings” there would be a file with a name like “Session Details” that I could put in the Trash before logging out and logging in again. And if that didn’t work, I could go to the Trash and restore the file to its previous location, and try something else. But in Ubuntu and other Linux-based systems, system folders and files have incomprehensible names like “.gconf” and “mkinitrd”, making learn-it-yourself maintenance unnecessarily difficult. That wouldn’t matter if Ubuntu never had any bugs, or if computer repair people offered their services immediately and for free, but neither of those are true.

  9. When returning after locking the screen, the interface for logging in again is completely different from that for logging in normally, for no apparent reason.

  10. In this different interface the “Password:” field is editable, while the “User:” field is not. This would be fine, except that the two fields look identical.

  11. The same interface shows the current time, for no apparent reason. (Perhaps it should show the current temperature too.)

  12. It also features a fuel gauge indicating how much time you have left to type your password. Not only is this unnerving to slow typists with nice long passphrases, it is only necessary because of another design flaw: the screensaver resumes a fixed time after the first key you press, rather than being postponed with every key you press.

  13. There is no way to put this laptop to sleep.

  14. In Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X, telling the computer to shut down takes about five seconds: choose the relevant item from a menu, then confirm it in an alert. This is not optimal (optimal would be never having to “shut down” at all, like you don’t have to with pianos or typewriters), but Ubuntu is considerably worse. In Ubuntu, telling the computer to shut down takes me about 35 seconds: choose “Log Out”, wait about 25 seconds for the logout process, then click “Shut Down” and confirm it in an alert.

  15. That alert has a button which misspells “Shut Down” as “Shutdown”.

Managing files

  1. Though the desktop has a menu bar, this menu bar does not contain any menus for managing the items on the desktop. Not only does this mean the most obvious interface for managing files is different between the desktop and every other folder, it also means that the non-obvious interface — shortcut menus — is forced to be inconsistent as well, with more entries for a desktop item than for an item in any other window.

  2. Items can’t be renamed by clicking on their names and typing.

  3. By default, when opening a folder window, the parent window closes automatically. This surprises the sort of people who will never be confident enough to investigate Nautilus’s preferences, and who expect things on their own computer to stay where they left them. It is unfixably inconsistent — it does not happen for the Computer window, or for the Desktop, or for opening documents rather than folders. And it dramatically reduces the usefulness of the file manager for managing files, as it is extremely difficult to get source and destination folders open simultaneously.

  4. Create two new folders. Open the first one, then open the second one. The worst possible size and position the file manager could choose for the second folder window would be putting it exactly on top of the first one. Sure enough, that is what it does.

  5. The Trash (or, as the British localization quaintly refers to it, the “Wastebasket”) has no idea where any of the items inside it came from. This makes restoring accidentally trashed items unnecessarily difficult.

Using my digital camera

  1. My camera functions as a standard USB storage device. When I plug it in, Nautilus places its icon exactly on top of an existing icon on my desktop.

  2. When the camera is plugged in, an alert appears asking if I want to import photos from the device. This alert has the title “Warning” and features an exclamation mark icon that looks like it is about to explode. This is not reassuring.

  3. A USB device must be “unmounted” before it is disconnected from the computer, to prevent loss of information. However, the only way to access this function is by a shortcut menu, which few people will ever see.

Using music CDs

  1. The tasks of copying music from a CD in uncompressed format, copying music from a CD in compressed format, playing music on a CD, and playing music on a hard disk are performed with — I am not making this up — four separate programs with four different interfaces: Nautilus, Sound Juicer, CD Player, and Music Player.

  2. Or at least they would be, except copying in uncompressed format doesn’t work. Dragging a track from Nautilus’s CD window into a folder looks like it will work, and it doesn’t produce an error message, but it doesn’t produce anything else either.

