Canonical, the leading backer of the Ubuntu version of
Linux, this week said it would hire 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
"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
Shuttleworth said recently that usability was 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 last week.
Some open source promoters have backed Shuttleworth, but said
that businesses have a different priority to the consumers Ubuntu
was 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
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
Consumers needed a great user experience more than
businesses did, Taylor said. IT managers were more likely to use
Linux on servers than on desktops. Any desktop implementations they
do work with were 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 were free to develop as they wish, could
lead to user interfaces that were "patchy and inconsistent"
between applications and operating systems.
"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
"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."