Annoying Android usability issue – Gmail with multiple accounts

I love my Android phone. It’s a lot of fun, and I think Google has done a lot of good things with the Android platform. There are still some major usability issues, though, that I hope Google will iron out in Android 3.0 (Gingerbread).

Here’s one, for example:
Issue 1664: Gmail should allow choosing the From: address on an account that has multiple addresses
Send As Feature in Gmail

For years, I’ve been using Thunderbird as my email client. I used it on Windows. Then I used it on Ubuntu. Then I used it on Mac OS X. Recently, inspired by my move to an Android phone, I decided to go as Google as possible. Google Voice. Google Docs. Google Maps. Google Reader. Gmail. There were some things that took adjusting to in Gmail (conversations instead of messages, anyone?), but I didn’t miss Thunderbird as much as I thought I would. Google gives you nigh-unlimited email storage (I don’t see meeting the 7 GB limit any time soon the way my emails are going), and the interface is simple and quick, and easy to use. More importantly, I can aggregate with Gmail a bunch of email accounts into one, just as I would with a traditional desktop email client (like Thunderbird, Mail, Eudora, or Outlook).

In the regular Gmail web interface, you can choose which of these accounts is the default email address (meaning if you compose a new message, that message will have the from: address be that email address unless you choose otherwise), and you can also choose to have all replies sent from the email the original message was sent to. That means if someone sends an email to my church account and I hit Reply, the reply will appear to come from my church account; and if someone sends an email to my home account and I hit Reply, the reply will appear to come from my home account.

Pretty nifty feature to have. Too bad it’s missing from Android’s Gmail app. In the Android Gmail app, if you compose a new message, it will always come from your Gmail email address, regardless of what your setting is on the web client. And if you reply to a message, it will also come from your Gmail address. That makes it pretty much useless to me in terms of writing emails, seeing as how I use my Gmail account to aggregrate other email accounts, and I basically never want emails to appear to come from my Gmail account.

Fortunately, there’s a workaround, but it’s not pretty. The workaround is not to use the Gmail app. Just use the Gmail web interface in your favorite Android browser (Browser, Opera, xScope, Dolphin, etc.). If you use the mobile version (which is the default) of the web client, you won’t actually get to see your from: address, but it’ll still operate the way it’s supposed to (I tested it on both a reply and a new email). You can switch to the desktop (or “classic”) mode of the web client if you actually want to see the from: address.

Now, Google, how difficult would it really be to fix this problem?

Why I might switch to Mac from Ubuntu

Who am I?
I’ve been using Ubuntu for almost five years now. I’ve offered some technical support on the Ubuntu Forums and been a moderator there off and on. I’ve maintained a new-user-targeted documentation site for every release of Ubuntu except the very first (4.10). I’ve also contributed to a few official Wiki pages. Even though nanotube did all the heavy lifting, I did help out a fair bit in at least the beginning stage of UbuntuZilla. I’ve filed bug reports at Launchpad. I’m not a programmer, but I feel I’ve contributed a fair bit to Ubuntu.

Why I was drawn to Ubuntu
I admire a lot of what Mark Shuttleworth has done. He has an enormous amount of wealth. A lot of people who don’t have a lot of wealth always think if they did that they would undoubtedly give away most of that money. It’s easy to give away other people’s money. It is not so easy to give away your own. My parents aren’t nearly as rich as Shuttleworth. Somehow, they managed to give a large percentage of their money away to church and to various charities, and still maintain a very comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle. My wife and I are struggling to make ends meet while also trying to give away to causes we deem worthy. To sink millions of pounds into what could have been a dead-end project is a risk that I admire Mark Shuttleworth taking. He could have been ridiculed. He could have lost a lot of money on nothing.