  3. Double-clicking on a track in a CD window produces an alert of mammoth proportions and comical contents. It begins: “The filename ‘Untitled 1′ indicates that this file is of type ‘WAV Audio’. The contents of this file indicates that it is of type ‘unknown’. If you open this file, the file might present a security risk to your system.” A security risk to the system? Ah, of course — that must be because it’s a CD of songs by Cat Stevens.

    We’re already well past the two-short-sentences limit for an alert people might possibly read, but there’s more. “Do not open the file unless you created it yourself, or received the file from a trusted source.” (I guess that rules out CDs from all major record companies, dangit.) “To open the file, rename the file” (I can’t, it’s on a CD!) “to the correct extension” (rename it to an extension?) “for ‘unknown’” (and the correct extension for “unknown” would be what?), “then open the file normally.” (As opposed to what?) “Alternatively, use the Open With menu to choose a specific application for the file.” The coup de grâce: by default, for CD tracks, there is no such menu.

    There is, however, an “Open With ‘Totem Movie Player’” menu item, which plays the music track in, of all things, a movie player program. So, I apologize for my earlier error: there are not four programs involved by default in managing music on CDs. There are five.


  1. Clicking once in the address field does not do what people want 99 percent of the time, which is selecting the address so it can be replaced by typing a new one.

  2. The icons for all available toolbar buttons in Firefox face directly towards you, except for the Home button, making it look out of place.

  3. Firefox’s “Import Wizard” (whaddya mean, “wizard?”) is completely inoperable. It consists of the label “Import Preferences, Bookmarks, History, Passwords and other data from:”, a large empty space, and three buttons with no labels that don’t do anything.

  4. I frequently check my mail on MyRealBox and Yahoo Mail, and visit other sites with similarly misconfigured security certificates. Firefox complains about the certificates using alerts that are awfully designed. (Disclaimer: I redesigned them in 2001, but the designs have yet to be implemented.)

  5. The “Character Encoding” submenu is unnecessarily complicated and difficult to use. (Disclaimer: I redesigned that too, and my design was used in Epiphany, but not in Mozilla.)

  6. By default, the arrangement of the Bookmarks window is such that the name of every bookmarks folder is truncated.

  7. The form controls Firefox draws in Web pages are not just inconsistent with those in the rest of the operating system, they are quite possibly the ugliest interactive controls seen in any graphical interface since AmigaDOS 2.04. For example, text fields have borders that, by default, are visible on only two sides out of four. <select> elements are rendered not as normal option menus, but as much less efficient drop-down scrolling listboxes. And radio buttons look like they were drawn in the dark with a broken pencil.

Other than that, Firefox is a nice browser. Just for the record.


  1. Evolution’s menus are alarmingly obscure and complex. For example, it has a menu unhelpfully titled “Actions” (isn’t everything I might want to do an action?) that is 22 items long.

  2. Clicking the “Exchange” button produces a panel that, by default, contains nothing at all, not even any indication of what it is for.

  3. By default, Evolution does not store a local copy of the folders and messages on my Imap account; it downloads them again every time it starts up.

  4. When I am not connected to the Internet, Evolution’s attempt to download the messages all over again produces the error “Host lookup failed: Temporary failure in name resolution”. Since the lack of an Internet connection is by far the most common cause of failed “host lookup” (what?), it would make more sense for Evolution just to go into offline mode in such cases.

  5. Evolution’s Preferences dialog, and its “Account Editor”, both fall off the bottom of the screen by default.


  1. When I am not connected to the Internet, Gaim nevertheless tries to connect every minute or two, and complains every time it fails.

  2. Gaim displays my own AIM account in my buddy list. This is not very useful, as I don’t send instant messages to myself.

  3. Gaim displays each AIM account using not one icon, but two.

  4. Chat windows have a “Send” button, which will slow some people down by misleading them into thinking that they need to click the button every time they type something, instead of pressing Enter.

  5. IRC channel windows feature an enormous “Remove” button for removing the channel from your buddy list. I have clicked this button dozens of times, but never on purpose.

