Ubuntu vs. Vista

I started to install Ubuntu 8.04 LTS on my Vista laptop but ended up bugging out. I’m writing this blog entry in Ubuntu having not installed it, but running it off the optical drive on my Dell laptop. The reason I bugged out is that Ubuntu can’t tell me what’s on the partitions it sees during installation, and can’t resize NTFS partitions (or mount them). From what I can tell of Ubuntu, it’s very slick, but I do have a number of observations based on what little I’ve seen so far.

Screen real estate, especially vertical real estate, shouldn’t be wasted, especially in these days of wide screen displays. Ubuntu’s default Gnome setup wastes quite a bit of vertical real estate:

  • First, there’s the global Apple-like menu bar. Unlike Apple’s menu bar, it’s essentially just an app launcher, which means that 99% of the time it’s just wasted space. Not only is this a waste of vertical real estate, it’s a waste of a screen edge (very valuable — see Fitt’s Law). The Mac’s UI remains the only non retarded implementation of a menu bar in a major OS.
  • Ubuntu still wastes title bar space even for maximized applications. Windows also commits this sin, but at least it doesn’t have the pointless app launcher above it.
  • Edit: I forgot to mention Ubuntu wastes space for a “start bar” at the bottom of the screen even though that functionality is actually provided by the space wasted up top for the app launcher.


  • During installation, the time zone requester is extremely annoying. I live in Alabama and finding a “dot” corresponding to the time zone I’m in was quite fiddly.
  • During installation, touching the trackpad is treated as a click. This actually led me to accidentally click potentially fatal buttons. Bad. I’d err on the side of not treating random things as clicks in an installer.
  • Not strictly an installation issue, but getting onto my wireless network was needlessly painful. I needed to enter my 128-bit WEP password but it’s too stupid to (a) recognize the kind of password being entered automatically or (b) try all the obvious options automatically, meaning that the proverbial clueless user will have to know that it’s a 64/128-bit hex password and whether or not to use a shared key and so forth. On a Mac you just selected a network and type in a password and your computer, which is good at such things, figures it out. Vista has to be the worst of course, since it makes you confirm the password (like I really wanted to type that damn thing in TWICE).
  • The preceding issue is magnified by some pretty dumb behavior in various nooks and crannies. I have two wireless routers at home and log into them separately (but with the same 128-bit code). Ubuntu’s Mac-like keychain offered to store the settings but stored them incorrectly, so after waking from sleep I lost my network connection and couldn’t restore it without typing the long string in again, which I didn’t have handy. A Keychain tool (there are two and only one seems to work) appeared to let me copy the string, but I couldn’t paste it into the WEP login (and I had previously pasted stuff into it, so I’m guessing the copy operation silently failed in Keychain). But by then I’d deleted the erroneous keychain entries, so I was screwed. At this point I gave up on Ubuntu.

Digital Media

  • When I visited Hulu.com it told me to install Flash and sent me to Adobe’s page. Adobe asked me which of three archive formats to download (gz, rpm, or yum???). I downloaded each and none worked. Later, I tried my own video code (which simply tries to display Flash video naively), which caused Firefox to display a missing plugin graphic. Clicking that automagically installed the right stuff (and now Hulu works). Score one for Firefox/Ubuntu and zero for Adobe.
  • None of the WMV or MOV videos I tried would play. I got a weird looking player interface and a black screen. All the FLV media worked just dandy. I assume that SOME MOV or WMV video will work, but none of the codecs I use, and I tend to use pretty nice codecs.
  • Shockwave stuff doesn’t work… I thought the plugin had been ported to *NIX but apparently not.


In my opinion, Ubuntu 8.04, despite lacking the GPU-fluff of Vista or even OS X’s understated elegance, is a very attractive OS. It’s tasteful, understated, and tidy in a way that even earlier releases of Ubuntu weren’t. I don’t care for the heron desktop, it seems desperately trendy (with the bezier swirls that seem so popular these days but not so well executed). Someone has gone to the trouble of trying to make all the included apps look reasonably similar.

