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Ubuntu rips up drop-down menus

  • Ubuntu HUD
  • Ubuntu HUD

By Barry Collins

Posted on 24 Jan 2012 at 14:00

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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User comments

This will be very interesting and seems to be a big step forward in terms of UI. Hopefully it is not a resource hog (and works).

By JamesD29 on 24 Jan 2012

Menus are generally preferable to beginners

I used to use several computers fittd to flight simulators during the pre-GUI era. The operating systems were proprietery and all were command based. On one of them, a crude (bespoke) menu system over two (80 column by 25 line) was devised. This made doing most functions a lot simpler for ALL users; especially engineers who couldn't type very well!

By BornOnTheCusp on 24 Jan 2012

Menus are generally preferable to beginners

That should have read "over two pages (80 column by 25 lines)"

By BornOnTheCusp on 24 Jan 2012

First I've heard...

“One of the first things people do [when they get a new piece of software] is go through all the menus,”

Nope, never done that myself - is it something that others generally do?

By The_Scrote on 24 Jan 2012

I wonder how...

...you will be able to tell what functions a program offers, if you can't see a list of them in a menu?

By craven5 on 24 Jan 2012

Forgetting...

that menus were brought in, along with the mouse, for beginners and users who didn't like / were afraid of the keyboard.

If it works with voice, all well and good, but using the menu shortcuts (for example alt+o+a+v+0 is a lot quicker than typing in "Platz vor Absatz"

Menus also make it a lot easier, when switching between languages. I support German, English, Russian, Austrian, Polish and Romanian systems. "Knowing" the menu structure saves me actually having to learn all of the different languages, because I know that the options are in the same position in each language.

While I can see it being of some use, I don't know whether this is the "breakthrough" that Shutteworth hopes it will be.

As to touch screens and tablets, we have been selling Linux based touchscreen devices for the best part of a decade! We also have a couple of suppliers, who source us tablets without operating systems on them.

By big_D on 24 Jan 2012

@craven5

The old menu system will remain in place - at least initially - for those who want to explore the available commands.

Barry Collins
Editor

By Barry_Collins on 24 Jan 2012

@Barry_Collins

Then it's not really 'Ubuntu rips up drop-down menus' is it? Over dramatic headline perhaps?

By Noghar on 24 Jan 2012

This sounds familiar

This reminds me of typing things into W7s search box. Something that is only necessary because they have mucked up the network settings dialogues.

By tirons1 on 24 Jan 2012

The old menu system will remain in place - at least initially

Indefinitely, I hope - or, at least, a menu based guide.

Otherwise, how will users be expected to guess what command name the designers have given to functions, particularly obscure ones.

And how, I wonder, does the system cope with similar functions on what would have been different menu paths.

Sounds like a good feature to augment menus but not to replace them entirely.

By qpw3141 on 24 Jan 2012

Choice

I too am left puzzled by the idea that the first thing people do with new software is explore menus. I usually wait until I need to find something specific before doing that.
This HUD could well mean in the future I never do again.

By dubiou on 24 Jan 2012

Promising

This reminds me a bit of the search functionality in Chrome's settings. I very much like that, it allows me to get to the setting I need faster and without having to consider how those settings are organised.

Watching the video, I do believe Ubuntu engineers can learn a bit more from Chrome. Looking, for instance, at the interaction with Inkscape, where you will really need a bunch of sliders to get the glow or shadow effect exactly right, instead of some general command.

I believe it would be better if the command-box would be integrated in the interface, for instance in a sidebar to the right of the screen. Then when a user types 'shadow', the sidebar will be filled with the shadow tool. Perhaps if the user-typed command isn't completely clear, names of several tools van be displayed and clicking one will open it up.

In response to some of the comments: of course for something like this to work well it is essential that you don't require very specific commands. Your 'command line' needs to be pretty good at interpreting what users want. Reading the article, it seems Ubuntu is on this case.

By Woudenberg on 24 Jan 2012

Close

I think this is the perfect example of why ubuntu will not appeal to the mass. While it's very innovative, how many people really remember the names of command?

