Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

The Problem of Menus

Nov 16, 2012 GMT

Interfaces for traditional computers and mobile devices have become increasingly inventive in the last few years. So far, however, none have solved a basic design challenge: designing an efficient menu.The challenge rarely exists within applications. An application usually has half a dozen or more top level menus, each with less than a dozen items, so a drop-down system is usually good enough.But on the desktop environment, the norm has always been to have a single menu that lists all applications, and often shut-down commands, a list of favorites, and a few other items. To function well, each variation needs to make items quick to find and to distract minimally from whatever else...
The free software media and cults of personality

Nov 08, 2012 GMT

It's all the media's fault. Or, if not, the media helps perpetuate it.I'm talking about the cults of personality that often dominate the free software  community -- not just the respect for accomplishment in an alleged meritocracy, but the undue influence that certain people are allowed to exercise.As Aaron Seigo points out in a blog that anticipates much of what I would otherwise have said, such cults are contrary to community values. Worse, they can do untold damage, imposing commercial values at the cost of community ones, or dividing the community as those at the center of such cults decide to air their personal grudges in public. They can cause people to discard their own...
Plasma Active: The Mobile Interface That Works

Oct 31, 2012 GMT

To express myself mildly, I'm not a fan of interfaces for mobile devices. At best, they seem clumsy makeshifts, tolerable only because nothing better is available. The only exception is KDE's Plasma Active, which not only works well on tablets, but, with its recently released version 3.0, remains the only mobile-inspired interface I can tolerate on a workstation – and that includes Unity and Windows RT.What makes Plasma Active so well-designed? Probably, it gets a boost from the fact that in the last five years, the KDE community has developed two other interfaces, the KDE 4 release series and Plasma Netbook, and gained some design expertise in the process. All three of these interfaces...
Reactions to women speakers

Oct 23, 2012 GMT

Congratulations! You've managed to attract more women speakers to your conference. But, if you think your problems are over, you may be in for a surprise. If the experiences of Moose, the chair of Ohio LinuxFest 2012 are typical, instead of relaxing after your efforts, you may find yourself answering second-guessing from not-so-closet sexists.Ohio LinuxFest is one of the regional conferences that has made special efforts to encourage women to speak. In 2010, thirty percent of its speakers were women -- a rate higher than most leading free and open source software conferences in recent years. In 2012, the percentage declined to fifteen percent, but included three out of four keynote...
The problems with Ubuntu's Amazon results legal notice

Oct 16, 2012 GMT

Every Ubuntu release seems to have its own controversy. For Ubuntu 12.10, codenamed Quantal Quetzal, that controversy is the inclusion of results from Amazon when you use the dash for searching. Thanks to the controversy, this feature has been heavily modified. However the legal notice that has been add as one of those modifications is as much cause for concern as the feature itself.To be fair, Ubuntu has shown many signs of listening to the complaints. Amazon search results can now be toggled off in the Privacy settings, and the feature now uses a blacklist of keywords to reduce the chances of returning pornographic results. Results are also encrypted before being transmitted to ensure...
Ada Lovelace, Technical Writer

Oct 11, 2012 GMT

Ada Lovelace is often credited with being the first computer programmer. However, a few dissenters gleefully debunk this claim, insisting that she merely organized Charles Babbage's notes. Trying to evaluate these conflicting claims, I realized suddenly that, even if the debunkers are right, Lovelace should still be called the first technical writer -- a role that deserves equal credit, and no less so for being frequently under-valued.The controversy about Lovelace's status as a programmer centers on her translation of Luigi Menabrea's transcript of a lecture by Charles Babbage at the University of Turin in the early 1840s. Lovelace added seven notes that were longer than the translation...
Features vs. Benefits

Sep 30, 2012 GMT

The other day, I received an announcement about a new distribution. That's not unusual; I receive announcements about new software each week. But what struck me about this one was that, while the announcement mentioned a few new features, it gave no reason why I should care about them as either a reviewer or a user. As a result, it failed to interest me in the distribution, and the sender of the announcement might have saved his efforts.Or, to put the situation into marketing terms, the announcement mentioned features when it should have been talking about benefits. Understanding the distinctionThe distinction between features and benefits is one that all marketers learn. However, it...

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