A critical look at Ubuntu or: What companies could learn about PR from open source

Matthew Thomas has posted a very critical look at Ubuntu on his weblog. Actually, he calls it "My first 48 hours enduring Ubuntu 5.
Written by Joe Brockmeier, Contributor

Matthew Thomas has posted a very critical look at Ubuntu on his weblog. Actually, he calls it "My first 48 hours enduring Ubuntu 5.04," which follows his 48 hours enduring Mac OS X. Thomas is an interface designer, and he has plenty to say about the Ubuntu interface, some of which I can agree with, other things I find a bit silly. For example, this complaint about the dialog boxes for some programs:

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.

I can agree that it's silly for the save dialog to exist after you've trashed an image -- but I hate programs that won't let me do anything after they've opened a dialog box until I've dealt with the dialog box. Thomas does have a number of good points about the interface design that could be better, and I'm sure many will be addressed over time.

But, what's really interesting about this list of Thomas' complaints with Ubuntu is that he actually works for Canonical, the company that sponsors Ubuntu, and has posted the piece with Mark Shuttleworth's blessing. (Shuttleworth is the founder of Canonical, and a fairly interesting guy all-around.)

Imagine for a moment that one of Apple's interface design folks sat down and whipped up a list of design "flaws" with Tiger, and went to the PR staff -- or Steve Jobs himself -- and said, "hey, I'd like to post this and get people talking about the things that are wrong with our product." Something tells me, it wouldn't go over well. Most companies keep iron-fisted control over any "official" communications, and you wouldn't want to get caught blogging in public by your employer. It's almost amusing, sometimes, watching PR folks bend logic and the English language to the breaking point in a relentless effort to avoid saying anything that can even be slightly negative about a company or product. On the other hand, it can be a serious drag having to interview a PR flak who adheres to the company line like it's the gospel truth.

This actually reminds me of a post to my earlier entry about the tone of discourse between Linux enthusiasts and detractors.The Linux and open source community doesn't have a PR policy, so its detractors can cite the worst behavior of the members of the community and try to paint the entire community (and, by proxy, the software produced by the community) as "extremist" and "radical."

That's the downside. It would be great if we could "fire" the abusive people that launch personal attacks against the critics of Linux and open source, rather than just refuting the FUD. They don't speak for me, or for millions of other Linux enthusiasts, and it's ridiculous to be lumped in with those folks by people too lazy to make a distinction.

The upside to not having a PR policy is that the members of the community are free (for the most part) to speak their minds. (There are a few open source companies with strict PR policies, sadly enough.) Canonical could have a policy of trying to hide behind a wall of PR flacks, but it seems that Shuttleworth actually understands the spirit of open source -- and not just the letter of the licenses.

Wouldn't it be refreshing if developers from other organizations were allowed to have this kind of open dialog with their customers?

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