Today is the final day of my “10 Days of Ubuntu 10.10 Feature Requests” series. See the series introduction here.
Day 10 – Paper Cuts, Paper Cuts, Paper Cuts
I believe that the One Hundred Paper Cuts project will end up being the most significant thing Ubuntu contributes to the Linux ecosphere.
Think that’s crazy? Rest assured that it isn’t.
There is no “one flaw” that explains why Linux has yet to reach mass market adoption. People can talk about any number of individual problems – be it hardware support, marketing, stability, whatever – but at the end of the day it is impossible to argue that either Windows or OSX surpasses Linux in all of these areas. For every person who argues that hardware support is better under Windows, another person will argue that it’s better under Linux, and the same could be said for any other macro-level problem.
So if there is not a “master flaw” that keeps Linux distros from becoming mainstream desktop OSes, what are other possible explanations? In my opinion, the primary problem is not any one failure in particular, but the sum total of a number of very small, almost-consequential-on-an-individual-basis problems.
I’m talking about paper cuts.
Ask yourself, for a moment, why Apple is commonly referenced as the de facto standard of technological usability. (I realize this is up for debate, but clearly the mainstream media and general public – at least in the U.S. – believe that Apple represents a high point in usability design.) Is it because of some singular feature? Some singular design?
No. It is because Apple sells products with a singular design focus: a simple, cohesive user experience. Every program looks and acts roughly the same under OSX. An iPhone doesn’t have twenty different interfaces for twenty different system menus. Your new iPod works in a way that is logical and easy-to-understand, even if you don’t know anything about the underlying technology.
Where Apple has excelled is in selling the idea that their products are fun and simple to use. Microsoft tries to do this, and so far has failed. Linux…
…well, I’m not sure how Linux distros attempt to portray this.
At the end of the day, Apple teaches us something very interesting about technology: that most consumers really don’t care which product is more technologically advanced. They care which product is more fun and simple to use. That was the real innovation behind the iPod, and arguably the innovation behind most of Apple’s products.
Now I am not an Apple fan, and I don’t think the Apple business model is the only way to operate. But it is difficult to argue with Apple’s general marketing prowess, particularly when it comes to their carefully crafted messaging of Apple products as being both the most fun and the most usable.
Some macro-level features have already emerged in Ubuntu that will address this competition in grand fashion. (Ubuntu’s Software Center versus Apple’s AppStore, for example.) But Apple has not achieved its status in the tech world because of any one magical feature, so while the arrival of these macro-level features in Ubuntu is clearly good, such features alone are not an indicator of the project’s future success.
The real measure of Ubuntu’s competition with Apple will be in the way that minor, seemingly inconsequential interface problems are resolved.
Or said another way: the real measure of Ubuntu’s future success will be the way it deals with desktop Linux’s many, many, MANY paper cuts.
Really, I view the resolution of paper cuts as the ultimate purpose of individual Linux distros. Major feature development is often best left to specific development teams (such as kernel, KDE/GNOME, or application developers). Distros must focus more on rolling other group’s major pieces of software into a coherent whole. Ubuntu has yet to do that as successfully as they need to if they want to compete with Apple the way Shuttleworth has outlined.
As an example, consider the paper cuts being addressed in the upcoming 9.10 release (Karmic Koala). Some of my favorites include:
- F-Spot puts photos in Photos folder not Pictures folder
- Changing workspaces via scrollwheel on desktop is problematic, especially when using touchpad
- Default folders inside Home Folder (e.g. Documents, Music) should have special icons/emblems
- “Auto eth0” confusing for most people
- The thumbnail of an image should not be bigger than the image itself
- Spellcheck in Gaim, Evolution, gedit etc doesn’t recognize “Ubuntu”
- Annoying beep on shutdown using “System -> Shut down…”
- ‘Open With’ Nautilus list is unsorted
Note that none of these paper cuts are likely to be mentioned in any of the major 9.10 release announcements or reviews. Additionally, no new user is likely to drop Ubuntu because of just one of these issues.
But when you look at the sum total of them (and this is but a sampling of the ~100 being addressed), you realize that those are some pretty damn annoying quirks, and all of them together represent a major barrier to the viability of Ubuntu as a major desktop OS.
So please take me seriously when I say that Ubuntu’s ability to deal with paper cuts will represent its single greatest success or failure. Canonical must know that specialized distros will almost always surpass Ubuntu in terms of hardware support, performance, stability, and any number of other macro-level features. As such, I hope the Ubuntu community doesn’t spend an undue amount of energy trying to compete with other distros/OSes on those merits alone.
Because if desktop Linux is ever going to truly succeed, it will not be because of some as-of-yet undiscovered “killer feature.” It will not be because of tremendous technical prowess. (If that were the case, you can bet it would have already won.)
It will be because it has successfully dealt with its many, many, MANY paper cuts.
Conclusion: The most important Ubuntu 10.10 feature will be the successful resolution of as many “paper cuts” as humanly possible.