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The New Face of Ubuntu

The New Face of Ubuntu

Canonical is designing a new heads-up display interface for the next version of Ubuntu. Its last interface tweak, Unity, was somewhat controversial. Now it looks like Ubuntu will double down on that departure and bring users even further from the typical desktop OS experience. Is this something that will make the OS easier for users to operate, or will it scare away users who think it's too difficult to learn?

By Jack M. Germain
02/21/12 5:00 AM PT

Canonical expects to start rolling out the first phase of Ubuntu's new heads-up display (HUD) in the April release of Ubuntu 12.04. But HUD will supplement Unity, Ubuntu's default desktop interface introduced last year, rather than fully replace it.

The move to radically change the desktop's default interface is being made out of necessity, according to Canonical's founder and former CEO Mark Shuttleworth, who continues to guide the development of the popular open source Linux operating system.

Rather than abandon Ubuntu for more traditional Linux distros, users dissatisfied with HUD can simply opt to not use it. They can continue using Unity or one of the other desktop interfaces such as Xfce, GNOME and LXDE. However, one or more Ubuntu community forums mentioned in early February that Canonical was dropping support for another popular Linux desktop, KDE, by virtue of ceasing new releases of the Kubuntu distro.

"HUD is not different to Unity. It's just a new part of the interface concerned with menus and the user's intent. HUD provides an optional alternative to using menus in Unity applications," John Lea, Ubuntu Desktop User Experience Lead for Canonical, told LinuxInsider.

Out With the Old

HUD will aim to eventually replace users' reliance on the traditional desktop menu. Shuttleworth views the menu structure based on point-and-click mousing as an outdated central part of the computer's graphical user interface, or GUI. That menu has existed since Xerox PARC invented it in the 1970s, he wrote in his blog announcing the HUD interface.

Drop-down menus and cascading sub-menus are among the so-called archaic structures Canonical is replacing with Unity and now the layered HUD interface. HUD uses an intelligent, search-based approach to find and access functions. It spares users the need to remember where functions are located in menus to avoid scrolling through menus.

"Any application that supports the DBus menu standard will automatically work with the HUD interface," Lea explained.

That should eliminate the need for application developers to rewrite their existing programs and transition into new coding for their new apps.

New Look and Feel

HUD remembers what functions you use most often and prioritizes the results. It will remember user interactions with each application during a 30-day interval. Thus, HUD will use this information as learning input. It adapts to this learning to refine search results by offering the functions most relevant to that user.

"There is no custom integration required. Canonical will be helping add DBus menu support to some apps that don't yet support this standard. However, none of this work is HUD specific, and most of Ubuntu's apps already have DBus menu support built in," said Lea.

Instead of clicking through menu items, users tap the ALT key and type what they want the application to do. This new approach has the user expressing intent and having the applications respond appropriately. Researching and developing this technology will take Ubuntu's next four releases to perfect, said Lea.

Same Old, Nothing New?

Some long-time cross-platform computer users may see HUD as something new in name only. For instance, HUD bears a strong resemblance to the Spotlight feature in the Apple Mac OS X operating system.

"There is Launcher where you hit the space bar and you can start typing to load an application or files or whatever. The more I looked at HUD, the more I began asking if that's what this new interface for Ubuntu is," Matt Asay, vice president of business development at Nodeable, told LinuxInsider.

Asay, the former COO at Canonical, said that no one at that company was working on this new interface when he worked there. So he reached out to a Canonical colleague who confirmed that HUD is basically Apple's Lighthouse interface, he said.

A Step in What Direction?

On one hand, Asay sees HUD as a significant step forward for Ubuntu and for Canonical. But he does not necessarily think it's a step toward the state of the art in desktop computing.

"I wish that I could say that it was. I wish that I could say that Canonical is on the cutting edge now and is pushing the envelop. I don't think it is a big change, and frankly it's almost in some ways a step backward in terms of usability for the average user," he said.

Most mainstream users are familiar with the old style interface that uses point and click with the mouse. HUD will not feel like a welcome innovation for them, according to Asay.

He's seen this reaction in his wife and kids, who are Mac users. Despite how often he has coached them about hitting the command key and the space bar, they fail to grasp any intuitiveness, he said.

Hands-on Heaven

On the other hand, serious Linux geeks may well thrive with HUD, surmised Asay. They will no doubt see HUD much more intuitively.

"HUD keeps their hands on the keyboard, and they won't have to move the mouse around anymore. But for the mainstream user, it's going to be tricky," Asay said.

The transition process will not be an easy one for established computer users. Canonical will have its work cut out for it in terms of making HUD be the type of interaction that people want with their computers, according to Asay.

"I hope they succeed. But I think there will be a fair amount of education and work required," he concluded.

Innovation Is Threatening

Anything new brings with it a threat to peoples' comfort zones. But shaking up the status quo is exactly what innovative new technologies do, and Canonical's move to HUD will not threaten adoption of the Linux OS or the Ubuntu distro, according to Amanda McPherson, vice president of marketing and developer programs for the Linux Foundation.

"Some people will feel threatened by it because they aren't used to it. That's just par for the course. I consider [HUD] innovation for the Linux desktop," McPherson told LinuxInsider.

For the right user, the HUD desktop might be a draw to Ubuntu Linux, she contended. Canonical's HUD is hitting on some trends that coincide with developments in the larger market, such as keyboard shortcuts and expanded search among power users.

"When I look at HUD, Canonical is basically taking that concept a step further. They are integrating it through the entire desktop through all applications. I think Mark Shuttleworth might really be on to something," McPherson opined.

The mouse has been around for a long time, having led the PC evolution of the 1980s. But power users like herself who are on their computers eight to 10 hours a day do not want to use the mouse. They want to use the keyboard, she explained.

Search Still Search

But if HUD does nothing more than bring a generalized search interface to different types of items such as menus or content catalogs, it's not really all that innovative, according to Al Hilwa, program director for applications development software at IDC.

"I don't see [HUD] as a drastic change so much as an optional added tool that can help navigate increasingly more complex interfaces in a standardized way," Hilwa told LinuxInsider.

This is similar to the way Google Search allowed users to navigate all sorts of information on the Web without having to visit each website and manually navigate it, he explained.

Computing's Future

Canonical needs time to cultivate HUD. But in terms of its usability, McPherson is impressed with its intuitiveness. She sees HUD becoming a viable option for Linux desktop users.

"Apple and Google with their newest applications are geared up for another top trend involving using voice-driven commands. The future of computing is voice. HUD fits right into that strategy. When I looked at it, I thought that Canonical was really onto something," said McPherson.

HUD could be one more layer added onto Unity. Or users might decide not to use HUD and or Unity at all. But Linux always gives you a lot of choice, she added. If people don't like HUD, they don't have to use it.

"I would like for something like HUD to make Linux really different," concluded McPherson.


Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear.


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