  6. Gaim’s preferences are ridiculously complicated, with some options nested three levels deep. They are also poorly worded; for example, several checkboxes begin with the word “Ignore”.

  7. Gaim uselessly opens its login window for about two seconds every time it quits.

The help system

  1. Computerized help systems have to be very, very helpful if people will ever bother using them rather than asking a nearby human. The first step to achieving this level of helpfulness is always being ready for use within about one second of being summoned. Unfortunately, Ubuntu’s help system (on this laptop, at least) takes about eight seconds.

  2. The front page of the help system contains seven items, which are worth examining in detail, because they demonstrate how users and developers — even documentation developers — think about things in different ways.

    • Desktop“. This makes the unwarranted assumption that people will consider the items in Gnome’s panels, for example, to be part of the “desktop”, rather than being above or below the desktop.

    • Applications“. This makes the unwarranted assumption that people visiting the top-level help page — that is, people seeking help without having started any particular program — will nevertheless know what “application” they need to use for the thing they want to do.

    • Other Documentation“. “Other” is a slippery word: it works only if the rest of the categories are already clear, and they’re not.

    • Man Pages“. Teeheeheehee.

    • About Ubuntu“. This isn’t help, it’s a manifesto. Nothing wrong with manifestos, but they don’t belong on the front page of a help system.

    • Hoary Release Notes“. Again, this is interesting information, but it’s not help.

    • Ubuntu Quick Guide“. This is a cool idea, but unfortunately what’s provided is not a quick guide. A quick guide would be one printable page, explaining (a) how to find programs, (b) how to find your files, (c) how to turn off the computer, and (d) how to get more help. Instead, the Ubuntu “Quick Guide” is dozens of pages long.

      Part of the problem is that the Guide is greatly caught up in its own minutiae. For example, it contains this morsel: “Also in this release is the FAQ Guide which was ported from the Ubuntu Wiki to Docbook and is now a permanent feature of the Ubuntu documentation project.”

      If you know too much to understand the problem with that sentence, here it is again, translated into a simulation of how a regular person would understand it: “Also in this spurt is the Worple Guide which was worpled from the Ubuntu Worple to Worple and is now a permanent feature of the Ubuntu worple worple.”

      I’m one of the 0.000002 percent of humans who are subscribed to the Ubuntu Documentation mailing list, and they’re lovely people, but even I just don’t care about this kind of administrivia. How will reading this help anyone use Ubuntu? It won’t.

    A real help system would have items on its front page like “Connecting to the Internet”, “Using files from Windows”, “Printing”, “Chatting online”, “Playing music”, “Making CDs and DVDs”, and “Troubleshooting”.

  3. Having said all that, people have become used to the idea that systems designed for browsing will be poorly organized and out of date (which is why search engines are more popular than Web directories, for example), so what they usually do instead is search. Unfortunately, Ubuntu’s help system doesn’t even have a search function.

  4. Inside the help system, help for the majority of programs is written in the form of a book. (For example, and I’m sorry to pick on the Ubuntu Quick Guide one more time, its very first information-containing page says insolently that “admonitions will be found throughout the book”.) Books are useful, but they do not belong in on-screen help systems. On-screen help needs to be written in a different style, with a different tone, and at much shorter length.

And, because I just had to mention it somewhere

  1. It’s brown.


I recognize that Ubuntu is perhaps the most usable Linux-based operating system yet. I recognize also that it has improved rapidly over the past year. And it is reassuring for me to be running Free Software, where — if all else fails — I can hire a local geek to fix a bug for me instead of being reliant on the whim of Canonical. But Ubuntu still has a long way to go.

I am grateful to my boss for lending me the laptop on which I have been using Ubuntu, and for giving me the go-ahead to post this entry, but I don’t speak for my employer and they don’t speak for me. My boss, by the way, is Mark Shuttleworth. I’m working for his company, Canonical, as an interface designer.

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