The Ubuntu window button debacle.

Seems like the windows controls are in the wrong place, or at least not correctly ordered. Hope this won’t be the default theme as that would be annoying.

And with this, a comparatively innocuous first comment on the new artwork for Ubuntu 10.04, a veritable shitstorm of criticism has rolled across the web — making it all the way back to my favourite Linux podcast, where I first heard about it at length.

The chronology of notable events goes something like this…

March 3rd: The new artwork is announced by Alan Pope (aka Popey) & Jono Bacon in the UK, and in North America by Ars Technica. That same day the kbps blog is (near as I can tell) the first to cry foul on the new window-button placement, drawing a direct comparison to Mac OS X — tantamount to heresy for Linux users.

March 5th: A solution to get the window buttons back where they belong is posted by Daviey. It’s not a trivial thing to do.

March 10th: Ivanka Majik is the first person from the Ubuntu design team to respond to the window buttons issue, a full calendar week after the first posted complaint. Hot on her heels is Mark Shuttleworth himself, replying to a filed bug on Launchpad:

The issue is not a bug, it’s a difference of opinion on what is the best result. We may change it, or we may hold it.

March 12th: Scott Ritchie, another Ubuntu designer, speaks his mind on the window buttons, and makes the screen grab above available for me to use in this post. W00t!

March 17th: Shuttleworth again on Launchpad:

No. This is not a democracy. Good feedback, good data, are welcome. But we are not voting on design decisions.

The shitstorm kicks into high gear.

To OS X and Windows users this may all seem very strange — not the bitching about the OS, but the idea that users could have any say about it in the first place. And that a CEO of a major software company would reply on a message board. Multiple times.

The answer can be found in a famous essay from late in the last century, now showing its age a bit but quite revolutionary for its time. It’s Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar — you can still read the original online like I did, or I can just give you the gist of it here:

The Cathedral would be very much like Apple, going to extreme lengths to protect the secrecy of their covert opps, then summoning the unquestioning masses to foist new products upon them, as in: “Snow Leopard: No new features. $29.99!”

The Bazaar metaphor was applied directly to Linus Torvalds, chief architect of the Linux kernel. From the first page of Raymond’s essay:

Torvalds’s style of development — release early and often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity — came as a surprise. No quiet, reverent cathedral-building here — rather, the Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles.

Yet the rise of Linux and this very essay are credited for persuading Netscape to go open-source, paving the way for the Mozilla Foundation and ultimately the Firefox browser. You are using Firefox to read this on a desktop computer, aren’t you? If not, let’s fix that right away

So with Linux, the line between developer and user is blurred enough that if you’re not happy with a particular distribution you can roll your own. Some forward-thinking software makers will even help you with that.

Given this collaborative environment you can hopefully now see why this window button debacle is such a big deal. As much as anything its about the community not having a say, when having a say is precisely what makes this community so unique.

Indeed, popular Ubuntu sites are already fielding submissions for alternative button layouts.

My two cents?

I’ve read from a couple of sources that the buttons needed to be moved because system notifications were getting in the way of window navigation. I’d venture a guess that the Ubuntu-specific ordering of the buttons — that is, from left to right:

(1) Maximize (2) minimize (3) close, as opposed to OS X’s (1) close (2) minimize (3) maximize…

Was done as a purely pragmatic move to keep Apple’s army of legal drones at bay.

That said, I also think that the new window buttons suck. What do you think?

27 Responses to “The Ubuntu window button debacle.”


  • But we can change it using gconf-editor by the way…
    Open gconf-editor
    Apps->Metacity->general->Button layout
    Change the string to : menu:minimize,maximize,close

    Thats it…

  • But we can change it using gconf-editor by the way…
    Open gconf-editor
    Apps->Metacity->general->Button layout
    Change the string to : menu:minimize,maximize,close

    Thats it…

  • Right, as I mentioned in the post.

    But using the Configuration Editor isn’t exactly intuitive, especially for someone new to Linux — and the market Ubuntu seems to be going after.

  • Right, as I mentioned in the post.

    But using the Configuration Editor isn’t exactly intuitive, especially for someone new to Linux — and the market Ubuntu seems to be going after.

  • “I’d venture a guess that the Ubuntu-specific ordering of the buttons [...] Was done as a purely pragmatic move to keep Apple’s army of legal drones at bay.”

    They are in the order of the less destructive action first.
    Read your sources ;) http://www.ivankamajic.com/?p=281

  • “I’d venture a guess that the Ubuntu-specific ordering of the buttons [...] Was done as a purely pragmatic move to keep Apple’s army of legal drones at bay.”