Final Thoughts

Ubuntu is making Desktop Linux almost credible. I’ve been around long enough to have been excited by FreeBSD distributions. I remember installing a fairly early RedHat on my old PC (it took three of us to even get it vaguely working). The first Linux distribution that even vaguely tempted me was Knoppix (to which the Linux world owes a huge debt, and which should make Microsoft and even Apple pretty ashamed — if one guy can make a self-configuring Linux distro that runs on almost anything, why can’t Microsoft do the same for Windows?)

I’m definitely thinking of quickly rebooting into Vista, backing up any files I really want to keep, and then cheerfully overwriting Vista, but only because I’ve found Vista so annoying. (My major gripe with Vista right now is probably not purely Microsoft’s fault — somehow the permissions policy on my machine have been set such that I can’t install any new software or even updates. It’s a work machine which had Vista Business installed on it for me for testing purposes, but I can’t really use it and our Office is still mainly XP-based so it’s not well-supported.)

All that said, if it weren’t for Flash support, I would find Ubuntu pretty intolerable. One of the few things I find this laptop useful for (aside from testing stuff under Vista using whatever versions of stuff it has on it) is watching Bones on Hulu.com (I’m catching up having just decided I like the show, and this saves me buying the DVD box sets or paying $2/episode on iTunes). If Flash didn’t run under Ubuntu, then I’d probably be rusted on to some flavor of Windows.

That said, it annoys me that Apple doesn’t support Linux with QuickTime. I suppose that QuickTime would make Linux a better alternative platform to the Mac for digital media across the board (and Linux is already very credible in the 3d arena).

Addendum: I just realized that Ubuntu doesn’t seem to know how to put my laptop to sleep. Whoops! If this turns out to be the case, then that’s a show-stopper.

Follow-up: I found the appropriate setting, but it seems that suspend mode is not supported (as I found out later after, apparently, leaving the laptop running all night. That’s a bit of a show-stopper.

Final, Final Thoughts

With the problems I ran into, there’s no way Ubuntu will replace Vista on my laptop just yet.

I haven’t explored Ubuntu very deeply, but I’ve basically looked at three things: the web-browsing experience (fairly crucial, since I’m a web developer), wireless networking, and sleep behavior. In those three areas, respectively, I find:

  • a profound lack of polish (although, in part, this was because of Adobe’s stupidity — why not tell me which install to use with Ubuntu or automatically detect which one to give me versus giving me three options that don’t work) and serious incompatibilities with common digital media
  • usability issues and serious bugs, and
  • complete incompatibility with some pretty common hardware.

Given that free software developers tend to concentrate on the kinds of things they use, and that web browsers, wireless networking, and suspend mode are pretty central to the lives of almost any developer I can think of, it’s hard to imagine that quality and attention to detail will be better in the components of Ubuntu that are less central to a developer-centric world. So I’d rather not find out the hard way right now. Wake me up for the next major release.

Microsoft Vista Business: 1, Ubuntu 8.04 LTS “Hardy Heron”: 0.

Truly final aside: I did the final edits to this post on my Mac Pro, since my Ubuntu laptop has lost its internet connection and I don’t see the point in getting it going again.

The Design of Everyday Things

“The Macintosh is the first computer interface worth criticizing.” Alan Kay*

Today, Apple has made usability all but a household world, and you probably don’t need to fight major battles in software development projects to have some kind of iterative usability testing budgeted into a project. This hasn’t been the case for very long.

Shortly before the dot com bubble burst, I remember an article about the design of e-commerce sites in which a number of test subjects were sent to a large number of major e-commerce sites with instructions to buy a specific item sold on each one. I don’t have the article or exact figures to hand, but as I recall, in 70% of cases the users could not figure out how to complete the transaction.

It’s relatively easy to fix usability problems in software. As a software guy, it’s pretty horrifying to bump into the world of atoms (versus bits, to use Nicholas Negroponte’s excellent dichotomy) and discover that the whole usability idea hasn’t sunk in too deep.

