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a potpourri of mirth and madness

Ubuntu Brainstorm Top 10 for December 2010

As I mentioned recently, the Ubuntu Technical Board is reviewing the most popular topics in Ubuntu Brainstorm and coordinating official responses on behalf of the project. This means that the most popular topics on Ubuntu Brainstorm receive expert answers from the people working in these areas.

This is the first batch, and we plan to repeat this process each quarter. We’ll use feedback and experiences from this run to improve it for next time, so let us know what you think.

Power management (idea #24782)

Laptops are now outselling desktops globally, and laptop owners want to get the most out of their expensive and heavy batteries. So it’s no surprise that people are wondering about improved power management in Ubuntu. This is a complex topic which spans the Linux software stack, and certainly isn’t an issue which will be “solved” in the foreseeable future, but we see a lot of good work being done in this area.

To tell us about it, Amit Kucheria, Ubuntu kernel developer and leader of the Linaro working group on Power Management, contributed a great writeup on this topic, with technical analysis, tips and recommendations, and a look at what’s coming next.

I am going to attempt to summarize the various use profiles and what Ubuntu does (or can do) to prolong battery life in those profiles. Power management, when done right, should not require the user to make several (difficult) choices. It should just work – providing a good balance of performance and battery life.

IP address conflicts (idea #25648)

IP addressing is a subject that most people should never have to think about. When something isn’t working, and two computers end up with the same IP address, it can be hard to tell what’s wrong. I was personally surprised to find this one near the top of the list on Ubuntu Brainstorm, since it seems unlikely to be a very common problem. Nonetheless, it was voted up, and we’re listening.

There is a tool called ipwatchd which is already available in the package repository, and was created specifically to address this problem. This seems like a further indication that this problem may be more widespread than I might assume.

The idea has already been marked as “implemented” in Brainstorm based on the existence of this package, but that doesn’t help people who have never heard of ipwatchd, much less found and installed it.

What do you think? Have you ever run into this problem? Would it have helped you if your computer had told you what was wrong, or would it have only confused you further? Is it worth considering this for inclusion in the default install? Post your comments in Brainstorm.

Selecting the only available username to login (idea #6974)

Although Linux is designed as a multi-user operating system, most Ubuntu systems are only used by one person. In that light, it seems a bit redundant to ask the user to identify themselves every time they login, by clicking on their username. Why not just preselect it? Indeed, this would be relatively simple to implement, but the real question is whether it is the right choice for users.

Martin Pitt of the Ubuntu Desktop Team notes that consistency is an important factor in ease of use, and asks for further feedback.

So in summary, we favored consistency and predictablility over the extra effort to press Enter once. This hasn’t been a very strong opinion or decision, though, and the desktop team would be happy to revise it.

Icon for .deb packages (idea #25197)

Building on the invaluable efforts of Debian developers, we work hard to make sure that people can get all of the software they need from Ubuntu repositories through Software Center and APT, where they are authenticated and secure. However, in practice, it is occasionally necessary for users to work with .deb files directly.

Brainstorm idea 25197 suggests that the icon used to represent .deb packages in the file manager is not ideal, and can be confusing.

Matthew Paul Thomas of the Canonical Design Team responds with encouragement for deb-thumbnailer, which makes the icon both more distinctive and more informative. He has opened bug 685851 to track progress on getting it packaged and into the main repository.

I have reviewed the proposed solutions with Michael Vogt, our packaging expert. Solution #1 is straightforward, but we particularly like solutions #5 and #10, using a thumbnailer to show the application icon from inside each package.

Keeping the time accurate over the Internet by default (idea #25301)

It’s important for an Internet connected computer to know the correct time of day, which is why Ubuntu has included automatic Internet time synchronization with NTP since the very first release (4.10 “warty”). So some of us were a little surprised to see this as one of the most popular ideas on Ubuntu Brainstorm.

Colin Watson of the Ubuntu Technical Board investigated and discovered a case where this wasn’t working correctly. It’s now fixed for Ubuntu 11.04, and Colin has sent the patches upstream to Debian and GNOME.