By papachon on 24 Jan 2012

Please spare me from "Search Boxes"

Personally, I don't want to have to type anything at all, ever, in order to make software work. Apart from anything else it means I have to let go of the mouse in order to type (after first clicking the mouse in the "search" box. I much prefer the concept that I visualise where to find the commands I want within the menu structure.

By JeffGranger on 24 Jan 2012

Brilliant

I think it is a brilliant idea. I use the Windows 7 Program and Files search box all the time. As long as the menu system is still available, it should work.

By jagdipa on 24 Jan 2012

Windows 8?

No menus to speak of there either.

By jmiii on 24 Jan 2012

Good and Bad

I use Ubuntu and am pleased with Canonical's attempts at refinement. While I do like the idea of an integrated, HUD command, search, and application launcher I do think it presents a problem if the traditional menu system is being phased-out. A problem I have and others have had with Ubuntu's launcher, is that if you don't remember an application name or aren't sure what's installed on your computer, you have to click through several menu layers to find something. With the more traditional pop-up or drop-down menu system, a list is presented in 1 or 2 clicks and everything is quickly visibly.

If this same concept is applied inside all programs I think there will be similar issues. I don't know every command inside different office suites so if I need to do something abnormal for me (find the subscript setting or add a footnote) I have to browse the menu to find it. Because I don't use these functions often, I don't know the exact command to activate them and not having a menu to browse becomes a problem. If their was an integrated speech recognition system with contextual understanding of common speech, such as with Siri on iOS, this might not be a problem. I guess I will have to wait and try the new system before I really know how it works for me.

By storm311 on 24 Jan 2012

A lot of you missed the point

I'll give an example:

In Word Page Setup is under File. In LibreOffice Writer it's under Format.

The likely way for a Word user coming to Writer is to hunt through likely looking menus until they find it. Under Ubuntu you'll just bring up the 'Head Up' display & before you've finished typing 'page..' you'll see the function you need.

This isn't necessarily a function for complete novices, but for those new to the programs. It will be particularly useful for those deeply buried commands. It'll also be useful for talking a dim-witted relative through a task when I'm away from the computer and not sure of the menu layout.

By Mark_Thompson on 24 Jan 2012

A lot of you missed the point

I'll give an example:

In Word Page Setup is under File. In LibreOffice Writer it's under Format.

The likely way for a Word user coming to Writer is to hunt through likely looking menus until they find it. Under Ubuntu you'll just bring up the 'Head Up' display & before you've finished typing 'page..' you'll see the function you need.

This isn't necessarily a function for complete novices, but for those new to the programs. It will be particularly useful for those deeply buried commands. It'll also be useful for talking a dim-witted relative through a task when I'm away from the computer and not sure of the menu layout.

By Mark_Thompson on 24 Jan 2012

Damn this lack of an edit/delete function. No one wants to read my tedious posts twice.

Here's a thought: remove the submit button and get rid of the problem at source.

By Mark_Thompson on 24 Jan 2012

"Under Ubuntu you'll just bring up the 'Head Up' display & before you've finished typing 'page..' you'll see the function you need."

As long as you know what that particular piece of software calls the particular option you're looking for.

Sounds like a potential game of hunt the thimble to me.

By Lacrobat on 25 Jan 2012

Practical?

Is this really practical? The options given are voice command or typing. People working in an office with others are not going to start controlling their PCs by voice command, which means they have to break off from using the mouse to use the keyboard.

Instant text searching is great when what you want is likely to be many clicks away or if you're not quite sure what you want (the Windows 7 search box is a good example), but a waste of time when the function you want would be one click away.

By halsteadk on 25 Jan 2012

Terminology

Either way it all hinges on the developers using terminology that matches what the user is looking for.

As an example the other day I wanted to Export my Contacts from Outlook 2010.

Eventually I found the option under File -> Open -> Import

Whether I shout at my pc or drill down over menus I'll never find an option if the developer uses Open as a meaningless term and Import for Export

By SparkyHD on 25 Jan 2012

Alfred on OSX

I use something called "Alfred" on OSX which is pretty much the same as this. Performs calculations and other stuff as well.

