Towards a “human” Ubuntu (Karmic Koala) release note

These days I am busy preparing my talk about news in Ubuntu Karmic Koala which I’ll present at least three times: at Ubucon (Göttingen), Ubuntu Karmic Koala Release Party (Berlin) and Brandenburger Linuxtag BLIT (Potsdam). This is the third time I am going to present news in an Ubuntu release to a broader audience, therefore I gained experiences in researching information about an upcoming or just issued Ubuntu release.

While collecting new features and changes in Ubuntu I continue to notice that I am quite unsatisfied with the information provided for a release. Let me tell you why and what I suggest to change this.

The Status Quo

Ubuntu is released twice a year. Every release means thousands of changed packages, fixed bugs, enhancements and new functions. With every release a release note is added to the release overview page. Lets have a look at the first paragraphs of the most recent release note for Ubuntu Jaunty Jackalope:

These release notes document known issues with Ubuntu 9.04 and its variants.
System Requirements

The minimum memory requirement for Ubuntu 9.04 is 256 MB of memory. Note that some of your system’s memory may be unavailable due to being used by the graphics card. If your computer has only the minimum amount of memory, the installation process will take longer than normal, but will complete successfully, and the system will perform adequately once installed.

Systems with less memory may be able to select “Install Ubuntu” from the boot menu to run just the installer, rather than the whole desktop, or may be able to use the alternate install CD.

Installation
Recommended packages installed by default

In accordance with the Debian Policy Manual (which says “The ‘Recommends’ field should list packages that would be found together with this one in all but unusual installations”), the package management system now installs packages listed in the Recommends: field of other installed packages as well as Depends: by default. If you want to avoid this for specific packages, use apt-get –no-install-recommends; if you want to make this permanent, set APT::Install-Recommends “false”; in /etc/apt/apt.conf. Be aware that this may result in missing features in some programs.

Interesting and useful information, in a way. But in my eyes not what I am looking for when looking for a “human” release note. The current release notes are focussed on technical details and written in a language that might appeal an advanced audience like linux pros, developpers and system administrators. These are important target groups, of course, but they are not the only target group for a release, are they? Actually I hope, these people, and I count myself to them, are only a minority of Ubuntu users.

Who do we want to talk to?

So what is a suitable and broad target group for a release (note) that does not focus on techies? The answer is fairly easy: It’s the main group of average users who just wants to do things with their machines: office work, surfing the web, using social services, organizing their family pictures, watching video streams and so on. They don’t care that much about version numbers, framework changes and new apis. They use the computer as a tool and that’s exactly what makes Ubuntu “human” for me and for them.

If these users consider upgrading to or installing a new release, where do they get hints about features that might convince them of doing so? Well, from online and print magazines as well as blogs featuring the new release. But as these texts also need to be written – where do the journalists and bloggers get their background from? Well, they need to collect small pieces of information on the web, which is an exhausting job as there is no official and comprehensive document and you need to collect and prove every bit of information while still risking missing important facts. So the second group of people a release note might address besides average users are people writing texts: journalists and blogger.

Let’s call these groups non-technical, though they might be pros. They play a non-technical here role as even if they are technical journalists or developers they want to know about features that support their day to day work.

What do we want to tell?

So let’s rethink a release note from user’s point of view. Let’s say the user uses OpenOffice.org for writing documents and doing spreadsheet calculation, Firefox for surfing, Evolution for Mail, Pidgin for Chat. What might be facts that’d get his attention in the upcoming Karmic release? Let’s try a too short example list of interesting facts about the upcoming Karmic Koala release (PLEASE NOTE: These are just sample notes – neither long enough nor well proved enough, so don’t complain about them, please ;) )

  • The new “Ubuntu Software Center” has been introduced as a replacement for the “Add Software” Synaptic (?) stuff and comes with a task oriented clean interface and even showing screenshots of a lot applications before installing them. Software installation has never been so easy.
  • The network manager has been revamped. Mostly unnecessary details have been removed from the standard dialogues. Using the network manager got more intuitive. Dealing with wifi networks is easier to manager as you have to make less decisions.
  • The computer janitor, a tool for removing outdated and unused software, got extended so the interface displays more useful information making it easier to decide what to remove.
  • [...]
  • Firefox 3.5 is the new default browser. Besides increased stabililty and faster page rendering it brings a private surf mode, leaving no traces on disk, you can use specific searches for bookmarks and history in the address bar, [...]
  • Evolution is now able to import data from the hamster applet via iCal.
  • The default chat client Pidgin has been replaced by Empathy, which is a port of the Gnome Desktop environment and well integrated. Empathy comes with a clean interface, video and audio chat features. You should give it a try. Pidgin is still available via the Software Center of course.
  • [...]

I think you get what I am trying to tell: Giving the user facts about features that have impact on his user experience and his daily work. There is even an example of a quite felicitous note release that is closely connected to an Ubuntu release: The Gnome Project presents outstanding multi-language (!) release notes with appealing language, screenshots and a clean structure. Have a look at the release note for Gnome 2.28 that gets shipped with Ubuntu 9.10.