He had a vision, though. I liked that original vision. I liked the free CDs shipped anywhere. I liked the idea of one CD with one application per task, not a lot of confusing options, and sensible defaults. More importantly, I liked the idea of Ubuntu—humanity toward others, which showed quite well in the Ubuntu Forums. And Ubuntu was one of the few distros to try to strike a reasonable balance between the lofty ideals of Free software zealotry and the pragmatism of proprietarily-licensed software.

Where did Ubuntu go wrong?
For a while, I had high hopes for Ubuntu. Every release seemed to make Ubuntu more polished, every additional feature seemed to make Ubuntu more accessible for the Linux novice. A few things that have come up recently have made me a bit disillusioned with Ubuntu, though:

  • These days, decisions and “improvements” seem more like arbitrary changes instead of actual user experience improvements. Grub suddenly became less configurable, as did GDM. Notifications would appear and randomly disappear at odd times (for example, if my wireless reconnected, the notification would still say I was disconnected and then change to connected only about ten seconds after I’d actually reconnected).
  • My bug reports have really come to naught. A few years ago, if someone had complained on the Ubuntu Forums about a problem with Ubuntu, I would have been first in line to say “Complaining here won’t do any good. If you want to tell the developers, file a bug report.” After seeing that most of my bug reports have been unanswered or unfixed, sometimes for years, I don’t know that filing a bug report is really the best thing to do.
  • Brainstorm is a mess. Really, there isn’t an efficient way for developers to get proper feedback from users. If I, as a user, can’t make sense of Brainstorm’s thousands of ideas, how can the developers, who are busy developing?
  • I’ve seen too many hardware regressions. A lot of this isn’t Ubuntu’s fault. A lot of this is upstream. Regardless, upstream affects the Ubuntu experience. The real problem is that the Linux kernel tries to support everything well. There isn’t enough focus. So something that is in theory supposed to be Linux compatible (say, an Intel Pro Wireless 2200bg card) can work perfectly in one release, and then have random disconnects in the next two releases and then work perfectly again in the next release. Personally, I’ve had a Broadcom card that works and doesn’t work in alternating Ubuntu releases, and that makes no sense to me. If the problem is that hardware manufacturers aren’t making it easy for Linux developers to make drivers, then that hardware should never work. If, however, the hardware works in one Ubuntu release and doesn’t work in the next release, that is definitely the fault of Linux, whether it is the kernel team upstream or the Ubuntu team… or both.
  • Recent decisions have seemed to focus on whim or business more than user experience, particularly the change to Yahoo! as the default search engine in Firefox and the random moving of the window control buttons from right to left. I have no problem with change. I also have no problem with Ubuntu making money. But there seems to be an utter disregard for how changes affect users. A little more communication would help. More details here.
  • The most important thing is there doesn’t seem to be a real strategy in place for fixing Bug #1. Yes, there are power users who like to install their own operating systems and troubleshoot hardware compatibility issues. In order for your product to take off, though, it can’t be just an operating system. It has to be a product. It has to be something people can purchase. And the limited options from Dell (which recommends Windows, even on the Linux parts of its website) don’t cut it. They also aren’t created by Ubuntu. They just use Ubuntu. Recently, Google released the Nexus One as its idea of hardware matching perfectly the software in Android. There is no Ubuntu equivalent. There isn’t hardware designed to be the ultimate Ubuntu experience. I’ve heard various Ubuntu advocates propose making a Ubuntu commercial. What’s the point, though? If someone saw a Ubuntu commercial, she couldn’t just go and buy Ubuntu, especially in certain countries. The options are limited or non-existent. And hardware compatibility is iffy (Dell still uses Broadcom cards… I have a Broadcom card in my Ubuntu preinstalled HP Mini, which HP no longer makes, by the way).