Found it to be surprisingly useful and quick. A few taps and just select the closest match. I type quicker than moving the mouse so its been a nice time saver.

As long as both the menus and the HUD(search box) are available, it should keep everyone happy.

By mhussa on 25 Jan 2012

Very innovative!

Full points to the developers for using their heads and coming up with an advanced way to interact with the comp with this HUD.

Good thing the Menus will still be around for a few versions for those who are not touch typist and prefer to use the mouse over the keyboard.

By IndainArt on 25 Jan 2012

keyboard/mouse graphics/copy

seeing the HUD as an addition to the current menu system.

The argument that you would have to take your hand off the mouse to access the HUD is only really applicable if you are doing mouse intensive tasks. if you are using the keyboard most of the time have the option to hit a short cut key then typing the function you need should be more effective. think hitting windows key+r and typing winword to get word instead of taking your hands from the keyboard and using the mouse. whereas finding nested in start/progs/ms office/word takes longer. (might show how long it has been since I use MS in anger)

Though also if using it in a mouse intensive task you could argue that starting the HUD and typing one handed whilst clicking on your chosen function before the word is completed is quicker than finding the function in a nested menu.

unfortunately what is easy and intuitive for one person is a completely backward way of doing things to another. This just adds another way to skin the cat! It's good to see that people are not scared of being innovative.

By SimonCorlett on 25 Jan 2012

@ Terminology

SparkyHD

I wonder if these terms you use are simply contextual.
If I say to you you are HERE and tell you to go over to "THERE" where will you be??
The answer, of course, is "Here"???????
Therefore looking from the perspective of the computer are you not importing a file? In order to import a file it has to be:
1. opened 2. transferred (copy)3. Closed.

Probably will come eventually like the automatic telephone answering maid....

" Computer.... Colour.... Green.... Bright.... with Tea Earl Grey.

By lenmontieth on 25 Jan 2012

Oh dear...

The reason menus work is that they are consistent across applications, and by experience we learn where various options are. It's no coincidence that the main controls of a car are in the same general areas (give or take the odd washer/indicator stalk on Toyotas) - it's so we can get into a different car and know where to find things. Programs with non-standard interfaces are always (IME) the ones I find most awkward to work with, however logical they might have seemed to the authors.

In any case, I'm doubtful of the claim that re-inventing the user interface in this way makes for a shallower learning curve. That might have been so in the days when PCs were for grown-ups but how old is the average person when first exposed to a PC?

By survivalskills on 26 Jan 2012

A useful addition rather than a replacement

No great lover of Windows but the Search facility in Win7 is an excellent addition to the OS for situations when you know a command but don't know just where MS have chosen to put it this year.

HOWEVER for most people, most of the time, they know what they need to do and how to find it with a couple of mouse clicks. They will NOT be happy if the menus disappeared and had to start typing into a search box every time. Just how many times would you type "OPEN" into a search box before you would be looking for a new GUI??

I also agree that surfing a menu system to find a function that performs "xyz" is often the only way to find where a developer has placed a command he has chosen to call "abc". Menus make this frustrating but HUD alone would make it impossible. Now, where's the advantage in that?

By Tradewind25 on 26 Jan 2012

Another good reason not to

Another good reason not to return to Ubuntu, after Karmic Koala the gimmickry started and has put me off and a lot of users that I know.Shame that they have spoilt the best OS that was ever created.

By Salopsnail on 26 Jan 2012

More trendy tosh

The search function is of course a welcome addition to the user interface. The menu or even the crap ribbon interface are still needed for complex software. This is just pandering to fashionable trends and fear of teenagers who can only operate mobile phones. Hopefully sense will prevail eventually and we will divide into two worlds, the morons on their dumb search interface mobile phones and software users on a mixture of more complex interfaces.

By coastwalker on 26 Jan 2012

Wow! So much bile and venom.

I find it odd that many of you seem to have condemned this before seeing and trying it.

Things change, it's the nature of technology. It's a pity so many people don't like change but call people who do things differently morons is a bit much.

I've worked with computers since the early 70s and have made many changes. I can't think of anything now where I would have preferred to keep the old way of doing something.