Ubuntu cannot copy these notes at a whole as they some parts differ in Ubuntu. For instance Empathy has no geolocation bindings so far in Karmic (think that has been ripped as it would exceed the size for the standard iso image). And Ubuntu is not only Gnome, like Kubuntu is not only KDE.

Towards a collective, human release note

Putting my notes together, here is my pragmatic-let’s-make-improve-it-suggestion:

The Ubuntu project already makes massive usage of wikis. As a lot of people collect useful and user-oriented information about a release and users as well as journalists and bloggers are happy about structured collections of features, we should combine our efforts in documenting what’s so special about a release. The following four types of features might be of broader interest:

  1. Daily use applications like all applications that ship with the standard iso as well as often installed ones like Thunderbird, VLC media player, and so on.
  2. Changes within Gnome that made their way into Ubuntu like new applets, improved tools and settings.
  3. Important changes on the technical framework having an impact on user experience (like better boot times due to upstart, faster file access by using ext4, …)
  4. New bleeding edge features that show the upcoming feature but are not visible by default (like gnome-shell).

In fact a document containing all those information can get quite long. But hey: It would finally be a decent starting point, gives user to opportunity to read on and bloggers and journalists a kick start right from the scratch.

Doing things right here right now

After writing all this I’d like to channel interests into an pragmatic approach. I already emphasized how useful a wiki’d be in our case of collaboratively writing a release note for the masses. So let’s start right away, now, and hit the “edit” button on:  The Karmic Koala “Human” Release Notes. I just added some topics and text snippets as a starting point. I think the structure can work this way. Let me know, what you think. At the end it would be great having interesting screen shots showing some of the news and changes.

As I’ll attend the Ubuntu Global Jam this Saturday, I’ll use the time for extending the document. A perfect day for this task.

Keep in mind who we want to reach

Keeping an eye on the target groups – users, journalists and bloggers – helps keeping the “human” release note straight forward. Friendly language is fine here, talking about frameworks not – at this place. Don’t forget: We still have a technical release note.

Now it’s up to you: What do you think about my proposal? Would you like to join working on a more user focussed document? Let me know.

[update]

Wouter sent a hint on the http://www.ubuntu.com/products/whatisubuntu/904features/ page. Indeed I did not know it so far (I did not find an easy click-way from the Ubuntu home page to this document so far), and am investigating the document right now. So far I can tell that it is, of course, more suitable to my requirements than any other document so far, but I already guess that it is still not exactly what I need. Be it the late publishing of the document regarding the release date.

[update2]

After having reviewed the document I still miss a “human” release note. Why? Well, the document from above is rather a description of a current release, repeating a lot of already known facts from previous releases and therefore doesn’t focus on changes in the release. Nonetheless I totally agree to Wouter, this could be more prominent, but we still another type of release notes.

usability as blocker? of course. – UbuntuOne and the bandwith limit

Recently I ran into a missing feature of the UbuntuOne client. If you don’t know yet: UbuntuOne is the Canonical driven online space for storing and saving data. It’s a commercial service with a free entry level like similar offers from DropBox. The UbuntuOne client is a small open source application that cares for the synchronisation of files. So when you put a file in a specific folder, the client pushes it to the server or pulls changes in the same way.

The missing feature was a small one: The ability to limit the upload speed. As you might know, uploading large files can nearly block you internet access as your machine isn’t able to send back packages in time. So limiting upload speed either automatically or with a specific setting helps you sending data to the net while still being able doing other things.

While the fact that the feature is somehow is maybe rather not of interest for you, the interesting part is to see how the feature request evolves in the Ubuntu bug tracker. I filed a request myself (#375328) and ran into a – technically correct – discussion about the necessity of implementing network speed limits inside applications. Of course you have the ability to use the Linux kernels traffic shaping features or even a more centralized setup in your local network. While these arguments are absolutely right from an administrator’s point of view they are nearly incorrect from an end user’s side. And end user shouldn’t really care about lan traffic shaping setups or need to know about the Linux kernel’s traffic shaping features.

So while more beta testers filed similar feature requests and (#381348) got the main ticket, the importance of this issue remained in the discussion. I’s surprised to see that the request got recently tagged as “karmic-blocker” meaning it has to be done before Ubuntu Karmic Koala is released. While the tag was removed temporarily as a reason was missing, Elliot Murphy filed it later, stating

“if we don’t have bandwidth limiting and the user fires up their laptop on a slow connection (maybe an edge connection via their mobile phone), and the syncdaemon will use all available bandwidth and cripple any other applications that need some bandwidth. we’ve gotten bug reports from users already complaining about this being so bad that DNS requests are taking forever to get through. so, I think the syncdaemon having some semi-intelligent bandwidth limiting (like the suggestion of monitoring the transmit queue depth) is a karmic blocker.”
source: https://bugs.launchpad.net/ubuntuone-client/+bug/381348

The point about all this is: The nearly tiny feature request of adding a bandwith control to a small client got a blocker for Karmic as it might break user experience and could lead to a lot of bug reports about slow networking connections that are rather about UbuntuOne client consuming upload speed completely. I guess the decision to handle this as a blocker might be surprising on the one side but it is a wise decision as it focusses on the users point of view on the other and finally that’s what it’s all about: the user. Isn’t it?