Insidious bias: Luddite version regarding computer user interfaces

Mark Shuttleworth is a successful entrepreneur who decided to use his money to make computers more readily available to the masses. He started a company, Canonical, and put together freely available software into what is called a linux distribution. That was provided on free CD’s and for free download so that it was easy to install a system and set of applications that would run on most personal computers.

Canonical has contributed back to the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) community in a number of ways. One was a new startup routine that solved some problems with conflicting background services and shortened the time between switch on and usable computer. Another contribution is a desktop application that is used to access applications. This last has made change visible and that has really upset the trolls on forums.

Scott Merrill describes it in his posting about how Mark Shuttleworth Unveils New Head-Up Display for Ubuntu 12.04: “Every time I write about Ubuntu and its (not-so) new Unity interface, I see lots and lots of comments decrying it as useless, an abomination, the worst thing to ever happen to computers, etc.

Bias shows in the comment that “Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu’s Self-Appointed Benevloent Dictator For Life, yesterday unveiled the next step in the Unity evolution: the Head-Up Display.“. Somebody puts in how own money and uses his own organizational skills to offer something at no cost in a highly competitive market and he’s labeled a ‘benevolent dictator’? How about visionary or some other positive term, instead? The fact is that many of these technically oriented blogs are anti-capitalism but don’t really know it. That is when bias becomes subversive.

In this particular case, many of the presentations on the topic also show how difficult it can be to present a paradigm shift. After 30 years of consistency in the ‘windows, icons, menus, and pointers’ paradigm, change and revolution is afoot. Part of this is due to the many portable devices used to access the I’net. Part is due to the complexity of the many things you can do with computers and the many functions built into modern applications. Part is about what is learned about finding things in a sea of possibilities. Part is due to the resolution, aspect ratio, and size of the display devices. Part is due to advances in technology that allow new ways of choosing and selecting.

Personally, I’m not so flummoxed by it, but there’s no denying that Unity has been a divisive addition to Canonical’s flagship Linux distribution. The choice to move application menus up to the global bar at the top of the screen has been frustrating to many, and a lot of power users find Unity too mouse-intensive.

Keyboard shortcuts have not disappeared. Backwards compatibility with the old ways of doing things is still a primary goal, including with the new way to find functions in an application. The paradigm problem shows when a new idea is presented as if it abandons the past. For instance:

The goal of the new Head-Up display is to — eventually — replace menus altogether. Instead of clicking through menus, users type the command they require in a search box.

Not really. In current systems, there is a key combination that will invoke the menu that uses another key for the submenu and on down through the tree until you, finally invoke the function desired. The new idea is to start the menu easily and then to use the name or description of the function to find it and have the system present options based on context and guessing that are displayed for you to hone down to the function selected. Just like diving down the menu tree hones options, the search idea also hones down possible options but does so based on your input and not on some fixed menu tree with pre-defined codes, The new approach does not replace the old one but simply enhances it. It also does not bypass or negate shortcut keys or macros.

Both the bias and the Luddite problem are common in many of the reports about Canonical’s efforts to revolutionize the user interface. Look for assertions such as ‘Shuttleworth is forcing this down your throat’ or descriptions that talk about “replacing” or simplify the idea to search only. Be aware that there is more to it much like there is more to a lot of what you read about topics that involve beliefs, paradigms, or desires.

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