My first reaction was “hey, that’s odd – I thought we already did that?”. We install the ntpdate package by default (although it’s deprecated upstream in favour of other tools, but that shouldn’t be important here). ntpdate is run from /etc/network/if-up.d/ntpdate, in other words every time you connect to a network, which should be acceptably frequent for most people, so it really ought to Just Work by default. But this is one of the top ten problems where users have gone to the trouble of proposing solutions on Brainstorm, so it couldn’t be that simple. What was going on?

More detail in GNOME system monitor (idea #25887)

Under System, Preferences, System Monitor, you can find a tool to peek “under the hood” at the Linux processes which power every Ubuntu system. Power users, hungry for more detail on their systems’ inner workings, voted to suggest that more detail be made available through this interface.

Robert Ancell of the Ubuntu Desktop Team answered their call by offering to mentor a volunteer to develop a patch, and someone has already stepped up with a first draft.

Help the user understand when closing a window does not close the app (idea #25801)

When the user clicks the close button, most applications obediently exit. A few, though, will just hide, and continue running, because they assume that’s what the user actually wants, and it can be hard to tell which has happened.

Ivanka Majic, Creative Strategy Lead at Canonical, shares her perspective on this issue, with a pointer to work in progress to resolve it.

This is more than a good idea, it’s an important gap in the usability of most of the desktop operating systems in widespread use today.

Ubuntu Software Centre Removal of Configuration Files (idea #24963)

One feature of the Debian packaging system used in Ubuntu is that it draws a distinction between “removing” a package and “purging” it. Purging should remove all traces of the package, such that installing and then immediately purging a package should return the system to the same state. Removing will leave certain files behind, including system configuration files and sometimes runtime data.

This subtle distinction is useful to system administrators, but only serves to confuse most end users, so it’s not exposed by Software Center: it just defaults to “removing” packages. This proposal in Ubuntu Brainstorm suggests that Software Center should purge packages by default instead.

Michael Vogt of the Ubuntu Foundations Team explains the reasoning behind this default, and offers an alternative suggestion based on his experience with the package management system.

This is not a easy problem and we need to carefully balance the needs to keep the UI simple with the needs to keep the system from accumulating cruft.

Ubuntu One file sync progress (idea #25417)

Ubuntu One file synchronization works behind the scenes, uploading and downloading as needed to replicate your data to multiple computers. It does most of its work silently, and it can be hard to tell what it is doing or when it will be finished.

John Lenton, engineering manager for the Ubuntu One Desktop+ team, posts on the AskUbuntu Q&A site with tools and tips which work today, and their plans to address this issue comprehensively in the future.

Multimedia performance (idea #24878)

With a cornucopia of multimedia content available online today, it’s important that users be able to access it quickly and easily. Poor performance in the audio, video and graphics subsystems can spoil the experience, if resource-hungry multimedia applications can’t keep up with the flow of data.

Allison Randal, Ubuntu Technical Architect, answers with an analysis of the problem and the proposed solutions, an overview of current activity in this area, and pointers for getting involved.

The fundamental concern is a classic one for large systems: changes in one part of the system affect the performance of another part of the system. It’s modestly difficult to measure the performance effects of local changes, but exponentially more difficult to measure the “network effects” of changes across the system.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

December 10, 2010 at 14:04

Breathing information

I’ve written previously about my reading habits, online and offline, and the patterns I extrapolate to content consumption in general. I’ve been talking with other people about this as well, and am beginning to develop a model to apply to my daily life.

There are plenty of unsatisfactory metaphors circulating in this area: we eat the “information diet”, drink from the “fire hose”, endure the “information explosion”, and so on. None of them describe the richness of my experience: the profound variations in style, texture, speed, depth and movement are lost in this kind of dry imagery.

Instead, I think of it like respiration.

We inhale information, and we also exhale it transformed. We do this, consciously or unconsciously, every moment of our lives. Sometimes we do it quickly, other times slowly, and it can be relaxing or stimulating. We only retain a small amount of what we take in, but it becomes a part of us. We can immerse ourselves deeply, meditatively, in a series of breaths, or fail to notice as we breathe shallowly or pause altogether. One breath may be virtually silent, the next filled with a song or a question or a piercing whistle.

