So with the release of the new version of Ubuntu, 6.10 (6 for 2006, 10 for October) I decided that rather than merely upgrading my system from 6.06 to 6.10, I would wipe clean my hard disk, wipe all my desktop settings and try to start afresh to see how long it would take me to get a clean, default install into a position where I’m happy with it.
One of the main reason for starting afresh was to separate my personal files onto another partition so that I easily could reinstall the system another time without risking all of my settings which I find to be such a sane idea that it might be considered for the default.
It worked very well. All I had to do was to create a third partition after the standard 2 (root and swap) and choose that as home in the installer. Easy.
So the installation went without a hitch, until I tried restarting the system without the CD-ROM in the drive and got the dreaded “Hard disk boot sector invalid” error. The system worked fine booting from the CD-ROM and I could then figure out how to reinstall GRUB and make the root partition bootable.
Then I could go on to adding all the extra software I use which isn’t in the default installation, and it for the most part worked really well, partly because I knew exactly which obscure names the applications I wanted were hiding behind, partly because the GNOME application installer just works really well. In general, Ubuntu is reaching the point where it is not just the best Free Software desktop out there, but the best desktop period. Much kudos to the hard working developers – especially those who managed to fulfill their hard work despite of my anthropological nagging and random visits. 🙂
The only issues (apart from the rather unfortunate boot sector debacle) arose when it came to the multimedia bits. With all the licensing issues surrounding the various formats, you’ll need to through a few hoops (and a lot of packages) to get all of it working. It will be nice have some centralized way to do multimedia codec installation in Ubuntu. Though installation of the installation of the kind of proprietary software that is fundamental for Internet use has become a lot easier by making most it available through the GNOME application installer, I really hope that we can make it even easier to make ready by creating a meta-package for it.
All in all, it took me a couple of hours to bring the system into a state where I felt that it was *my* desktop. Another few hours if you include the backing up and the downloading and burning of the CD-ROM. Not bad, but there’s room for plenty of more polish.
Note that all of this is in the “nice to have” category, and that it is the sort of thing that won’t bring developers out left and right to remedy this. But it is the kind of polish that will give people that positive surprise that will make them fall in love with their system. It’s the kind of saying “oh, we know you’d most likely want this as well. So we made it easy for you to get working” that evokes trust in the user. She will think “If they’ve thought about this as well, they must really have spent a lot of time making sure everything is works well.
Designer Emeritus Don Norman has written a wonderful little book on “Emotional Design” which sums up how this emotional relationship between the user and the used object (in this case an operating system) is created. Among other things, he asked people he met about their favourite things and their most positive experiences with technology. One answered:
I still tell people about my experience, years ago, at the Austin Four Seasons Hotel. I checked into my room to find a TV-Guide on the bed, with a bookmark placed on the current date.
Which exactly sums up the kind of positive surprise that good design should deliver. The kind of forethought that makes it a joy to use. For me, when installing Ubuntu 6.10, the surprise came when I saw the new default wallpaper:
There has been a lot of discussion about the new Ubuntu artwork, and the SABDFL has been working hard to impose his vision of a glitzy, saturated look. But this is actually pinkish. And too bright as well. What happened to the proper brown? Hoping for alternatives, a simple right click on the desktop brought up this wonder of chocolate loveliness:
And I felt that positive surprise: “Ah! They thought about that after all.” To whoever did that wallpaper: Thank you! I’ll buy you a beer next time I meet you. It is almost edible in its chocolate love!
And that’s the conclusion of Norman’s book as well: Good design not only fits the user’s needs, it also enables the user to make the technology their own, to customize it to their own needs. As Norman quotes Harrison and Dourish:
A space can only be made into a place by its occupants. The best that the designer can do is put the tools into their hands.
This is especially true with computer programs where everything is potentially customizable, and the machine itself has so little emotional value attached to it to begin with. One recent example of appropriating this new space and turning into something personal was on Planet KDE, the aggregated communal blog for the KDE desktop project where a developer wrote about receiving and customizing her new laptop.
There even seems to be a whole F/OSS subculture focused on making the desktop look nice and glittery with all of the latest eye candy, sharing screenshots of their desktops, where people have a place to utter the essential words of Emotional Design: “I want this.”