Today is day 1 of my “10 Days of Ubuntu 10.10 Feature Requests” series. See the series introduction here.
Day 1 – A Great Package Management (Add/Remove Software) Experience
Much has been said about Ubuntu’s forthcoming “AppCenter” / “Software Store” / “New Add/Remove Dialog”. (Its current design document can be found on this Ubuntu wiki page.) I won’t bore you by contributing yet another lengthy list of requests for this hotly debated item; instead, I will distill the essence of this project down into a list of simple “must-haves”:
- The “Store” moniker must be dropped. This is debated in more detail at Ubuntu Brainstorm, but the reasoning for this is simple: at least in the U.S., stores are where you purchase products or services. Yes, the proposed “Software Store” will include for-pay software, but that just one small component. The proposed “Software Store” will also handle free software installation, updates, drivers, codecs, removing software, user reviews, distro upgrades and maybe more. To reference all this under a “Store” heading will only confuse people (“I have to go to the store to update my software?”) and discourage them from exploring it. (Update: as of 29-Sep-2009, “Software Store” has been renamed to Software Center.” Sweet!)
- The AppCenter must make package management easier. Package management is arguably one of the top advantages Linux offers over OSX and Windows. Unfortunately, it can sometimes be a hit-or-miss experience – even to the point that one major tech reviewer referred to it as “the Achilles heel of Linux.” While I think that assessment is downright ridiculous, even seasoned Linux users must admit that Ubuntu could stand to improve its package management experience. The idea of unifying so many packaging tools under one banner is excellent – but only if it actually simplifies the experience for both power users and casual users.
- Finding apps must be made painfully simple. One of the most common complaints with the current Ubuntu add/remove dialog is that finding the right program – especially as a newcomer – can be very difficult. If the AppCenter is to solve this, users must be able to find applications in a variety of ways: by competitor’s products (e.g. “excel” → OpenOffice.org Spreadsheet, Gnumeric, KSpread), category and subcategory (e.g. Games -> First-Person Shooter), filetype (e.g. “what edits pdf files?”), and more. Many of these ideas are presented in the design doc referenced above, but if the search tool doesn’t handle all these situations properly than it will be no better than the current add/remove dialog.
- Software listings must provide standardized descriptions that include all relevant properties (version, size, languages, screenshots, user ratings/reviews, etc). This is discussed in more detail at Ubuntu Brainstorm, but it’s worth noting that this represents a major UI project. Careful work must be done to make sure that just the right amount of information is presented – too much information is as bad as too little. I am not an interaction designer so I don’t claim to know the “perfect balance,” but for AppCenter to work it must address this problem very carefully.
Many of us think AppCenter is an excellent idea in theory – but if it is implemented incorrectly, it will only serve to confuse new users and alienate existing ones.
Conversely, if it is implemented correctly it could make package management a true “killer feature” for desktop Linux, with the pleasant side-effect of helping Ubuntu become a viable platform for paid software.