We maintain a balance in our breathing, and I aspire to do the same with information: reading and writing, listening and speaking, seeing and being seen. I don’t mean this simplistically, that I should do both in equal proportion (imagine trying to write as many words as you read!), but doing both consistently. It is often only when I share an idea that I come to understand it deeply, no matter how much I have read about it. By writing it down, or telling someone about it, I naturally fill in the gaps in my understanding and create mental structures which help me recall and apply what I’ve learned.

My input and output should be balanced appropriately for my circumstances. Rapid-fire email is like hyperventilation: I can do it for a while, reading and replying in quick succession, and even feel energized by it, but if I go on for too long, I get dizzy. Running might call for a certain breathing ratio, and Yoga quite a different one. Both can be healthy practices, but they are different, and each requires focus and consistency.

Another key lesson from breathing is to let go. A friend recently told me about his daily online news routine, which included closing any unread tabs at the end of the session. I will sometimes hang onto an article or a video for days or weeks before I find the opportunity to take it in. I eventually get around to most of them, but meanwhile they are taking up space and causing a continuous low level of anxiety or guilt. This information isn’t going anywhere, and if it’s truly significant for me, it will most likely turn up again. If it doesn’t, that’s OK too.

Similarly, it’s not wise to breathe stale, indoor air for too long. I will try to step outside regularly, and engage with people and media from outside my usual sphere. When the weather is tolerable, I’ll open up the house and let plenty of fresh air circulate. This will help me avoid getting stuck in the “echo chamber” of my own ideas, or in groupthink.

Perhaps most significantly, I will try to remember that information exchange, like breathing, is not an end in itself. It is a means to action. This will remind me to get out of my head regularly, and do something significant with what I’ve learned.

Ready? Breathe.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

December 2, 2010 at 15:44

Three ways for Ubuntu to help developers

Developers are a crucial part of any successful software platform. In the same way that an operating system is “just” a means for people to use applications, a platform is “just” a means for developers to create applications and make them available to people.

There are three primary ways in which Ubuntu can help developers do their work. They are all related, but distinct, and so we should consider them individually:

1. Developing for Ubuntu

Today, Ubuntu bundles thousands of free software applications, for both clients and servers, most of which are packaged by Debian.

Ubuntu also carries certifications for a variety of third-party ISV software, both open source and proprietary, which are coordinated through Canonical’s partner program.

In both of these cases, many of these applications are actually developed on other platforms, and ported to Ubuntu, either by the free software community or by the creators of the software.

2. Developing on Ubuntu

Ubuntu is already quite popular among developers, who mainly run Desktop Edition on their workstations. They might be developing:

  • web applications (with server-side and browser components)
  • portable applications (e.g. using Java, or Adobe AIR)
  • mobile applications (e.g. for Android or iOS)
  • native applications, which might target Ubuntu Desktop Edition itself, or supporting multiple platforms through a framework like Qt

3. Distributing through Ubuntu

Like other modern operating systems, Ubuntu isn’t just a platform where applications run, but also a system for finding and installing applications. Starting with APT, which originated in Debian, we’ve added Software Center, the ISV partner repository, and various other capabilities in this area. They all help to connect developers with users, facilitating distribution of software to users, and feedback to developers.

So, where should we focus?

Some developers might be interested in all three of these, while others might only care about one or two.

However, most of the developer improvements we could make in Ubuntu would only address one of these areas.

For this reason, I think it’s important that we consider the question of the relative importance of these three developer scenarios. Given that we want Ubuntu to flourish as a platform, how would we prioritize them?

I have my own ideas, which I’ll write about in subsequent posts, but here’s your chance to tell me what you think. :-)

Written by Matt Zimmerman

November 26, 2010 at 11:32

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Ubuntu: Project, Platform, Products

When most people talk about Ubuntu, they usually mean our flagship product, Ubuntu Desktop Edition. Sometimes, they might mean the Ubuntu project, or the community of people who work on it, or various other things.

Similarly, Debian might mean the Debian operating system, or the package repositories, or the project, and so on.

