Shuttleworth: Open-source desktops need a facelift

Shuttleworth: Open-source desktops need a facelift

Summary: Chief executive Mark Shuttleworth has said Canonical is hiring a team to make open-source desktop software more appealing


Canonical, the leading backer of the Ubuntu version of Linux, is hiring a team to help make open-source software on the desktop more appealing and easier to use.

The company plans to sign up designers and specialists in user experience and interaction to lead Canonical's work on usability and to contribute to other free and open-source desktop-environment projects, including Gnome and KDE, Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical chief executive and founder of the Ubuntu project, wrote in a blog post on Wednesday.

"We are hiring a team who will work on X, OpenGL, GTK, Qt, Gnome and KDE, with a view to doing some of the heavy lifting required to turn those desktop-experience ideas into reality," he wrote.

Shuttleworth has said recently that usability is the top priority for open-source software. Free Linux desktops should have "a user experience that can compete with Apple in two years", he said at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention (Oscon) last week.

Some open-source promoters have backed Shuttleworth, but said that businesses have a different priority to the consumers Ubuntu is aimed at. 

"He's bang on the money. Linux absolutely needs more usability," said Mark Taylor, founder of the Open Source Consortium. "Having said that, it's not that hard to find," he said, pointing to the strides made by the Gnome and KDE user interfaces.

However, Taylor cautioned against the open-source movement taking too rigid a line with developers on usability requirements. "I don't believe we need one desktop to rule them all," he said.

Consumers need a great user experience more than businesses do, Taylor said. IT managers are more likely to use Linux on servers than on desktops. Any desktop implementations they do work with are designed to lock the system down and keep the user within set applications and policies. "Even when they use a Linux desktop, delivering a user experience is not high on the agenda," Taylor said.

Shuttleworth said that the freedom of open-source software, where developers are free to develop as they wish, can lead to user interfaces that are "patchy and inconsistent" between applications and operating systems, he said.

"One of the biggest problems in the free-software world is that so many objects are different, depending on the different desktops," said Paul Adams, a member of KDE e.V, the 'board' of the KDE project.

For instance, Ubuntu itself is normally available with the Gnome desktop interface, but one version ships with KDE. Both Ubuntu versions include OpenOffice, which is based on the GTK graphics library. GTK is also used by Gnome, so OpenOffice in KDE would have a different 'open' dialogue to that on the desktop.

"In KDE, we are looking at producing a cross-desktop, human-interface guideline set, so that, as people move between Gnome and KDE, they won't be shocked to see that the dialogues are different," said Adams, who is also projects director at UK open-source company Sirius. That cross-desktop project, led by Celeste Lyn Paul of User-Centred Design, could create guidelines for common UI features.

"We already have a very usable experience," Adams said. "Are we up there with the Mac desktop? Probably not. But we have achieved something which is very mature and usable."

Topics: Apps, Software Development

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Not the GUI at all

    The UI is fine, its auto detection and configuration of hardware devices particularly graphcs cards and WiFi cards thats holding it back. And this is largely due to unavailability of drivers
  • Leave it alone

    There are too many bloaty, graphics intensive OSs out there.

    They should stick to minimalism.
  • Thanks for the reminder

    I think it's both.

    I would have to agree that not being able to get one's hardware working is a more definitive barrier to using an OS than not always being sure how to open a file. But the latter needs attention too.
  • That's true

    But minimalism is actually an argument in favour of consistency, surely?
  • A Newbies point of view

    Bluedalmatian has a point, as a relative newbie I could say that no matter how fast, appealing, easy to use the system maybe, if it doesn't just work well, how am I suppose to know that it is fast, appealing and easy to use. I had to do a lot of tweaks to get it to run in my eee pc, and my friend's dektop doesn't have net connections after install, no wired, no wi-fi. Just letting you guys know because I really like it but, well I said it already.