Open Source Publishing – Design Tools For Designers

Time for a new adventure

Texts · Tools · November 2nd, 2010 · Femke

Dear Ubuntu,

A few weeks ago I needed to re-install my computer. Using the convenient Startup Disk Creator, I prepared a USB-stick with a fresh version of Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Lynx, rebooted the computer and clicked ‘install’. While the Ubuntu slide-show took my mind off the wait and the automatized installation process was taking place, I fondly remembered the nervous excitement that installing earlier versions would bring. Although I sometimes miss that sense of adventure, I admire the rapid development that Ubuntu has gone through. Compared to my first experience in 2006, the install is now faultless, fast and pleasant.

But the last slide took me by surprise. It reads: “Take a look at the Ubuntu Software Center to install (and remove) software from our online repository, which we carefully organize to be safe and up to date.” And: “If you need something that isn’t available through us, find out if there is a Debian package or another repository available. That way, it will be really easy to install and you will receive automatic updates.”

Software from our online repository available through us?

I opened the Applications menu on the completed Lucid Lynx install and took a thorough look at the Ubuntu Software Center for the first time. I discovered that the cardboard box icon that represented the repository has been replaced by a brown paper shopping bag and also the vocabulary has changed. ‘Ubuntu Software’ covers the main category of the Debian archive; the rest now falls under ‘Other Software’, including packages in the categories contrib, non-free and potentially packages for sale. The term ‘Third party’ was awkward already, but to replace it by ‘Other’ seems vague on purpose. Even more alarming is that the Software Center refers to some non-free resources as ‘Canonical partners’.

I use Ubuntu since 2006 because I sympathize with your attempt to invite users along that traditionally do not side with Free Software. I certainly enjoyed the increasing stability and ease-of-use that the distribution provides, without sacrificing command-line access. By offering non-free packages such as Adobe Flash, Adobe Reader and Skype as ‘Third party sources’, you made me aware and responsible for my own choice to install non-free software. To a user migrating from MacOS X like me, collaborating with people using proprietary tools, it seemed a healthy approach to digital practice; a clean break between free and non-free is easier said than done. Through the project’s obvious care for interface-issues, Ubuntu also seemed to avoid the over-simplified GUI vs. command-line position that is present in many F/LOSS projects and I secretly hoped that with your attention for design, you would one day find us a way out of there.

The latest developments are unfortunately not very promising as they seem to be about hiding rather than finding interesting hybrid expressions. To compare installing Free Software to shopping is missing the point in such a grotesque way that I have decided to refrain from installing Ubuntu in the future. Here is more background on this decision:

If you want to be in contact with software as an actual material, you need an operating system that can be questioned and experienced. For years, subsequent versions of Ubuntu offered the kind of reflexive environment that I was looking for, if only in contrast with the system I moved away from. The current redesign and rephrasing that is supposed to help make using Ubuntu a more reliable and predictable experience, leaves me feeling alienated from how and why this technology is being produced. It obscures the characteristics of the system, equals out the variations between different sources that it is built upon and ultimately starts to internalize a commercial vocabulary. Speaking of Technology, we are Dreaming of Society1.

Over the last few years, I spent many hours with ‘sudo apt-get install’ and Synaptic2, browsing exotic softwares that I happily installed, tried and uninstalled. In that way I learned about dependencies and libraries and ultimately about the many cultures of software. This sense of interdependence, of richness and diversity has been a source of inspiration for many of the activities and ideas we developed at OSP3.

The changes in the re-branded Ubuntu remind me of how much the software repository is at the heart of a Linux-distribution. By defining what goes into the categories main, contrib or non-free and deciding which update is considered stable and which one is unstable, the package managers make the repository a primary location for taking position on software. Re-phrasing the terminology around it, both visually and in terms of language is therefore an important shift, as it redefines the politics of use.

The fact that Ubuntu wants to develop revenue models4 is obviously not a problem in itself. It is important that projects like yours find ways to be sustainable, and with such a widely used distribution you probably need more money than I can imagine. But in order to monetize the project, you apparently feel the need to hide the interesting trouble that comes with Free Software, and so you decided to put a grocery store at the heart of it. I think it is a mistake to speak about Free Software as products free for the taking, especially as they will soon be joined by others being for sale.

At first I found it hard to believe that part of the Ubuntu redesign was commissioned to people not engaged in free culture whatsoever and sad to see them consequently use proprietary tools with no apparent discomfort.5 Had I cared to look at the Brand Communication Guide, this should not have come as a shock. The new visual strategy is built around so-called voice, audience and developer sliders and the whole design concept is meant to elegantly express a series of binary oppositions: Community (Ubuntu Orange) vs. Commercial (Canonical Aubergine), Consumer vs. Enterprise, End-user vs. Engineer. “If you find that you have positioned a slider in the centre, think carefully about the purpose of your communication and what it is trying to say. In general, the only time it’s useful to say “both” is for transitional or gateway pages, like a home page”6.