I'm all for giving it a go.

By njm1404 on 26 Jan 2012

Horses for courses!

It has merits as most experienced Windows 7 users agree. However,it is fairly obvious from comments so far that a very diverse number of users have differing views according to their usual operating methods and personal experience/s. It seems that having the option to choose either HUD or Drop Down Menu initially, as has been suggested , is an answer for all people regardless of experience. But, if it is to be there initially then why not leave it there permanently? Everybody will be happy then! Otherwise I fear that there will be a declining user base over time as new computer users (mainly the young) will not take to it. You have to know what is available before you can ask or type for it!

By pmcvw1 on 26 Jan 2012

How is HUD invoked?

Anybody know? Is it a keyboard function?

By peterj6 on 26 Jan 2012

Semantics

Great news for *nix command line addicts. But why do so many users, especially beginners like menus - menus attempt to the semantics of commands rather than their names.
At the command line you're stuffed if you don't know the name the author chose for a function - and in *nix especially, this is often an esoteric, idiosyncratic acronym. Menus attempt, albeit often unsuccessfully, to lead you through general categories and concepts, until you are presented with a bunch of commands related to what you want to do. This set sometimes includes commands that you'd never heard of, or even thought possible. Great for beginners and even for experienced users who have not learned every one of the hundreds of commands provided in some software.
Of course many menus are not as intuitive as we might wish, because different people see the world differently. But at least someone has tried to create a logical structure. Names are purely arbitrary labels.

By DonBrown on 26 Jan 2012

Not really new

20 years ago I saw exactly the same thing demonstrated at a Lotus Symphony user group. It was called HAL and allowed you to type in commands rather than use a menu. For example, you could highlight a range of cells then type in "Graph this data", "Add graph title", "Change graph to bar" ans so forth. It all seemed to work well but not sure what happened to HAL as it never seemed to appear in any Lotus products.

By ianreid99 on 26 Jan 2012

Having witnesses swaths of "competent" Office users having trouble in locating various functions in Word and Excel (even after training), this idea does raise a wry smile. Perhaps car manufacturers could move the pedals to the steering wheel... I'm all for taking things forward, but consistency in interfaces is also very important, but then power users and new/home users have very different requirements.

By isofa on 26 Jan 2012

Sorry but this is crap

The reason menus have been around so long is because they work. M$'s ribbon is a disaster because it's not a menu. Win7's search for programs might be useful for esoteric stuff but XP's popup menu is much quicker once you put all the programs onto the top level - just like the old Program Manager of old. This new gimmick just means that functions are now going to jump about all over the place as you type in characters and the system tries to guess what you want.

Seems like we're missing a generation of ergonomics experts?

By scoobie on 26 Jan 2012

I was taking about users trying to locate functions in Office 2007/10 ribbon above...

By isofa on 26 Jan 2012

They could call it...

...the command line!

By vjosullivan on 26 Jan 2012

Just got the hang of...

Ubuntu 11.10. I have a quadruple boot setup - Win XP Linux Mint 11, Linux Mint 12 and Ub~11.10.

Spent days / weeks getting 11.10 to work right (Compiz, Windows borders, min max close etc) with Unity. A faff of geek proportions. If you are, who is it? The PC World customer, Joe SoapBrain? then Windows/Mac wins hands down. Now I have faffed and grudgingly got used to 11.10. Tried Live DVD 12.04 beta and didn't see much difference worth the trouble of upgrading and configuring all over again. When it comes on an LFormat DVD in April I might have a go with it in VirtualBox but I reckon Mint is the far better solution, 11 that is - 12 needs faff as well!

By gone60 on 27 Jan 2012

Just got the hang of...

Ubuntu 11.10. I have a quadruple boot setup - Win XP Linux Mint 11, Linux Mint 12 and Ub~11.10.

Spent days / weeks getting 11.10 to work right (Compiz, Windows borders, min max close etc) with Unity. A faff of geek proportions. If you are, who is it? The PC World customer, Joe SoapBrain? then Windows/Mac wins hands down. Now I have faffed and grudgingly got used to 11.10. Tried Live DVD 12.04 beta and didn't see much difference worth the trouble of upgrading and configuring all over again. When it comes on an LFormat DVD in April I might have a go with it in VirtualBox but I reckon Mint is the far better solution, 11 that is - 12 needs faff as well!