The straw that broke my camel back
This window button move in Ubuntu 10.04 is really indicative of a bad way Ubuntu is headed. Defaults matter. One of the things I liked about Ubuntu, as I stated before, is its sensible defaults. I don’t have to agree with everything the Ubuntu teams decide or that Mark Shuttleworth decides. That’s fine. You want GIMP out… I don’t agree with it, but I at least understand the rationale behind the decision (it takes up a lot of space on the disk, and most people do not need the crazy power-user features GIMP offers as a photo editor). This decision about the window controls came out of nowhere and had no apparent rationale. Instead of getting good reasons for the change, all we got was… nothing for a while. We got some people saying “Hey, it’s different” or “Just get used to it” or “You can change it back easily if you want.” These aren’t reasons for a change. These are coping strategies. If a change happens, there should be good reason for it. Look, I get Shuttleworth saying Ubuntu is not a democracy. It doesn’t have to be a democracy, though. How about, as self-appointed benevolent dictator for life, just explaining why you made a decision? People don’t have to agree with your decision, but at least if they have a reason for it, they are more likely to accept it. How about, even though you have the power and right to not listen to people, just soliciting feedback?

It took a lot of pressing from users to get Shuttleworth to talk a bit more about what kind of “feedback” and “data” he was looking for. He said at least that the decision wasn’t final, and he wanted genuine data. Based on his remarks in this bug report, it really does seem, though, that he has made up his mind that this is what is going to happen, regardless of what data and feedback people present him with—especially when people present a lot of legitimate points against the move, and then he just replies “And the major argument against it appears solely to be ‘we’re used to it here.'” For more details on those legitimate points, take a look at this and this.

Democracy v. Dictatorship = false dichotomy
In case anyone’s wondering, there are more than two options out there. You don’t have to put every decision to a vote. And you don’t have to totally disregard community input. You don’t have to try to please everyone or please no one. And you don’t have to be subject to mob rule if you offer a little transparency.

My advice to Shuttleworth for the future would be if you want to make a unilateral change, just be open about what your reasons are for it. You can be a strong leader without pissing off large segments of your user base. Just say “I want to change this a bit, because I think it offers X, Y, and Z usability improvements. I realize a change is difficult for everyone, and I also concede there are A, B, and C tradeoffs in making the change. The tradeoffs are worth it, though. Ultimately, the decision rests with me and the desktop experience team. Nevertheless, I would like to hear your concerns about the change, and the best way for you to communicate your concerns is through methods D and E.” Would that be so difficult? Any time you make a change, there will always be some people unhappy about it. You can still make the process a little less heated with just some communication and openness. After all, on your webpage, you say “Ubuntu is a community developed operating system that is perfect for laptops, desktops and servers.” Your millions of pounds help make Ubuntu happen. We all know that. Keep in mind that it would behoove you to not piss off your user base, as the success of Ubuntu can’t be bought with pounds alone. Millions of users contribute to Ubuntu in many ways as well.

Why Mac?
When I voiced opposition to this latest change in Ubuntu, I got a lot of “Ubuntu is not a democracy” and “You can always use something else.” Well, as I just explained, you can very well have a non-democracy that is still community-focused. I hope Mark Shuttleworth will reconsider for the future his approach to communicating (or not communicating, in this instance) with the larger Ubuntu communities. Really, though, if I’m going to be using an operating system maintained by a dictator, I might as well go for one who understands that 1) hardware and software planned together make for a better user experience and 2) even if users don’t agree with his design decisions, he should still have rationales for those decisions.

I can’t even tell you how many design decisions I disagree with Apple about (resize only from bottom right corner, zoom instead of maximize, disk image mounting for software installation, dock icons in poof of smoke when dragged off dock, etc.). You know what, though? Each one of those decisions I disagree with I also understand the rationale for. More importantly, I like how Apple doesn’t like to tackle too much at once. Instead of trying to support all hardware and then having regressions on various theoretically “supported” devices, Apple realizes it’s better to have a great experience on a limited number of devices.

