Ubuntu rips up drop-down menus

Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth explains a radical overhaul of the Linux distro's GUI in an exclusive interview

Barry Collins
24 Jan 2012

Ubuntu is set to replace the 30-year-old computer menu system with a “Head-Up Display” that allows users to simply type or speak menu commands.

Instead of hunting through drop-down menus to find application commands, Ubuntu’s Head-Up Display lets users type what they want to do into a search box. The system suggests possible commands as the user begins typing – entering “Rad” would bring up the Radial blur command in the GIMP art package, for example. HUD also uses fuzzy matching and learns from past searches to ensure the correct commands are offered to users.

Having stated your intent, the application leads you down a simple journey to get that done

Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth told PC Pro that HUD will help people get to grips with new software more quickly. “One of the first things people do [when they get a new piece of software] is go through all the menus,” he said. “They almost memorise and scan all the menus, and are getting a feel for what’s there. The challenge is for less-experienced users. They’re essentially having to rescan all the time to find what they want.”

Shuttleworth claimed HUD will also make it easier for people used to the layout of Windows applications to move to open-source alternatives, removing the need to re-learn where all their favourite commands are nested in the menu system.

Ubuntu HUD

Shuttleworth said his team spent a long time ripping up one of the four fundamentals of the WIMP (windows, icons, menus, pointer) system that has dominated PC GUIs for decades. “We’ve spent the past 18 months exploring alternatives to the PC menu system,” he said. “It [the menu system] is one of the oldest pieces of GUI – it’s essentially predicated on the idea that you want to present a map of an application to users, and explore that via mouse and keyboard.

“The core idea [of HUD] is to get to a world where people can direct an application to do what they want,” he added. “Having stated your intent, the application leads you down a simple journey to get that done.”

Ready for release

The HUD will be introduced with the next version of Ubuntu, 12.04, which is a long-term support version due to be released in April. It will be implemented in all the applications that ship with the open-source OS, although the old menu system will still be available for those who don’t want to use HUD or want to explore the available commands. “All of this just works with all the major apps in Ubuntu today,” Shuttleworth claimed. “It’s all hooked in below the application level.”

Shuttleworth described HUD as a “stark contrast” to Microsoft’s ribbon interface, which festoons menus with dozens of the most frequently used commands. “We’re saying let’s expose less of the interface,” said Shuttleworth, who quit his role as CEO of Canonical to focus on the Ubuntu user experience. “It will be interesting to see how users react to the changes.”

Last year’s decision to install the visually attractive Unity interface as the default in Ubuntu led to criticism that the Linux distro was dumbing down to attract new users. Could replacing the menu system with a search box reignite such criticism?

“Some of our users are particularly attached to the command line,” Shuttleworth said. “But even they noticed they had a greatly enhanced experience with GUI apps [in closed trials of HUD].”

Ubuntu plans to integrate voice recognition with HUD in future releases, allowing users to dictate commands to their PC. It will also offer better touch support, to coincide with the forthcoming release of a version of Ubuntu for tablets, although Shuttleworth insists that HUD isn’t a cheap way to port desktop apps to tablets. “Running desktop apps on a tablet will be a frustrating experience,” he added.

The Canonical founder refused to be drawn on when the tablet version of Ubuntu would be released, and admitted that testing a mobile variant of the OS is more difficult than a conventional desktop release. “There isn’t an easy place to consume Ubuntu on a tablet,” he said, referring to the fact that most tablets are locked to the pre-installed operating system.

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