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Ubuntu's New 'HUD' Factor: A Step Forward or Back?

Ubuntu's New 'HUD' Factor: A Step Forward or Back?

Ubuntu seems to have shifted lately "from trying to make a rock-solid desktop distribution to playing around with cool ideas for next-generation interfaces," observed Slashdot blogger Chris Travers. "A lot of these ideas are very untested in terms of overall usability, and they represent a sort of 'back to the future' approach, thinking of the old X applications before menus became prevalent ... ."

Some of us here in the Linux blogosphere may have hoped for a quieter 2012 than 2011 turned out to be, but so far at least, it doesn't look like we're getting our wish.

Between Ubuntu's big CES revelation, the arrival of Cinnamon, the ongoing Secure Boot saga and the flaring up of the Great Gender Debate, in fact, January appears to have started the year off with a bang.

Do we get a little break now that it's the end of the month? No, we don't, thanks to the arrival of Ubuntu's "HUD."

A Replacement for Menus

What in the world is HUD, you ask? Well for those who missed it, it's Head-Up Display, a new interface planned for Ubuntu 12.04 "Precise Pangolin" that will eventually replace menus in Unity applications and recognize voice commands.

"When you've been using it for a little while it seems like it's reading your mind, in a good way," Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth explained in a blog post last week, complete with a video that offers a small taste of that experience.

All in all, it amounts to more big news from what's already been a pretty disruptive year for Ubuntu Linux fans. When this latest tidbit hit the Linux blogosphere's Broken Windows Lounge, more than a few jaws hit the floor.

'That Is Really Stupid'

"My gods! I thought Unity was a bad idea, but this proves to be even worse!" wrote CaniblCat in the comments at PCWorld, for example. "It's wrong on so many levels I'm not sure where to start.

"PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE Canonical, return to the classic 10.10 GUI! It was perfect as it was!" CaniblCat added.

Similarly: "Wow that is really stupid, and I know just how to fix it for good," wrote AndrewMiller74. "Don't use Ubuntu, there are hundreds of other bistro out there. I left Ubuntu years ago for this crap!"

Then again: "For those bitching about all the UI changes; if someone doesn't stretch the boundaries we will become intellectually trapped," countered MarcJohnson. "Change is scary and difficult at times but it can also be incredibly rewarding. Perhaps these changes will fail, but without trying we are doomed to never move forward."

Similar comments and more could be heard on Slashdot and beyond, so Linux Girl knew it was time to learn more.

'Is It April 1st Already?

"It always scares me when people tell me the system will predict what I want, because so far computers have tended to do a very bad job of predicting my desires," consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack mused.

Even more so: "Is it April 1st already?" quipped Slashdot blogger hairyfeet.

Regarding HUD's planned voice recognition, "Are they serious? How well my PC works is gonna depend on whether I have a cold?" hairyfeet added. "I've tried both Win 7 voice recognition and Dragon Speak, and frankly neither of them do very well, even after millions spent on R&D; Canonical thinks they can just throw something together and it'll work better than those two?

"Are we sure that Shuttleworth isn't a plant from Apple or MSFT, because frankly it's been one boneheaded idea after another," he opined.

"Here we are, right in the beginning of the great XP dieoff, and his MSFT killer is talking to the PC? I'm sorry, but somebody has been watching too much Star Trek," hairyfeet concluded. "Maybe Shuttleworth is just tired of losing money and wants Ubuntu to die -- between this and unity, it sure feels that way to me."

'Things Have to Be in Their Places'

Blogger Robert Pogson was also skeptical.

"Some things were just not meant to be searched for, and they are our tools," Pogson asserted.

"It would be crazy if we woke up every morning and had to relearn where our hands and feet were," Pogson explained. "Streamline and prioritize menus -- don't eliminate them. Standardize the user interfaces of applications -- don't mix them all together. For speed and efficiency, things have to be in their places."

'That's Why I Have Never Owned a Mac'

Imagine if cars had HUD, he added.

"The judge would ask us why we did not brake to avoid the accident, and all we could say was, 'I was searching for the pedal...' That's so lame," Pogson said. "Suppose I was thinking I was in the 'parking' context and I clicked 'Do it!' only to be surprised that I was in the 'passing' application.

"Bad things could happen," he concluded. "I don't want that kind of adventure when I use a PC. That's why I have never owned a Mac."

'Gradual Change Is the Key'

Not everyone took a negative view, however.

"Ubuntu HUD is truly an interesting idea," Thoughts on Technology blogger and Bodhi Linux lead developer Jeff Hoogland told Linux Girl. "I think if it functions smoothly, it will be a great feature."

One key factor, however, "is whether this will be replacing traditional menus or will simply be an addition to them," Hoogland added. "If the latter is the case, I could see this really catching on; if the former is true, I can see this being met with some resistance -- gradual change is the key to success in any software project."

A 'Back to the Future' Approach

Ubuntu seems to have shifted lately "from trying to make a rock-solid desktop distribution to playing around with cool ideas for next-generation interfaces," observed Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project.

"A lot of these ideas are very untested in terms of overall usability, and they represent a sort of 'back to the future' approach, thinking of the old X applications before menus became prevalent where you'd have a command window and a display window," he explained.

Integrating voice commands is "hard enough with a pure command approach because computers do not process sound or language the way we do," Travers pointed out. "Imagine telling your friends, 'I rammed a sheriff!' and having your computer respond, 'Executing rm -rf'. The computer might well process it as [I: discard, not part of command] [ram: rm] [ed a sh: dash] [eriff: rf].

"To make this safe, you would have to have non-voice ways of specifying that it was a voice command and not just an ambient conversation, but then this kind of defeats the purpose of getting rid of the keyboard," he added.

Becoming 'a Research Project'?

"My guess here is that Ubuntu, in moving more to what amounts to a research project, will produce some interesting interfaces and things that we will all learn from, both in terms of what to do and what not to," Travers said.

"However, with this kind of lack of stability in its interface, it is hard to imagine the distro remaining even a major player in the Linux desktop markets, much less helping Linux penetrate other existing desktop markets," he concluded. "That task may well be left to more conservative distros including Mint and Debian."

'The Best Change for Mainstream Linux'

Similarly, "If I were to use Ubuntu 12.04, I probably would not use the new HUD much," offered Roberto Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor. "Having HUD would not bother me, either. Basically, I am ambivalent about HUD.

"I have similar functionality on my Fedora install, my Mac has Spotlight (though this is a more limited search) and my Android device has universal search option," Lim added.

"Overall, it is not one of the more revolutionary changes in interface and I do not see it changing Ubuntu's fortunes much," he said.

"Despite current trends, I still see Ubuntu as the best change for mainstream consumer/desktop Linux," Lim opined. "With the willingness to effect change and with one eye focused on the cloud, if any Linux distro is going to make the jump to the mainstream, it's Ubuntu -- if the community does not convince everyone to go the Mint route, that is."


Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter.


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