And the attention to detail is impressive. The magnetic cord I love. I am a total klutz and can’t tell you how many cords I’ve ruined by tripping on them or tugging them the wrong way. In fact, I just broke my HP Mini cord this weekend and had to order a replacement cord. Not so with the magnetic cord on my wife’s Macbook Pro. When the Macbook is sleeping, the power light fades slowly in and out instead of doing a hard off and on blink. The power button is flush with the frame of the laptop and not jutting out. The sound quality is always good on Mac laptop speakers. There’s a lot to admire about Apple approach. It is one great way to present an integrated hardware-software computer experience. My hope was that someone would present another great way. We’ll see if that ever happens.

Am I abandoning Free software?
Not really. First of all, I don’t know that I’m going Mac. Macs are expensive, so I’d have to save up for one. Even if I do go Mac, though, my Mac experience would be very different from my wife’s Mac experience. For one thing, I might dual-boot with Linux Mint. And even if I stick with Mac OS X, I will use Thunderbird instead of Mail, Firefox instead of Safari, OpenOffice instead of iWork, and my Android phone instead of an iPhone (Cyanogen’s rooted rom has made me really appreciate the Android platform even though the iPhone has its advantages too). No change has to be permanent, though. If Ubuntu comes around or changes the way it does business, or if some other Linux distro focuses its energy on preinstallation and proper marketing/distribution, and thorough hardware compatibility testing on a few select models, I might make my way back. In the meantime, if I go Mac, don’t worry—I’ll still be making my Ubuntu tutorials. A bad decision though the window control switch is, it’s probably not bad enough for most Ubuntu users to actually abandon Ubuntu at this point. For me, it was a tipping point. It’s been a good five years.

Ubuntu 10.04 (Lucid Lynx) first impressions

They say you’re not supposed to upgrade to alpha pre-releases of Ubuntu on your main computer. Unfortunately, I have only one computer (my HP Mini 1120nr netbook) to test on, and it has a 16 GB SSD, so dual-booting isn’t even really an option. I just took the plunge, downloaded the latest Lucid Alpha .iso, “burnt” it to USB using UNetBootIn, and then installed it over my Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic Koala) installation.

I have to say I’m not impressed. Yes, I know it’s an alpha release, but I’ve done alpha releases of older versions of Ubuntu, and it’s usually not this bad so close to the beta release.

A few things I didn’t like

  1. Broadcom drivers can’t be fetched without an internet connection. Okay, so this was true with the last Ubuntu release also, but I know in previous versions Ubuntu would autodetect I had a Broadcom wireless card and then prompt me to activate the necessary drivers and then have it just work (which is what Ubuntu is supposed to do). What does Lucid do? It tells me there are drivers I need to install. When I click on the little green square icon to launch jockey-gtk and try to activate the driver, I get told that the driver can’t be fetched from the online repository. Why should you need an internet connection to get your internet connection working? That’s silly. I’ve filed a bug on it: 535824.
  2. Applications crashing left and right. I’m a bit more hopeful on this one. This does tend to happen in alpha releases. Nevertheless, it’s ridiculous with Lucid. It’s not even the application launches and then crashes. It crashes even before it launches. That happened for Gwibber, for Ubiquity, for Software Center.
  3. Wireless slow to reconnect after resuming from suspending. This bug was annoying and in Intrepid and Jaunty. It seemed to go away for Karmic, but now it’s back in Lucid. Look, the whole point of suspend-to-RAM (also known as sleep) is that you can put your computer into a battery-saving state that can be quickly used again without a long wait. If I wanted a long wait, I’d have shut down and then booted up again. It honestly would be quicker than waiting 30 seconds to a minute for wireless to reconnect. Same old bug: 274405.
  4. Internal mic settings not autodetected. Another thing that appeared in previous releases but you think they’d have fixed by now. Nope. The hardware detection isn’t the problem. It’s the settings configuration. By default, Ubuntu uses the microphone selection to use the microphone. Really, though, my internal mic is the line-in selection. Shouldn’t Ubuntu be able to tell that for certain models the internal mic is the line-in selection and just select that by default? Bug previously filed: 441480.
  5. General problems. To be honest, I just don’t have the motivation to file bugs on all these, since most of the bugs I file get ignored (or acknowledged and then not fixed). When I resume from suspend, in addition to wireless taking a long time to reconnect, the battery icon for gnome-power-manager appears and disappears from the taskbar like a blinking light. I also get an error message about the monitor configuration. Update manager is holding back certain updates, but the updates still appear. What’s up with that? I had to explicitly go to Edit Connections on Network Manager to get it to automatically reconnect to my wireless network. Shouldn’t it try to automatically reconnect by default? That’s what it did in previous versions.

