Ubuntu's new look

News this week that Ubuntu was introducing a new, refreshed, look for its brand as well as a new default theme for its Ubuntu distribution has got everyone talking. Ubuntu community manager Jono Bacon first posted the news on his blog and the news was quickly spread via blogs, news publications and, naturally, Twitter. Even casual observers of Linux seemed to be excited by the introduction of a new “light” theme as the default for future Ubuntu releases.

Just about every report on the changes started with some reference to Ubuntu “dumping” its “signature brown” theme in favour of the new look. The new theme looks nice, although only time will tell if most users can actually work with it daily, but the excitement around the new theme is interesting for other reasons as well.

Weirdly, the traditional brown theme included with Ubuntu releases is perhaps the source of the most dispute within the Ubuntu community. Blogs and forums alike regularly bear witness to earth-shaking arguments between those in favour of “the brown theme” and those that absolutely hate it.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Finding someone who publicly acknowledges that they like the standard brown theme is very rare indeed.

Rather it is a matter of degree: do you hate it or do you absolutely hate it.

Personally, I’ve grown used of the way that Ubuntu looks. It’s not flashy like Apple’s i-this and i-that, and it’s not all airy-fairy like Windows 7, but it works quite well, I think.

Naturally an interface refresh is generally a good thing but what does it really mean, when all the shouting is over? It’s just a theme, after all.

Does having orange highlights in the menu bar instead of blue ones actually make any difference to how the computer works? Or does having white menu text as opposed to black give your PC a speed boost? I doubt it, though I’m sure someone out there is willing to argue that black is faster than white to display.

I like to think I have a decent sense of aesthetics and I would rather have a good looking desktop than one that looks like something that pre-dates Windows 3.1 but the hysteria around Ubuntu’s default desktop theme is insane. I can almost guarantee that even when Ubuntu does ship this new theme, the critics will be out in force, telling us all how Ubuntu’s limited market share is actually the direct result of having the wrong-coloured menu highlights, or click boxes a shade too dark.

Does anyone really believe that computer users are put off Ubuntu because it looks ugly? Surely not, especially as the interface is just a theme. Which means that users can change it to something else if they simply can’t bear looking at the standard brown theme anymore.

Good design

This is not to say that good interface design is a waste of time. It’s not.

Good interface design is crucial to making users comfortable with the tools in front of them. It makes it easy for them to find what they want and get the task at hand done. Whether they do this with a black background or a brown one or an orange one doesn’t really matter all that much.

Having been a long-time user of Ubuntu Linux I can say with certainty that there are far more pressing issues when it comes to interface design than the choice of colours. The menu system, almost entirely based on Gnome, is still incredibly unfriendly to users. I know much has been done over the years to improve this but there is some way to go.

For example, having multiple tools to do similar jobs doesn’t make sense.

There is the new software center, which is pretty cool, but there is also the Synaptics programme for doing the same, as well as a separate update manager and a “software sources” tool. I know what each of these do but for a new user this could well be completely daunting. And at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what the default theme for Ubuntu is if users don’t understand the menu system.

Let’s wait and see how popular the new Ubuntu theme is but I suspect it will just fire up more debate than provide an actual solution to the problem of usability.  

Ubuntu’s new look << more important things to do?

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Ubuntu's new look