Monday, April 04, 2011
As I noted briefly last week, I've been upgrading computer operating systems lately. I finally got around to my netbook yesterday, putting it off for next-to-last since I knew it would be the next-to-hardest upgrade. Part of the difficulty comes from the fact that some of the peculiarities of netbooks (e.g., small screen size, unusual components, and the need to watch power wastage) preclude simply slapping an unmodified desktop operating system on them.
I had been mostly satisfied with Eeebuntu, but that software project forked (I think) into two projects, neither of which I could use. One fork, Aurora, wasn't even available for download, and the other fork, Easy Peasy, did not correctly see the size of my solid state "hard drive" or successfully install. (And, if what I later found was correct, it turned out to have been built on an even more obsolete version of Ubuntu than I'd been running, anyway. "Success" would have defeated the whole purpose of this exercise!) Wanting something based on Ubuntu for the sake of simplicity, I quickly found something called "Ubuntu Netbook Edition" (aka Ubuntu Netbook Remix). "Good," I thought. "It's Ubuntu and this project is backed by Canonical, so I won't get stranded again."
I like it for the most part, but its default interface has a flaw that I find incredible for an operating system supposedly tailor-made for a device with a small screen: See that launcher on the screen shot at the right? (HT: The K-12 Open Source Classroom) You can't hide it!
It's called "Unity" and I understand that it will be hide-able in later editions of the software, including the release due at the end of this month. But still: It boggles my mind that one of the distinguishing features of the default user interface for software designed specifically for a device that has a small screen to begin with ... is that it wastes some of that space! If you have a small netbook, as I do, but aren't accustomed to straightening out problems like this, you will quickly become frustrated with this and probably switch to something else. Thus, given how hungry for new market share Linux distributors are, I find this decision doubly baffling. (Way to make Windows XP look good, guys!)
I have no use for a launcher like Unity, so my solution so far has simply been to log in to the desktop interface. (The option doesn't show up until you tab into the password space as you log in, but the change will persist from session to session once made.) The disadvantage to this is that you do lose some of the vertical space the default interface buys, but if you have a narrow screen, you will be glad you did this.
This waste of space is a kind of problem I repeatedly see, mainly in computer software, but also on other products. For example, my cell phone opens like a clam shell, and yet has buttons I never use on its edges that are almost impossible not to touch every time one opens it, and that often lead to one accidentally recording a voice memo. I frequently wonder whether anyone ever bothers to use such things before offering them to the public.
It's as if somewhere in the design chain, someone with lots of clout or persuasiveness became fixated on something he deemed clever, and got his way, the whole purpose of the project be damned. Usually, one can't stop products, or projects one isn't closely involved with from making such glaring errors, but one can learn from them. What are we trying to do? Are we getting in our own way? These are questions I wished someone on the UNR team had asked (or had asked more forcefully) about Unity (which is also sluggish and which I have seen described as "buggy").
This kind of error can drive me batty if I let it. From now on, I think I'll try to harness this irritation: I will use it to remind myself to ask those very questions of myself.
Following on the main post about Ubuntu Netbook Edition, here's a post I'll re-visit later: "13 Ways To Customize Ubuntu Netbook Remix For Better Usability." I'm most interested in the problems that motivate #4 and #13.
There's a very interesting post over at Instapundit on why Americans distrust intellectuals. In the past, I've touched on conservative attacks on intellectuals as such, and looked at a scientist who studies issues pertinent to the kind of flip-flopping scientific advice that makes so many people skeptical of scientists.
I'm proud to say that I've long been resistant to Item #9 ("Free!") on this list of ten costly cognitive biases. Back in college, I quickly turned down a friend's offer of a car for free when I realized I was too poor to pay for its use and upkeep.
Feast your eyes on these stunning aerial photographs of Dutch tulip fields. (HT: John Cook)