    They are in the order of the less destructive action first.
    Read your sources ;) http://www.ivankamajic.com/?p=281

  • Oh, I read it. But given that Apple is trying to patent every conceivable facet of their “IP” I still think my reasoning makes more sense.

  • Oh, I read it. But given that Apple is trying to patent every conceivable facet of their “IP” I still think my reasoning makes more sense.

  • AND THE NEW BUTTON LAYOUT REALLY SUCKS ANYWAY…

  • AND THE NEW BUTTON LAYOUT REALLY SUCKS ANYWAY…

  • hey, i also didnt like this when i installed 10.04 beta 1.
    Why should it be changed to Apple style? Please get back to “normal” way

    Anyways I also changed it from metacity.

    Ubuntu should concentrate on making performance improvements rather than such strange design decisions.

  • hey, i also didnt like this when i installed 10.04 beta 1.
    Why should it be changed to Apple style? Please get back to “normal” way

    Anyways I also changed it from metacity.

    Ubuntu should concentrate on making performance improvements rather than such strange design decisions.

  • I find the arrangement quite intuitive, although I prefer the “quit” button on the right side. I used “gconf-editor” to make the change. By the way, there is also a tiny python utility with a GUI that allows you to do the same.

  • I find the arrangement quite intuitive, although I prefer the “quit” button on the right side. I used “gconf-editor” to make the change. By the way, there is also a tiny python utility with a GUI that allows you to do the same.

  • I don’t mind them changing things up, and I’m sure this decision was made long before anything was even released, and I could care less if it makes it look more a Mac. All I would like is the option of having the buttons where they were originally. That’s the beauty of open source/linux/freedom right? The ability to change something if you don’t like it, or some aspect of it.

    The funny part is that the icons aren’t shifted to the left when you look at the theme. At least be consistent there if you’re gonna change it.

  • I don’t mind them changing things up, and I’m sure this decision was made long before anything was even released, and I could care less if it makes it look more a Mac. All I would like is the option of having the buttons where they were originally. That’s the beauty of open source/linux/freedom right? The ability to change something if you don’t like it, or some aspect of it.

    The funny part is that the icons aren’t shifted to the left when you look at the theme. At least be consistent there if you’re gonna change it.

  • BREAKING NEWS: Shuttleworth blinks, Apple lawyers start salivating en masse…

  • BREAKING NEWS: Shuttleworth blinks, Apple lawyers start salivating en masse…

  • And when you launch Chromium the buttons go back to the right…
    What a waste of energy.

  • And when you launch Chromium the buttons go back to the right…
    What a waste of energy.

  • I hope they fix basic issues like 3G modem connectivity in 10.04 before going on to such cosmetic things. My Huawei Modem used to worked perfectly(Plug n Play) in 9.04. And never worked same way in 9.10 and now 10.04 Beta 1. I have to use wvdial to jst connect to internet. This is definately not good for non-geeks. I have many friends like that :)

  • I hope they fix basic issues like 3G modem connectivity in 10.04 before going on to such cosmetic things. My Huawei Modem used to worked perfectly(Plug n Play) in 9.04. And never worked same way in 9.10 and now 10.04 Beta 1. I have to use wvdial to jst connect to internet. This is definately not good for non-geeks. I have many friends like that :)

  • This smells of arrogance. Not so much the change as such (which I do not like too) but the way it is implemented. No real choice and not even a notification/explanation is given to the majority of Ubuntu users who have no clue as to how to revert the change. There are plenty of ways in which this could be addressed but Cannonical just chose to play Big Brother. Apparently the company will have to learn the hard way that users do matter.

  • This smells of arrogance. Not so much the change as such (which I do not like too) but the way it is implemented. No real choice and not even a notification/explanation is given to the majority of Ubuntu users who have no clue as to how to revert the change. There are plenty of ways in which this could be addressed but Cannonical just chose to play Big Brother. Apparently the company will have to learn the hard way that users do matter.

  • HATE the new button layout… on an LTS? Are you serious? This is the sort of change that should have been held off until 10.10, and THEN see if the community accepted it, and THEN put into the NEXT LTS.

  • HATE the new button layout… on an LTS? Are you serious? This is the sort of change that should have been held off until 10.10, and THEN see if the community accepted it, and THEN put into the NEXT LTS.

  • Actually, Mark Shuttleworth was not quite the CEO by then.

Comments are currently closed.