By gone60 on 27 Jan 2012

Meta Data

This will be very useful if there's a way to customize the tag for an explicit function. Being able to add or amend to suit each individual is useful, it could then be sent back to the developer to be assessed as exactly what people call each function.

I expect this will become popular because recently people I know have switched to OSX because of simple keyboard integration like Spotlight and we know why the world is adopting Chrome: it's quicker.

All this said, you'll never replace menus and button based interfaces, in these instances it'll just be easier to point and click.

By urbanaught on 28 Jan 2012

Removes a useful visual cue

I can see why Canonical have looked at doing this, but I feel it's the wrong decision.

Having the choice of search or menu - like Spotlight on OS X - is surely the best situation. I personally find the menu useful when starting to use a new application such that you get an immediate idea of the scope of the program. The menu indicates to you how the designers see how functionality is categorised and split. Without this prompt, you don't get an idea of how functional areas are grouped - it removes the visual cue of what you can do with it.

Whilst I'm saying that, I don't like MS's answer via the Ribbon - it's too much the other way; too complex and over-facing. The old menu worked well for a reason: tried and tested and refined. Removing it is not a great move for Ubuntu would-bes.

By stu531 on 29 Jan 2012

When did this become either/or?

"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."

So you get the best of two worlds. Ubuntu is not abolishing the menus, it's just making a welcome addition.

By lakersforce on 1 Feb 2012

Lemmings for the win!

Reading the comments here is like watching a bunch of lemmings falling through the ice.

The article clearly states that the menu tructure will be kept intact.
Yet one comment erroneously state that the menus will be removed and most of you take it as the truth.

Read the article next time!

By lakersforce on 1 Feb 2012

don't see the point really

It is right that when you use a new software you have to learn where are the command, but once you are done, what is faster, go straight with your mouse to the right menu/submenu or click in a "dash" and then have to "move" to your keyboard to type what you are looking for, then grab your mouse again and click... When moving from one system to another like I did (Windows XP to Ubuntu) that kind of things really put me off. I quickly "learned" to use Ubuntu with the 10.10 version and my wife did so too. I have been using Ubuntu 11.04 since its release and now 11.10, and I am still annoyed by Unity someitmes... and my wife hates it! She is now using the classic gnome desktop. The point being that I am really really not convinced that this will help people moving from Windows to open source system!

By rvboutin on 2 Feb 2012

don't see the point really (bis)

forgot to say... even if the classic menus are there!! What's the point in developing something that looks like a useless add-on rather than improving existing features (e.g. there is some good stuff in Unity, but room for improvement).

By rvboutin on 2 Feb 2012

no !

I don't want to type, and even speak. I do not remember all those complicated names of hundreds of apps which I use (or can use) now...

I remember pictures. My brain has the image memory, so I remember icons. I want to click on icons... with one hand, & one finger : click. It is easier to click than to write in HUD: click - move the hand to the keyboard - write - move the hand to the mouse - click again to launch...

And the choice from the written menus is barbare and obsolete. Remember : we have the image (picture) memory, not text memory...

This is why I greately miss icons in the menu bar on the top (or the bottom...) of the screen, as it is in the Unity now.

So, HUD is the really WRONG way !

By arturpio on 16 Feb 2012

M$ hater

Sorry guys, but this HUD stuff is a crap, it sucks, it ... . I wish you exclude it from standard Ubuntu installation at least. Once I upgraded my 10.10 to version 11.04 I got this garbage into my system and my old menu bars are all gone. As an experience Linux user and admin I tried to calm my self with the idea to get used to this new feature but in vain. It simply makes me furious. I am a man of patience but this feature is unstandable. Please stop brainwashing users saying you are going to replace good, old menus just because the approach is 30 years of age now, it makes no sense. It's nice to have it in Ubuntu as optional component, but I plead with you leave menus, they are much more user-friendly.

Respectfully,

By staceygeek on 2 May 2012

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