Another worthy critique

Someone on the Ubuntu Forums linked to 16 things that could be improved in Ubuntu 10.04, and I have to say it’s brilliant and very thorough. I don’t agree 100% with it (for example, Control-Alt-Delete needing to launch gnome-system-monitor). I do, however, agree with most of it and the general sentiment, which is that a lot of the decisions the Ubuntu devs made seem to have absolutely no rationale. It’s not that it’s a rationale I or others disagree with. It appears to be a totally non-existent rationale.

I’d like to elaborate on a couple of points here.

First of all, I don’t have a problem with the window buttons being on the left, as opposed to on the right. I’ve used both Windows and Mac OS X extensively, and I can use both just fine. Here’s the real issue, though. On Mac OS X, the window buttons are the left but the close window button is on the absolute left. On Lucid Lynx, the button group is on the left, but the close button is on the right of the group. That means if you want to close a window with your mouse, you have to move the mouse over to the middle-left of the window instead of the absolutely left corner of the window. Believe it or not, for most users, closing the window is the most common action used with the mouse (not maximizing/restoring or minimizing). Whereas you have easy key combinations to switch windows (Alt-Tab or Cmd-Tab) or minimize windows (Control-Alt-D, Windows-D, or Cmd-H), there isn’t really an easy and consistent way to close windows. Sometimes in Ubuntu it’s Control-W. Sometimes it’s Control-Q. Sometimes you have to do the awkward Alt-F4. Also, it’s safer to use the mouse to close a window since you’re less likely to close the wrong window. I’ve more than once Alt-F4’ed (in both Windows and Linux) the wrong window (thinking it was in focus when it wasn’t).

Someone brought up in the comments that a smaller font may be better for netbooks but isn’t great for larger desktop monitors. Well, Ubuntu seems to be able to autodetect my screen resolution is 1024×576. I’m sure for a lot of large desktop monitors it can autodetect your screen resolution as 1600×1200 or whatever. Would it be that difficult to have the defaults auto-adjusted to your screen resolution? So if you’re using a netbook, the default font would be 8pt or 9pt, and if you’re using a large monitor the default font would be 12pt or 14pt. Hey, there’s an idea.

The Future of Ubuntu

Pretty soon, I’m almost finishing up my fifth year with Ubuntu. I started Ubuntu in May 2005 with Ubuntu 5.04 (Hoary Hedgehog). I’ve used every release since then: Breezy Badger, Dapper Drake, Edgy Eft, Feisty Fawn, Gutsy Gibbon, Hardy Heron, Intrepid Ibex, Jaunty Jackalope, and Karmic Koala. I’ve posted literally tens of thousands of times on the forums to help new users with their problems. I’ve filed bug reports. I’ve written documentation (both official and unofficial). Over the years, I’ve seen Ubuntu improve a lot. In the old days, there were separate live and installer CDs. The installer CD didn’t even have a point-and-click interface. You couldn’t enable the extra repositories without manually editing the /etc/apt/sources.list file. You couldn’t safely write to NTFS. There was no bootsplash. There was no Wubi to allow a 99.9999% safe dual-boot setup with Windows. I like the recent logo rebranding, too.