It worries me that Canonical, a company committed to both F/LOSS and design is so unambitious about visualizing the vibrancy of the Free software community. This is bad news for F/LOSS as a whole, bad news for the excellent Libre Graphic tools out there that could have gained from your support, but also for design itself. Once again it is being reduced to a cover-up, facilitating the disconnect between the technologies it is supposed to represent.

The decision I made in 2006 to move away from integrated, seamless systems literally has caught up with me. It is fair to say that the urge to try out other F/LOSS operating systems is partially motivated by the feeling that I am getting used to the Ubuntu-way to such an extent that it is hard to stay aware of it (I almost missed the changes happening to the package manager). The direction Ubuntu is taking right now, means that in order for “people to love and appreciate free software”7 you make it a priority to be in direct competition with proprietary systems. You decided to replace the Human-theme by the Light-theme (“Visually, light is beautiful, light is ethereal, light brings clarity and comfort” ) and are busy with Core Brand Values. Now Ubuntu starts to speak like the proprietary tools I wanted to leave behind, it is time to move on.

The cardboard box icon that has been in use throughout various Gnome-icon sets always seemed a bit of an empty metaphor. Looking at it in this context, it gains power as a subtle allusion to transportability, modularity, storage and archive. It ultimately refers to opening Pandora’s box8, unleashing the unruly forces of Free Software. It is this unreliable potential that I have grown to love and appreciate in Free Software and I would like to find an operating system that reflects it. A distribution that cares about interface, does not confuse openness with consistency, is not afraid to risk reliability over solidarity and can think beyond circles when it comes to visually representing a community. One that does not mistake users for consumers, nor has a binary view on differentiating between them and developers.

Before saying goodbye I would like to thank you because without Ubuntu I would not have made it this far. I truly hope you will stay around, convincing many other users to consider Free Software. But I am ready to embark on a new adventure.

Kind regards,


  1. Mirko Tobias Schaeffer: Designing a Better Tomorrow: How design is informed by metaphors, images and associations of social progress http://river-valley.tv/designing-a-better-tomorrow []
  2. Synaptic is a Graphical User Interface for apt-get or Aptitude, the Debian package-manager. []
  3. “We launched OSP because our portfolio started to fill up with designs for alternative music, copyleft activities and Linux Install Parties and the gap between the language of our work and the jargon of the commercial software we used became more obvious with every new job. We were also interested in the role that software plays in the creative process and trying to find out how our digital tools could become a creative and substantial element in design itself. But since the software packages of Adobe Inc. have become quite the standard in art academies, creative studios and printshops, it is difficult to detect their influence, let alone analyse their effect.” Awkward Gestures. OSP in The Mag.net reader 3: Processual Publishing. Actual Gestures, edited by Alessandro Ludovico and Nat Muller. 2008 []
  4. “In order to monetize, Canonical needs to change its user base, Enderle said. However, it first needs to provide a platform that’s more polished so people are more likely to buy. Adding the Unity interface for highly mobile computing is an ‘important’ step in making Canonical’s platform more user-friendly, but ‘they still have a long way to go and will need to change the perceptions surrounding the product as well if they want to attract people who will spend money on it” Ubuntu Maverick Meerkat Pokes Its Head Out. Richard Adhikari in LinuxInsider http://www.linuxinsider.com/rsstory/71012.html []
  5. For the redesign of the Ubuntu Font, Canonical decided to commission the London design agency Dalton Maag Ltd. The font is released under a free license, but designed using the proprietary tool FontLab without interaction from the Free Font community. http://www.daltonmaag.com/docs/FontDevelopment.pdf. See also Nathan Willis: Ubuntu’s font beta sparks discussions about open font development http://lwn.net/Articles/396711/ []
  6. Ubuntu Brand Communication Guide http://design.canonical.com/brand/A.%20Brand_Communication_Guide_v1.pdf []
  7. http://wiki.ubuntu.com/Brand []
  8. Using her fingers, the maid pried open the lid of the great jar,
    Sprinkling its contents; her purpose, to bring sad hardships to mankind.
    Nothing but Hope stayed there in her stout, irrefrangible dwelling,
    Under the lip of the jar, inside, and she never would venture
    Outdoors, having the lid of the vessel itself to prevent her,
    Willed there by Zeus, who arranges the storm clouds and carries the aegis.
    Otherwise, myriad miseries flit round miserable mortals;
    Furthermore, full is the earth of much mischief, the deep sea also.
    http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/329658.html []

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  • 1. Antonio

    Nov 2, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    I was recently introduced to a way of thinking that I think sheds some light on what Canonical is doing.

    When developing some open source thing you’re either doing it _for_ the community or _with_ the community. Canonical appear to be providing a service/product _for_ the community but with less interaction _with_ the community than some other projects. Canonical are in this difficult position in that they have to make something commercially viable but also please the community.