This gets a little confusing sometimes. When I’m talking about Ubuntu, I’ve started to use more specific terminology to explain what I mean, and this seems to help people understand better the nature of the whole Ubuntu. In particular, I use the three Ps:

  • a portfolio of products, including Desktop Edition, Server Edition, Netbook Edition, Kubuntu and more. These are software bundles which can be downloaded, pre-installed on retail computers, and so on. Each one is designed to meet a certain set of user needs, and to work on a specific form factor of computer.
  • a technology platform, which can be used to build a wide range of products. It is primarily of interest to developers, who build derivative distributions, OS products, applications and infrastructure using Ubuntu packages. This platform is the common foundation of the Ubuntu products above, and includes things like the global package repository. Joel Spolsky does a good job of explaining why platforms are distinctly different from products, and should be treated as such.
  • an open community project, which collectively produces, distributes, promotes and supports the products and the platform. The Ubuntu project has a philosophy, a government, and various tools and processes to help contributors work together. Canonical supports the Ubuntu project by providing resources and infrastructure, and also directly participates in Ubuntu at various levels.

This breakdown may seem a bit obvious to those of us “on the inside”, but it’s confusing to people who are encountering it for the first time. I’m sharing this in the hope that if more people start using the same words, it will get easier for people to understand how these pieces fit together. I’ll also be linking to it a lot, to help put things into context using this framework.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

November 15, 2010 at 18:39

Back to the future

In my professional role as Ubuntu CTO, I take on a number of different perspectives, which sometimes compete for my attention, including:

  • Inward – supporting the people in my department, alignment with other departments in Canonical and reporting upward
  • Outward – connecting with customers, partners and the free software community, including Debian
  • Forward – considering the future of the Ubuntu platform and products, based on the needs of their users, our customers and business stakeholders within Canonical
  • Outside-in – taking off my Canonical hat and putting on an Ubuntu hat, and looking at what we’re doing from an outside perspective

My recent work, as Canonical has gone through a period of organizational growth and change, has prioritized the inward perspective. I took on a six-month project which was inwardly focused, temporarily handing off many of my day-to-day responsibilities (well done, Robbie!). I’ve grappled with an assortment of growing pains as many new people joined Canonical over the past year.

With that work behind me, it’s time to rebalance myself and focus more outside of Canonical again. It’s good to be back!

In my outward facing capacity, I’ll shortly be attending Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco. I attend several free software conferences each year, but this is a different crowd. I hope to renew some old ties, form some new ones, and generally derive inspiration from the people and organizations represented there. Being in the San Francisco Bay area will also give me an opportunity to meet with some of Canonical’s partners there, as well as friends and acquaintances from the free software community. With my head down, working hard to make things happen, it’s easy to lose perspective on how that work fits into the outside world. Spending more time with people outside of Canonical and Ubuntu is an important way of balancing that effect.

Looking forward, I’ll be thinking about the longer term direction for the Ubuntu platform. The platform is the layer of Ubuntu which makes everything else possible: it’s how we weave together products like Desktop Edition and Server Edition, and it’s what developers target when they write applications. Behind the user interfaces and applications, there is a rich platform of tools and services which link it all together. It’s in this aspect of Ubuntu that I’ll be investing my time in research, experimentation and imagination. This includes considering how we package and distribute software, how we adapt to technological shifts, and highlighting opportunities to cooperate with other open source projects.

My primary outside-in role is as chair of the Ubuntu Technical Board. In this capacity, I’m accountable to the Ubuntu project, the interests of its members, and the people who use the software we provide. Originally, the TB was closely involved with a range of front-line technical decisions in Ubuntu, but today, there are strong, autonomous teams in place for the most active parts of the project, so we only get involved when there is a problem, or if a technical question comes up which doesn’t “fit” the charter of an established team. It’s something of a catch-all. I’d like to re-establish the TB in a more central role in Ubuntu, looking after concerns which affect the project as a whole, such as transparency and development processes. I’m also re-joining Debian as a non-uploading contributor, to work on stimulating and coordinating cooperation between Debian and Ubuntu. I’m looking forward to working more with Zack on joint projects in this area.

This change will help me to support Canonical and Ubuntu more effectively as they continue to grow and change. I look forward to exercising some mental muscles I haven’t used very much lately, and facing some new challenges as well.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

November 11, 2010 at 15:42

Management and information distortion

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”
– attributed to Mark Twain

There is a lot that I don’t know about what goes on in my organization. This isn’t only because I can’t observe everything, or because it’s too complex, or because I make mistakes. These are all true, of course, but they’re also obvious. Much more devious is the way the flow of information to me is distorted. It’s distorted by me, and by the people around me, whether any of us are aware of it or not. This is most apparent in considering how people feel about their managers: this is why I have a deeply flawed view of what it’s really like to work for me.