With all that vast improvement, though, Ubuntu still hasn’t come significantly closer to fixing Bug #1. There are a few good reasons for this, the main one being that Ubuntu still hopes people will download, burn, install, and configure Ubuntu on their own. This isn’t the way to penetrate the market. And the preinstalled Ubuntu options are not appealing to the general public for various reasons. Dell doesn’t advertise Ubuntu well or price it competitively to Windows. Dell also does not sell Ubuntu on higher-end models… or even in very many countries. You cannot find the Ubuntu-preinstalled Dell models in a physical store to try out. You have to buy it sight-unseen. Same deal with System76 and ZaReason for that last part. If I’m going to be shelling out hundreds or thousands of dollars on a laptop, I want to be able to try it out and see how it looks and feels. With my last two purchases, I had to do it sight unseen (Xandros-preinstalled Asus Eee PC 701 and Ubuntu-preinstalled HP Mini 1120nr). It wasn’t fun having to scour the internet for various reviews and then realizing there were always one or two quirks that no one mentioned that I later discovered.

I don’t know if Jane Silber or Mark Shuttleworth will ever stumble upon my blog, but I wrote two years ago what I believe their best strategy would be, and I still believe that to be true: Ubuntu: The Open Source Apple Challenger? You need a store. You need a physical store with well-designed custom fully Linux-compatible laptops. It has to be as sleek as the Apple Store but with Ubuntu’s unique branding and, more importantly, a more open philosophy. Yes, we highly recommend you use this Ubuntu laptop and this Ubuntu phone and this Ubuntu MP3 player and this Ubuntu printer, but you may also find Ubuntu works well with many other devices. These are the ones we guarantee will work. No kernel regressions. Lots of extra testing.

When you file a bug report for Ubuntu, you’ll have to post lspci and other stuff only if you’re using a non-sanctioned model. Otherwise, Launchpad will automatically know exactly what model you have.

I can hear the Ubuntu zealot backlash in my head now. “How can you complain about something that’s free?” “Why don’t you just get a Mac?” “Ubuntu just needs more polish.” No. No. No. That’s not it. See, as I’ve pointed out before, you can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to say that which is free is not worthless, you have to stand by the quality of that which is free, which means you have to accept that there can be criticism of that which is free. Otherwise, you have to say free is necessarily inferior to that which is non-free. Besides, I have devoted hundreds of hours to helping Ubuntu. Maybe I didn’t pay money for it (except that one time I donated to the forums), but I certainly have donated enough of my time and energy to the project to be able to voice a criticism or two. I’ve certainly filed my fair share of bug reports and posted my fair share of brainstorms. And, sure, Ubuntu could use some more polish, but polish won’t save the day if people are still supposed to download and install Ubuntu themselves. For more details on that, see Linux-for-the-masses narratives.

Should I get a Mac, though? I don’t know. I have a lot of problems with Macs. I don’t like how you can resize windows from only the lower-right corner. I don’t like how there is a universal taskbar. I don’t like how accidentally dragging an icon off the dock makes it vanish in a poof of smoke. I don’t like how you can’t get a new finder window by pressing Cmd-N. I don’t like how Enter renames and Cmd-O opens. I don’t like how minimized applications don’t restore when you Cmd-Tab to them. I don’t like how closing the last window of an application doesn’t quit the application.

You know what, though? Even though I don’t agree with how Apple set up the interface, I understand the rationale behind each and every one of those decisions. I don’t have to agree with the rationale to understand it. For some of the Ubuntu or Gnome teams’ decisions, I cannot see the rationale at all. They just seem like bugs or arbitrary decisions. They don’t all follow a consistent paradigm or vision. More importantly, Apple does have some great innovative things. Love the multi-touch implementation on the new Macbooks. Love the magnetic power cords.

I guess we’ll see what happens when I’m next in a position to buy a new computer. If, by the time I buy a new computer, Ubuntu has physical stores with well-polished and properly marketed preinstalled laptops, I’ll probably get one of those. If, by the time I buy a new computer, Google Chrome OS netbooks are actually a good option, I’ll probably get one of those. If, however, we’re still in the same place we are now with Linux preinstalled, I may be getting a Mac. Don’t let me down, Jane and Mark. I admire so much of what you do, but Ubuntu really has so much more and different to do to get across that Bug #1 threshold. It isn’t just about improving software. It’s about an entirely new business approach.