    It’s unfortunate that they are following what some might call and Apple way of doing things, which is putting a nice shiny coat over everything and hiding all of the techy things, but when you look at the recent success of Apple it’s hard to not be tempted

  • 2. Femke

    Nov 2, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    Hello Antonio,

    I respect Ubuntu/Canonical and they have been transparent about their intentions. Clearly I never felt the need to write to Adobe when installing Linux. Call me Utopian (or naive if you wish), but I dream of sustainable software for AND with the community. I really can’t see how The Apple way could seriously tempt F/LOSS. Both the pleasing and the success of Apple are based on a radically different software philosophy and I feel not acknowledging the difference undermines the strength of F/LOSS. It necessitates DRM, closed source, a split between professional and amateur, user and developer. I have no solution, but trying not to ignore the paradox is the least I can do.

  • 3. Antonio

    Nov 2, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    I don’t agree with the Apple way either. However, take a look at OMGUbuntu or GIMP UI Brainstorm and you’ll unfortunately see a lot of people praising these Mac/Adobe like mockups.

    Essentially they/we want to be like Apple because it’s shiny and new and cool. What they’ve done really well is not make good products but tricked people into thinking they’ll be cool if they purchase their products. And who doesn’t want to be cool? Sure, Android is free, open source and customisable but is it cool? If you can watch it this video explains it very well http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FL7yD-0pqZg

    I do too hope that we can software that is created with, for and possibly even by the community. However, from my experience, the biggest hurdle for that is people fighting all of the time and thus stalling any progress.

    I don’t agree with some what Canonical does, but I’m glad they’re getting something done.

  • 4. Stéphanie

    Nov 2, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    Antonio, the Youtube video doesn’t seem to work in Belgium: “This video contains content from Comcast Entertainment Group, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.” !!!

    I am not sure selling “cool” stuff has ever been the motto or the will of Free software community. People don’t switch from Microsoft or Apple because GNU/Linux is “cooler” as it would fail to do that.

    I feel like “normal” people (meaning not involved -yet- in free software) come progressively to free software but for good reasons. Why paying loads of Microsoft Office licences for school or libraries or municipal offices? Why shall a private monopole should be installed on the computers used for education and therefore condition our relation to software? This a question I think that can touch a lot of people. We shouldn’t underestimate them.

    Although I really appreciate Ubuntu’s effort to please people coming from W or A, this distro has always repulsed me for it looked like it was jealous of its proprietary fellas.

  • 5. Dave

    Nov 3, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    Femke, you didn’t mention which distro you switched to! :)

  • 6. Severn Clay-Youman

    Nov 3, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    When the Apple “App Store” concept came out, I really felt they had ripped off Debian/Red Hat! Of course I should be able to have my software managed in one coherent system, not fiddling with CDs and encryption keys.

    No, my biggest problem with Ubuntu is what I call the “guru gap”. As someone who came from Gentoo, where you could always go to the forums to get a detailed, well-reasoned answer to a technical question, complete with command-line-only directions (I learned a lot), the Ubuntu ecosystem feels very shallow – many eager users, but no greybeards to answer questions. Linux (and perhaps FOSS) requires an entire and balance ecosystem, not just a large install base. It needs people reporting bugs, but also fixing bugs and writing software.

    I now find myself trying a “third way”, running Windows 7 but trying to keep working in FOSS software, and I do miss Ubuntu’s ease of installation! Linux, strangely, has become the place where everything “just works”.

  • 7. Femke

    Nov 4, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Dave — Before settling for another distribution (if ever) I am packing my bags for a Grand Tour ;-) . I am looking at Fedora (understand what the Red Hat approach brings and see the design team at work), Debian (back to basics) and a flavour of Linux mini. I’ll start with a a multiple-boot, will report on the process and am open for suggestions.
    Michael (responding to his ‘live comment’) — I tried to write it as a kind of fare-well letter to the Ubuntu community as a whole, and not to Mark Shuttleworth or Canonical specifically.
    Severn — I agree on the importance of the F/LOSS ecosystem, so I am concerned with how the inner logic of a distribution/community can seriously contribute to the interaction between users and developers, making all engaged feeling entitled to work across language, gender, experience, distribution.

  • 8. Dave

    Nov 10, 2010 at 6:37 am

    I have been using Fedora very happily for 18 month now – it has the most libre policies of any popular distro, and I am very excited about the future of its design team. I think in Fedora’s governance structures and Red Hat’s strategy, RHAT has got the balance between corporate sponsorship/paid contributors and community participation far more right than Debian/Ubuntu, Novell/SUSE, or any others. It also helps that is also the most cutting edge distro as well as the most libre :) And the rpmfusion repos are set up very sensibly too, with a good libre archive for things free in EU but not USA.

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