I’ve worked in usability on and off (mostly off) for nearly twenty years. I remember trying to get managers and partners at Andersen Consulting to read the Apple Human Interface guidelines, just to see that this kind of thing could actually be codified in a useful way. In 1995, more than ten years after the Mac was released, arguing for usability testing and design standards was still pretty radical in the world of IT.

Not many books can actually change one’s life in a real way, but I think The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman** is one such book. Read this book and it will quite likely change the way you think about everything. Even though I thought I was pretty savvy about UI design, it changed the way I saw the world.

The reason I bring up this whole topic is that I’ve been brought head-on into the world of bad design by my twin girls. Baby stuff, stuck in the world of atoms, is oh, so 1983. You may have read my rant about breast pumps, so I won’t revisit that topic right now, but here are a few examples of staggeringly bad design I’ve been living with for the last five weeks:

  • Baby Sleepers (pyjamas for those who haven’t had babies) often have single zippers running from the baby’s neck down to the tip of her left foot, meaning you need to completely unzip the whole thing just to check or change a diaper.
  • Disposable diapers are designed in such a way that it’s almost impossible to tell which way up or around they are in a dimly lit room (like the one you’ll be changing them in at two in the morning). They’re also folded with the tabs where the baby’s behind will be, so that you need to stick your finger between the diaper and the baby’s bottom to tease them out (in the dark at 3am). Why not fold them the other way?
  • Our baby bath (the highest rated we could find) is designed with a little hammock suspended over a small tub. Using the provided scoop to get water from the reservoir to the baby involves threading a narrow gap each time. Simply altering the shape of the tub (which would cost nothing had they thought of it) would eliminate this constant annoyance.
  • Our tandem stroller (also well-rated) is designed to accommodate our car seats (good idea) but switching it into accept car seat mode requires remembering which bits need to be pushed back or released, and they snap back out of position at the slightest provocation (so you can’t just leave the stroller in its more useful mode). And, here’s the kicker, the stroller has a basket for carrying stuff beneath the babies, but putting it into car seat mode makes it completely impossible to get anything in or out of the basket. Did even ONE person test this device before starting production?
  • A mixed case is our baby swing. Its safety harness is admirably well-designed for quick release (a good feature since the last thing you want is to have to fiddle around a baby you’ve just lulled to sleep) but fastening the harness is a little like learning a magic trick.
  • There’s a remarkable lack of color coding options for things like baby bottles. This is very annoying if you have twins and need to prep a bunch of stuff in advance specifically for each twin such that you can figure out which bottle is for which baby at 3am.
  • Whoever designed the labels for marking up breast milk sachets didn’t think to simply mark days of the week etc. on the sachets so all you’d have to do would be to tick a box. I know writing out a date on a plastic bag is something I love to do ten times a day while dead tired. And boy, reading that writing is going to be easy, I bet.
  • And finally, our bottle warmer (again highly rated) is designed so badly that Don Norman might have lavished his most sarcastic accolade on it: “it probably won an award”. Or to borrow a phrase from Roy and H.G., “it’s a sad joke”. The principle is this: it has an element and some measuring cylinders. You place the baby’s bottle above the element (in a socket) and pour in a measured amount of water, then press a button. The element boils the water and then shuts off when the water is gone (I assume the element gets too hot and that triggers the off switch).
  • So to warm a bottle (remember, you’re doing this while dead tired, in the dark, and it’s three in the morning) you need to measure out a certain amount of water into this stupid tube, pour it in, and then warm the bottle. Here’s the kicker though: a good deal of heat comes off the element after it switches off, so the bottle temperature is highly variable based on how long you wait after this piece of junk switches itself off. If you’re heating two bottles for some reason, the second will always get more heat than the first. And that’s assuming you measured the water into the damn cylinders correctly.
  • This design is only slightly better than the infamous coffee pot (with the spout pointing over the handle) that graces the cover of The Design of Everyday Things … but of course the coffee pot is an intentional joke. This thing is a product that people not only buy and use, but recommend. Go figure.

