My top ten favorite Ubuntu Brainstorm usability ideas

Anyone who has read my threads on the Ubuntu Forums or my posts on this blog knows I think a lack of properly advertised and thoughtfully tested preinstalled Linux solutions from major manufacturers is the main barrier to the bulk of average folks switching from Windows to Linux.

Dell recently releasing and semi-advertising the Ubuntu version of their Mini Inspiron 9 model has been a step in the right direction, but the reviews of it from forum members still make me cringe a little. Apparently it doesn’t recognize more than 800 MB of RAM, despite what you have installed, it complains about the architecture of i386 packages, and it gives you a 4 GB partition by default even if you bought a 16 GB model (so you have to format and/or integrate the remaining 12 GB yourself).

Nevertheless, even though that’s the main barrier, and even though Dell is taking some steps in the right direction, the software side of things in Ubuntu (and, somewhat by extension, other Linux distros, since they tend to share the same upstream changes) still needs to be improved for a better average end-user user experience.

Here are some of my favorite Ubuntu Brainstorm ideas to that effect. Fixing or implementing these will be a major step in the right direction to having Ubuntu and Gnome work for those who don’t enjoy fiddling with their computers or using the terminal instead of pointing and clicking.

Idea #136: Add a tutorial slideshow to the installation process

This is an idea they had marked for a while to be included with Ubuntu 8.10, but they have now deferred it to 9.04. I’m glad it’s on their to-do list, but I do think a guide to basic functions like installing programs through Add/Remove (instead of searching the web for downloads) or activating hardware drivers is necessary for new users to an unfamiliar operating system.

Idea #141: Include a graphical frontend to edit /boot/grub/menu.lst installed by default

This shouldn’t be too difficult to implement. The graphical boot menu editor already exists and just needs to be included by default. Linux still has a reputation for being too reliant on the terminal and manual editing of configuration text files. Why does Ubuntu need to reinforce that stereotype? If people want to edit the /boot/grub/menu.lst file manually, let them. But if they don’t want to, give them the option to avoid it.

Idea #142: Optional add-on CDs (not advertised heavily, but still available)

I understand why Ubuntu uses only one CD. It’s all about simplicity. One CD. Few choices. Sensible defaults. Less confusion. That makes sense to me.

But if you have add-on CDs, they don’t have to be heavily advertised or on the same download page as the regular installer CD. A Linux distro that advertises itself as “Linux for Human Beings” should recognize that a lot of people worldwide do not have broadband internet access (either no access at all or dial-up access) and would greatly benefit from add-on CDs they could buy to have extra software repositories available.

Idea #2298: Automatic reparation of interrupted dpkg
Idea #11690: Include proper instructions if dpkg is interrupted

The first idea is obviously the ideal, but it’d take longer to implement. Right now if you’re in the middle of installing software or updates and you kill the program installing those packages, you’ll get a message next time you try to install packages that the package manager was interrupted and you need to run the command

dpkg –configure -a

to repair the package manager.

So, yes, first of all, if that command works 90% of the time to fix the problem (which it does), why can’t the package manager just run it automatically and repair itself? And, if not, a simpler fix is to have the instructions at least be the proper ones. If you try to run

dpkg –configure -a

in Ubuntu, you’ll be told you’re not root. Great. How about telling people to run

sudo dpkg –configure -a

instead—the command that actually works in Ubuntu?

Idea #2560: Option to Propagate permissions of parent directory to new files

Many times people like to have shared directories. I have my personal files. You have your personal files. But maybe we want to have a folder where we put our shared photos together. Right now if you change the permissions on that folder, the permission change will affect only the existing files. New files put into that folder will have read-only permission for the non-owner of the files. This is a must for usability, and it should be a simple point-and-click solution.

Idea #4755: Firefox/Mozilla: Synchronize “Open With” with Menu

I see a lot of stupid ideas on Brainstorm about changing the filesystem hierarchy. Why do those stupid ideas appear? Because there are still instances in which the filesystem hierarchy is not properly hidden from the end user.

If you want to change the default program that opens downloads in Firefox, instead of a list of available programs, you get the file manager listing your home directory. You have to know to go to /usr/bin to find the application launcher you’re looking for. The only people who should know about /usr/bin are the ones who want to know about /usr/bin.

Idea #11107: Users and Groups should always make sure at least one user is in the admin group

A lot of Ubuntu users are the only users on their computers. There’s a great graphical tool for managing users and groups, but it allows you to uncheck the box allowing the user to administer the system even if there’s only one user who currently has that capability.

In other words, it’s too easy to make it so that no user can administer the system. There’s no way an average user would know to boot into recovery mode, drop to a root prompt, and type

adduser username admin

Don’t make it easy. There should be some kind of validation happening on the back end.


