Has Ubuntu lost it?

In 2004, the year that Ubuntu was released, the Member's Choice Awards at LinuxQuestions.org rated KDE as the most popular desktop environment, with 58.25 per cent of respondents in an open vote, compared with 30.9 per cent for GNOME (the next most popular desktop was Xfce, with 11.23 per cent).

As Ubuntu rose to prominence, GNOME enjoyed a huge growth in popularity. In 2008 the gap had narrowed to 43 per cent in favour of KDE and 40 per cent in favour of GNOME. By 2010 (two years after KDE released its paradigm-breaking version 4.x) GNOME had eclipsed KDE's popularity, with 45 per cent of voters calling it the best desktop environment, compared with 33 per cent for KDE. The future was bright. The future was purple. Ubuntu users had grown to love GNOME.

Arbitrary changes

It was a sign of things to come when users upgrading to version 10.04 rebooted to find that their window buttons had mysteriously migrated from the right-hand side of the window bar to the left.

Responding to the feedback, Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth said that "Moving everything to the left opens up the space on the right nicely, and I would like to experiment in 10.10 with some innovative options there. The design team is well aware of the controversy, your (polite) comments and more importantly data are very welcome, and will help make the best decision."

Ivanka Majic, one of Ubuntu's designers, explained the decision as "a golden opportunity not only to make our OS as good as the competition, but to make it better", and posed the question: "Are we smoking crack to think that the learning curve for getting used to a new position is ever going to be worth any real or perceived benefit of new positions?"

Unfortunately, the learning curve was too great for most people, and users elected to put the buttons back in their rightful place with gconf-edit. Even today a Google search for 'window buttons on right' brings up a guide to fixing Ubuntu - and this is for a design change made two and a half years ago.

In contrast to the earlier touchy-feelie values espoused by Ubuntu, Shuttleworth clarified Ubuntu's relationship with the majority of users, telling a mailing list at the time: "We have processes to help make sure we're doing a good job of delegation, but being an open community is not the same as saying everybody has a say in everything. This is not a democracy. Good feedback, good data, are welcome. But we are not voting on design decisions."

Two and a half years on from the beginning of the title bar experiment, and we're yet to see anything innovative in the right-hand side of the bar. But we have had the mother of all baby/bathwater incidents in the shape of Unity.

Unity was not the perfect solution that Canonical claimed it would be, and in fact, is just becoming stable enough for reliable use in the latest versions. One of the problems with Unity was Compiz, on which Unity was originally built and that commonly conflicted with OpenGL. It's fair to say that, technical issues aside, Unity has not been popular.

If we look at the figures for the year after Unity was released (2011) on LinuxQuestions.org, KDE is still the favourite distro of 33 per cent of users. Unity, which was supposed to be better than GNOME, was just 4.6 per cent. Perhaps even more illuminating was the fact that Xfce's popularity had grown to 27 per cent. Having built such a large, helpful community, it's strange that Ubuntu didn't listen to them more.

The design change is one example, but there are more - the Upstart init daemon (which pointlessly duplicated much of the work done in SystemD) and Project Harmony are both examples of Ubuntu announcing new ideas that fail to gain much traction.