It’s not just that this stuff is thoughtlessly designed (I won’t say it’s designed by morons or incompetents, it’s more likely it’s not designed at all, or without any kind of user testing), it’s that customers aren’t complaining blue murder about it. It’s like the people who argued that DOS was easier to use than a Macintosh and then went back to editing AUTOEXEC.BAT to try and squeeze out another 2K of RAM so that their program would run — the user-base is too accepting of garbage for vendors to feel pressure to improve their lousy products. Just like in 1983 with software.

* I’ve seen this quotation in various forms in a lot of places, but don’t have a definitive source, so it’s certainly paraphrased and may well be apocryphal.

** This book rates only four stars on Amazon.com while quite mediocre novels often score better. One legitimate criticism of the book is that it really doesn’t offer any recipes for good design, merely ways of criticizing failed design and (less often) appreciating good design. It’s quite clear based on twenty odd years of no-one else managing to provide such recipes (beyond a few useful lists of heuristics) that this is really hard, if not impossible. In any event, I think this book is utterly brilliant, but it won’t tell you how to be a great designer.

Breast Pumps are a Racket

My wife is using a Medela breast pump in her ongoing efforts to avoid raising our twins on formula. We actually bought a Medela breast pump before the twins were born, but the hospital gave us an even more up-market one as a “gift” so we ended up returning the one we bought.

First of all let me say this. Breast pumps are a racket. You can buy a pretty robust device for pumping up car tires that runs on 12v for $20 and it’s probably better constructed than a typical breast pump. I’m sure there are lots of considerations that drive up the cost of a breast pump compared with a dirt cheap tire pump, but come on: The Medela breast pump we bought retails for ~$300 and is approximately as well constructed as a decent quality toy. OK it’s made of non-toxic plastic, and it presumably is designed not to rip a woman’s nipples off by accident, but seriously.

Our breast pump has a “valve” designed to allow milk to come into the collection bottle but prevent air from leaving the bottle when the pump “sucks”. This “valve” is a piece of flexible plastic the size of a dime weighing a fraction of a gram, and it costs $5 for two of them. (So far we’ve lost three down the drain.) This is a freaking scandal.

It’s not like breast pumps are so uncommon that economies of scale don’t exist. Our hospital is giving a breast pump to every other woman who gives birth (it’s that or a stroller; if you do the math, you take the breast pump). Everyone gets born. The average woman gives birth two and half times. What. The. Frack.

Now, get this: the best approximation for the shape of a woman’s breast that the genius designers at Medela can come up with is a cone. They sell big cones and small cones. Ameda (actually produced by the company formed by the guy who invented the electric breast pump) offers a silicone widget that’s designed to simulate a baby’s mouth. But apparently Ameda hasn’t figured out that by selling their breast pumps for less, people assume they’re not as good. (I can’t find any review sites that indicate Medela are as well-liked by their users as Ameda, despite the “Stockholm Syndrome” that anyone who buys a more expensive product tends to suffer from — yes Apple we’re talking about you.) Any site I’ve found which shows reviews of both Ameda and Medela products, the Ameda products (which are cheaper) get better reviews.

Again, Ameda have done a bunch of really decent stupid things such as (a) making their gear completely compatible with third party bottles, (b) making their simulated baby mouth widgets compatible with third party breast pumps, and (c) providing excellent customer service (according to numerous reviews I’ve read). What they obviously should have done is sell tiny plastic flaps for $2.50 (Ameda’s valves are larger and won’t wash down sinks) and force users of their pumps to buy their expensive nipples and collars and single-use-leaky-plastic milk storage bags which would make their products more profitable and allow them to hire reps to convince hospitals to use their products in more hospitals, and be able to give away their laughably overpriced pumps to new moms.