One of the things my wife loves to do on her Macbook Pro is rename new devices (iPod, digital camera, USB stick, external hard drive). The drive appears on her desktop. She clicks to rename it and renames it, just as if it were any other folder on her computer.

How do you do it in Ubuntu? You use a command-line program called mlabel. Should those who prefer a command-line tool still be able to use it? Definitely. Should those who would prefer a point-and-click alternative have it readily available? Also definitely. But right now they don’t.

Idea #13024: Stop programs grabbing keyboard focus while typing

I believe this is a Gnome problem. I think (but am not sure) that in certain window managers you can change this setting. It should be fairly obvious why this should be a setting you can change and why the default should be for applications not to steal focus while you’re typing.

No one while typing intends to have the first half of what she’s typing appear in one application and the second half appear in another.

Idea #13965: offer to format unformatted drives
Idea #14319: Automatic addtion of new hard drives

Ubuntu handles external media pretty well if it’s formatted. But if you have new internal drives or an unformatted external drive, you’d better read up on your /etc/fstab manual. I don’t think further explanation is necessary. A simple graphical prompt is needed: “You have a new drive. What would you like to do with it?”

As I said before, fixing the usability issues here won’t magically bring masses of Windows users over to Ubuntu or other Gnome-using Linux distros. It will, however, make their stay, once they have migrated, more pleasant. And, of course, it can’t hurt to have properly advertised and well-tested preinstalled solutions either…

Idea #3575: Online Ubuntu compatible – PC Hardware Store
Idea #6847: Physical Ubuntu Hardware Store

Mark Shuttleworth’s admiration for some of Apple’s approaches to computers is no secret. I wish he would recognize publicly that Apple’s success is not just due to Mac OS X’s aesthetics. The Apple store is a great place for curious Windows users to try out and be amazed by Apple computers and find a host of peripherals that are guaranteed to work with Macs.

Unfortunately, Apple supports proprietary software. What would be great would be a Canonical store that allows curious Windows users to try out and be amazed by Ubuntu-preinstalled computers and find a host or peripherals guaranteed to work with Linux. Right now a lot of Linux-preinstalled solutions Linux users have to buy on faith or on video and text reviews online. I live in a major metropolitan area and have no store I can go to to try out the Dell Mini Inspiron 9 or the Asus Eee PC or Acer Aspire One with Linux.

I realize it’d be a huge commercial venture that could have initially lackluster sales and profit losses, but in the long run it could work, and I know Mark Shuttleworth has enough money to see it to the long run.


  1. Wow, hey. I didn’t even know about Ubuntu Brainstorm until Just Now. That’s awesome. What a fun way to while away the day, I certainly have a few I could add.

  2. I agree with you with many of the ideas you mentioned. I’m just a regular user that wants Ubuntu to “just work”. Ubuntu brainstorm is a great place where people can share their ideas, and there are excellent ones like those on your post, we only have to wait Canonical to implement them.

  3. This Firefox ‘open with’ issue is one that has driven me nuts in the past, but I use KDE and I always assumed it was a GNOME problem, not a Firefox one.

    > Because there are still instances in which the
    > filesystem hierarchy is not properly hidden from
    > the end user…
    I don’t think the filesystem should *ever* be hidden from the end user. Windows has this, where its a confusing mess of links from Desktop to C:\ to Documents all while skipping over various folders within. OSX does something similar where Joe User never really leaves Documents. Although the user may not need to get to those other places on a general basis, hiding them is not the way to create an open computing environment where we hope that people understand what they do and how, unlike people of today’s computing life. If we want to move forward we need the understanding of computers to move forward. I remember twenty+ years ago my mom teaching me how to format floppies; now she doesn’t even know what a filesystem is. This is the wrong direction.

  4. Hide might be the wrong word in this case.

    I don’t mean hide as in make it so the user is unable to find.

    I actually mean hide as in don’t force the user to scour and understand the entire filesystem hierarchy just to change the default application Firefox uses to open a download.

    Actually in both OS X and Windows you can navigate the entire filesystem. I’m not talking about navigation here. I’m talking about integration. It doesn’t make sense, if you’re talking about what helper program Firefox should use, for Firefox to dump you into a file browser instead of a list of programs any more than it makes sense for the Applications menu to dump you into a file browser or for the System menu to dump you into a file browser.

  5. Not related to the above, but recently came across
    “Ubuntu Linux Resources” so this is just a quick note to say “thank you” for the effort and time that you put into it’s creation. i have just quickly skimmed it and have thus far found it to be extremely use full. Full of appreciation for your efforts and I will be back!” Thanks again. Leroy

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