P.S. I’m not threatening to leave Ubuntu. I’m simply stating what I believe to be a practical approach. If it’s been two years and I go to Google Chrome OS or Mac OS X, I’ll probably still be doing Ubuntu tutorials to help new users. They’ll just still be primarily for Windows ex-power users and not the so-called masses (aka “jane six-pack,” aka “average user”).

What I’d love to see in Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic Koala)

I have to say I’m very impressed with Ubuntu’s latest 9.04 release (Jaunty Jackalope). I’ve used every single release of Ubuntu since 5.04 (Hoary Hedgehog), and Jaunty is by far the best and most polished release. And a couple of the usability bugs I pointed out two years ago have since been fixed (restore from trash, image previews in upload dialogue). Even one of the top ten brainstorm ideas I supported was implemented (giving the proper instructions to repair an interrupted software installation).

We definitely need to go a step further, though, in the next release. I know right now Mark Shuttleworth is thinking about polishing notifications (and hopefully PulseAudio, too) and working a bit more on Ubuntu Netbook Remix and the Ayatana Project. Some of us end users just want a few things fixed, though.

Here’s my current list of top things I’d love to see in the next Ubuntu release (with links to the appropriate Brainstorm idea):

Idea #136: Add a tutorial slideshow to the installation process
I proposed this idea almost immediately after Brainstorm launched. It has none of the drawbacks of a pop-up “Welcome” video when you log in but has all of the benefits. The developers seemed to approve it at the time but deferred it until 8.10. Then when 8.10 came around, they deferred it until 9.04. Now that 9.04 has passed… well, let’s hope the tutorial slideshow makes it into 9.10.

Idea #400: Prevent applications from stealing focus
I can’t tell you how frustrating this is. I never want to be typing in one application and then have a background application start up and have some of my typing appear in one application and some in the other, especially if I’m typing a password. Focus stealing should be off by default and be able to be turned on for only those who want it.

Idea #2298: Automatic reparation of interrupted dpkg
They finally got it so that when your package manager is interrupted during software installation that you’ll correctly be instructed to use

sudo dpkg –configure -a

to correct it instead of

dpkg –configure -a

How about ditching the commands altogether and just having a button that fixes the installation? Or just automatically fixing it the next time you launch the package manager?

Idea #4347: gksudo if I try to do an action I don’t have access to
If I’m an admin user who is able to sudo and gksudo, why would you say access is denied instead of allowing me to authenticate?

This isn’t a security issue, as I am already in the admin group, and I already have the sudo password.

Idea #7792: Use BitTorrent as primary protocol for apt-get
No reason not to do this. Puts less load on the servers. Faster downloads. Everyone’s happy.

Idea #8008: Provide a simple interface for labeling partitions and external drives
If I want to rename my thumb drive, why can’t I just F2 it? Do I have to install mtools and look up cryptic commands off the Wiki?

Idea #11107: Users and Groups should always make sure at least one user is in the admin group
By Users and Groups I mean the graphical menu item System > Administration > Users and Groups. If someone is the last admin, she shouldn’t be able to remove herself from the admin group via the GUI. If she knows what she’s doing and wants to do it from the command-line, that’s fine.

No one should have to reference this sudo fix because of an unchecked box.

Idea #15067: Publish and publicize a developers’ hardware list
The Ubuntu releases inevitably have bugs for certain users with certain hardware configurations. And there’s no way for the developers to test all hardware configurations. Well, what are the developers using? If they have no bugs when Ubuntu is released, I’d love to get the same hardware configurations they have.

Well, I won’t hold my breath on these. It took the Gnome devs about eight years to implement a restore from trash. Let’s see what happens.

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.