Usability, choices, and xorg

This blog entry isn’t meant to express an opinion about the current discussion surrounding the ctrl-alt-backspace changes for Jaunty. Since it’s a Gnome only discussion, it doesn’t actually affect me. I do think it’s an important discussion that people ought to be more broadly aware of, not just for this particular instance, but for the design principals in play.
Because upstream decided to change to disable this by default and there was a rough (very rough, IMO, but I keep reminding myself that’s not what I’m writing about …) consensus at UDS to follow their lead, by default in Jaunty, ctrl-alt-backspace will no longer restart X. Because of the controversy, the spec includes in the implementation plan, “GUI tools will be implemented that permit re-enabling this. Tools must be available for both GNOME and KDE”.
Alberto Milone went off and implemented that. It was merged into Kubuntu’s packaging of KDE 4.2 last week. When Alberto asked to have the Gnome change merged today, a long discussion followed.
As part of that discussion, Mark Shuttleworth pointed people to Matthew Paul Thomas‘s blog posting, Why Free Software has poor usability, and how to improve it and said he was, “happy to keep discussing it, and would like to use MPT’s commentary as the usability framework for that discussion.”.
So I’d invite people to read through it and bring their perspective to this in a useful way (I hope this counts).

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12 Responses to “Usability, choices, and xorg”


  1. 1 Bane January 30, 2009 at 03:00

    “It can be re-enabled by setting the DontZap xorg.conf option to False”
    Does this mean that xorg.conf is ‘back’ with jaunty?

  2. 2 goran January 30, 2009 at 03:19

    With all due respect to all parties involved, the discussion leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
    The thought “we pretended to agree so that the changes we want will get done, without the intention to actually do what was agreed on” comes across pretty easily.
    And I’m always suspicious of terms like “vocal minority” and “silent majority” without any actual data backing that up, since one can easily take one for the other.

  3. 3 ScottK January 30, 2009 at 06:08

    @Bane: It never really left. Although xorg.conf doesn’t always exist, if it does, it’s settings take priority of the internal xorg settings. The dontzap utility will create an xorg.conf if it needs to.

  4. 4 Mircea January 30, 2009 at 07:57

    I cannot find a way to add comments to the discussion on launchpad. https://code.launchpad.net/~albertomilone/gnome-control-center/randr-virtual/+merge/3208
    Frankly I cannot understand how some people can be so blind that they cannot see that there are better ways to achieve the goals. Namely, require two (or three) presses of C-A-Bksp, like OpenSuSE does (and also beeps when you press the combo), OR require that you press the combo for 3 seconds.
    And by the way I’m running Intrepid and the suggested alternate combo (Alt-SysRq-K) does not work for me. At least I could not find a way to activate it, maybe the kernel is built without magic sysrq support. And I’m a heavy linux user since 1996. I feel so dumb, I thought I was an “expert” and now I can’t figure out how to restart my X server. I find this highly usable 😉

  5. 5 David January 30, 2009 at 08:10

    ctrl-alt-backspace is quite useful when you need it.. but it can be very unfortunate when used by accident.. and this is the root problem (is it ?).
    One possible simple solution could be a confirm dialog of the kind : Do you really want to restart the graphic layer ? [Restart the graphic layer] [Cancel]

  6. 6 Mircea January 30, 2009 at 09:51

    @David: I don’t think displaying a confirmation dialog is a practical solution as the code that handles C-A-Bksp is deep down in the layers of X and prolly can’t display anything on the screen.

  7. 7 Jackflap January 30, 2009 at 10:27

    Firstly, I’ve seen a LOT non-technical users use Ubuntu in my time, and I’ve _never_ seen or heard of anyone accidently pressing ctrl+alt+backspace. So as far I’m concerned, this whole change is just a pain in the ass.
    Beyond that, when it comes to usability, I’m getting the distinct impression that all professional usability decisions are made through usability reviews/surveys using sample populations. I’ve talked to professional usability experts, and a lot of what they do seems to be to carry out those surveys.
    Why are we letting a bunch of developers at UDSes decide on the usability improvements needed, when we should be carrying out surveys and experiments to make those decisions?

  8. 8 Mircea January 30, 2009 at 11:08

    @Jackflap
    Because Mark says so 🙂 and he is the leader of Ubuntu.

  9. 9 Juanjo January 30, 2009 at 11:09

    I think C-A-Backspace is an standard. Remove it’s behavior and X11 will be broken.

  10. 10 ScottK January 30, 2009 at 11:20

    @Juanjo: It has been in the past, but upstream has changed the default.

  11. 11 Juanjo January 30, 2009 at 14:29

    @ScottK: OK, I got it wrong. I thought that was a Ubuntu-only change (and not a upstream one).


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