My theory is that power bends information like gravity bends light. The effect is more pronounced with people of greater mass (more authority), and lessened with distance (less direct influence). The more directly you influence someone else’s fate, the more it is in their self-interest to be guarded around you. This means that the people closest to you, who you receive the most information from, may have the most difficulty being open with you, especially if it’s bad news. It also means that the higher your standing in the corporate hierarchy, the more influence you wield, the more people are affected by this.

Pretty scary, right?

Some managers respond to this terrifying reality by trying to collect more information. They’ll quietly cross-check what people are telling them, asking people in different levels of the organization, routing around managers, hoping to get “the real story”. This usually backfires, because it signals distrust to the people involved and makes the distortion worse.

Another common response is to check in constantly, trying to monitor and control the work as closely as possible (so-called micro-management). This is even worse; not only does it signal distrust, but managers who do this become more personally attached to outcomes, and lose perspective on progress and quality due to information overload, self-enhancement bias, and neglect of managerial work. The more it becomes “your” work rather than the team’s, the harder it is to see it objectively.

So what’s a better way to respond to this phenomenon? Here’s what I try to do:

  • Accept it – You’ll never have certainty about what’s happening, so get used to it, and don’t let it paralyze you. Learn decision making strategies which cope well with information noise, and allow you to experiment and adapt.
  • Admit it – Everyone else knows that you have this distortion field around you. If you pretend it isn’t there, you’ll appear deluded. Acknowledge that you don’t know, don’t understand, and can’t control.
  • Trust – The more you trust someone, the more they trust you. The more someone trusts you, the more confident they can be in telling you what they think. Be grateful for bad news, and never shoot the messenger.
  • Delegate – Enable people with a less distorted view of the situation to make local decisions. Don’t make people wait for information to propagate through you before acting, unless there is a clear and sufficient benefit to the organization.

I was inspired to think and write about this today after listening to Prof. Robert Sutton’s speech at the California Commonwealth Club, which Lindsay Holmwood shared with me.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

November 9, 2010 at 17:00

Posted in Uncategorized

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Weathering the Ubuntu brainstorm

In our first few years, Ubuntu experienced explosive growth, from zero to millions of users. Because Ubuntu is an open project, these people don’t just use Ubuntu, but can see what’s happening next and influence it through suggestions and contributions. The volume of suggestions quickly became unmanageable through ad hoc discussion, because the volume of feedback overwhelmed the relatively few people who were actively developing Ubuntu.

Ubuntu Brainstorm logo

In order to better manage user feedback at this scale, Ubuntu Brainstorm was created in 2008. It’s a collaborative filtering engine which allows anyone to contribute an idea, and have it voted on by others. Since then, it’s been available to Ubuntu developers and leaders as an information source, which has been used in various ways. The top ideas are printed in the Ubuntu Weekly Newsletter each week. We experimented with producing a report each release cycle and sharing it with the developer community. People have been encouraged to take these suggestions to the Ubuntu Developer Summits. We continue to look for new and better ways to process the feedback provided by the user community.

Most recently, I asked my colleagues on the Ubuntu Technical Board in a meeting whether we should take responsibility for responding to the feedback available in Ubuntu Brainstorm. They agreed that this was worth exploring, and I put forward a proposal for how it might work. The proposal was unanimously accepted at a later meeting, and I’m working on the first feedback cycle now.

In short, the Technical Board will ensure that, every three months, the highest voted topics on Ubuntu Brainstorm receive an official response from the Ubuntu project. The Technical Board won’t respond to all of them personally, but will identify subject matter experts within the project, ask them to write a short response, and compile these responses for publication.

My hope is that this approach will bring more visibility to common user concerns, help users understand what we’re doing with their feedback, and generally improve transparency in Ubuntu. We’ve already selected the topics for the first iteration based on the most popular items of the past six months, and are organizing responses now. Please visit brainstorm.ubuntu.com and cast your votes for next time!

Written by Matt Zimmerman

November 3, 2010 at 11:55

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