Sunday, August 06, 2006

Shuttleworth: Communicating Release Goals

Ubuntu head honcho Mark Shuttleworth has just blogged about communicating release goals. Most of the article is an email from Matt Zimmerman (an Ubuntu team member) which talks about the importance of clearly expressing the team's release goals in order to prevent end-user disappointment.

Matt Zimmerman writes:

Many are criticizing shortcomings in Ubuntu which have existed for years now, or deplore the lack of eye candy and other superficial features, as justification for an overall negative impression of the release. In particular, I see repeated mentions of:

- Lack of 3D support out of the box on nVidia chipsets: [0]

- Need to use the command line for certain administrative tasks (including the above) [0] [5]

- Lack of out-of-the-box support for Java, Flash, MP3, DVD, etc. (RestrictedFormats) [0] [4]

- Lack of 3D accelerated desktop effects and other eye candy (e.g. Xgl/AIGLX, prettier usplash) [1] [5]

- Lack of support for a particular hardware component (e.g., wireless card or printer) [1] [2] [4] [6]

- Ubuntu not being easy enough for the typical user [0]

- Lack of availability of development tools in the default install [0] [2]

- Manual partitioning is clunky [0] [3]

None of these are new problems, but they are pointed out as examples of major shortcomings by these reviews. It's notable that in some cases, we're being compared with Windows, rather than other Linux distributions, which is a much higher bar, but overall my impression is that there has been a disconnect between the expectations of the community and what we delivered with Dapper. In particular, I see indications that users expected Dapper:

- to be better-looking ("polished")
- to have more long-standing feature wishes implemented ("polished")
- to have no regressions from Breezy ("polished")
- to have fewer bugs than a typical Ubuntu release ("polished")

(important part bolded for emphasis)

Now, is there anything surprising about the fact that Ubuntu users want "more long-standing feature wishes implemented"?

When I first started using Ubuntu, I was extremely pleased by the number of things that it "got right". Applications that it shipped with it worked out of the box (I had terrible experiences with older versions of Mandrake), and it's hardware support was among the best of the Linux distributions.

Now, it seems that Ubuntu's pace of continuing to "do things right" has slowed down. The reason why people keeping commenting about Flash/MP3/Multimedia/Nvidia/ATI/etc. support being major negative points is because:
A) Simply put, they are major flaws. (I don't think anyone would deny this.)
B) They haven't been fixed in any Ubuntu release to date.

The community's expectation is for the Ubuntu team to take these problems seriously and to address them (that means fix them). These were major problems two years ago, and they're still major problems now. If the Ubuntu team doesn't move to fix these problems soon, it's going to start wearing down the morale of the community. (Nobody likes developers who ignore the complaints of their end-users.)

So, what have we learned? Perhaps that even if we meet our goals in our own eyes, we may be considered a failure by some if they have a different interpretation of our intentions.

I'm going to agree with Matt on this one, as it's a very important lesson for any developers who have a fair amount of contact with their users. Game developers often make the classic mistake of mentioning planned features that never end up seeing the light of day, which only leaves gamers disappointed.

...of the five specific examples, it's quite likely that no more than one or two will actually be implemented in Edgy.

If Edgy fails to include at least some of the "next-generation" features originally mentioned by Mark Shuttleworth and fails to fix some of the major missing pieces that the community keeps complaining about (Flash, multimedia support, etc.), then there's going to be an excellent opportunity for a new Linux distribution to come along and dethrone Ubuntu.

C'est la vie.

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