We’ve probably spent about $100 buying plastic doodads compatible with our “free” breast pump so far, but after losing a day’s worth of milk to their lousy (and expensive) storage bags, and discovering today that (unlike Ameda) we need to sterilize the plastic tubes (joining the pump to the collection gizmo) of our Medela system if moisture gets in (Ameda’s pumps are completely isolated from the collection system by means of a local cylinder) we’re on the verge of setting aside the entire system and switching to Ameda.

In the end, as I said to my wife, it comes down to this. If you have to use a machine to suck on your breasts, would you prefer one designed by Swedes or Germans?

iTunes Movie Rentals: It’s the Usability, Stupid

One of the best things iTunes Store has going for it is usability, but the Movie Rentals section (which, basically, doesn’t exist) is simply broken. The categories don’t let you filter for rentable movies, so (as of writing) it’s almost impossible to find movies to rent unless you just choose popular picks or new releases.

Next, the iTunes Store suffers a major weakness relative to Netflix which isn’t so apparent when shopping for music, but is horrible when looking at movies. Here’s a clue: Coyote Ugly is rated 4.5 stars, and the only reason it’s 4.5 and not 5 is that a few people are annoyed at the nudity in the unrated version (which seems a bit like complaining a nature documentary is full of animals). Meanwhile, “An Inconvenient Truth” is rated 2.5 stars owing to a huge number of 1 star reviews from, basically, insane people. (Rating it 1 star doesn’t make you insane, saying that the scientists quoted in the film have been disowned by the majority of the scientific community and the claims have been disproven by NASA does.)

Basically, the movie reviews are of similar quality to the reviews on YouTube, which is to say horrible.

Now that iTunes is competing head-to-head with Netflix, Apple really needs to lift its game in the reviews department. Netflix’s reviews are very well done — they basically weight reviews by people with tastes similar to yours more strongly, and reviews by other folks less strongly.

It seems to me that Netflix is to video what iTunes is to music — a very successful business that is undermining the way that the content distributors prefer to do business. A person pays NetFlix $20 (or so)/month and sees all the movies he/she can be bothered to see. After a while he/she stops going to movies and largely stops buying DVDs. When my wife or I see an interesting trailer, we usually just add it to our Netflix queue — thus making the studio, what, $0.25? $0.10? I don’t know how much Netflix pays for a DVD (including rights to rent it out), how long a DVD lasts, whether Netflix pays full replacement cost for damaged DVDs, whether Netflix pays royalties per rental, etc. etc. but I can’t imagine it all adds up to much more than say 25% of the cost of a DVD divided by 20.

The apparent high participation of studios in iTunes rentals reflects the fact that the studios are going to earn FAR more from the iTunes rental model than from the Netflix rental model (or Blockbuster’s imitation). For now, the iTunes rental library is slated to be ~1000 movies by the end of the month; last time I checked NetFlix’s library was 60,000, and there’s plenty of stuff that hasn’t made it to DVD.

If and when there are 1000 or more movies to rent on iTunes, I don’t think anyone will be able to find them. E.g. if I type “Robert DeNiro” into the iTunes search widget, it doesn’t bring up “RONIN” — one of the current top rental titles. If I search for “Pixar” it doesn’t find any of Pixar’s feature films.

Improving iTunes Rentals

Obviously, you need to be able to filter for movies you can buy vs. rent. I imagine this will happen pretty soon.

Next, the search function seriously needs to be fixed, and it’s something an intern could probably do in a day or two (while the library is so small), but it will become a bigger deal as the library gets bigger.

Apple seems to be stuck with a broken user review system — but I guess on the positive side it can probably all be fixed in one place (just look at the way the same system works in apple.com/store). One of the major problems with this kind of review system is that lots of people treat the system as a way of giving feedback on the shopping experience or some random other thing (like price, or upgrade policy, or whether some other product they’ve gotten confused with this product was good). For movies or songs where the price and shopping experience are (generally) fixed, this is probably less of a concern.

Then there are obvious synergies — such as discounting the purchase of a movie you’ve just rented (the way they discount albums if you already own tracks). This kind of thing will let Apple compete with DVDs and Netflix in ways that don’t let them fight back.