Ubuntu Made Me Happy: Empathy

Ubuntu’s built-in messaging application is called Empathy. Messaging in Ubuntu is great for a lot of reasons. In fact, I could write a whole post on it. I know that because I almost just did. Then, I remembered that the point of this series isn’t to evangelize an application. It’s about my computer making me feel an emotion.

I’ll be the first to admit that web-based messaging like Google Chat and Facebook Chat are extremely convenient. It allows instant communcation no matter what computer you’re on. It facilitates context-based conversations (“Hey, let’s chat about this email”). But do you know what annoys me? It’s when I’m in the middle of writing a blog post and I hear the “ding” of an instant message. Now, I have to go figure out where it came from. It’s not just that it interrupts my work. Often I want to chat. The problem is that I’m usually in the middle of something else, in this case writing a blog post. Now I have to switch tabs every few seconds to keep up with the conversation. And if I get a Google Chat and a Facebook Chat going at the same time? Oh, save me now!

Despite the convenience of web-based messaging, their chats are constrained. You’re stuck with a little box on a website. Am I in prison? If I switch contexts, I constantly have to come back to that site to continue the conversation. Are we playing telephone? I want direct communication with people, and I want my chat to have its own window.

Ubuntu can empathize. It has messaging built right into it. I’ve already mentioned its slick notifications. It also lets me chat on a bunch of different networks (Google, Facebook, AIM, Yahoo!, etc.) with one application. Messaging is nicely integrated into Ubuntu, much like music. Empathy nestles itself quietly into the “Messaging menu” (envelope icon), where it waits until I need it (or until someone needs me!). It’s easy to change my chat status to “Busy” or “Away” across multilple networks with the “Me menu,” whose icon looks like a speech bubble. In other words, when people chat with me on Ubuntu, it feels like a natural part of my computer, not just some website I have open.

All of the little details are great, but today Ubuntu made me happy because it lets people chat with me on my computer, not on a website.

Ubuntu has Empathy

Ubuntu Made Me Happy: Wallpapers

Ubuntu is built by a large number of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. A company called Canonical funds a significant portion of Ubuntu’s development, but a large community of volunteers also contribute to it. These groups of people with varying interests and skill sets come together to create something great. The community of Ubuntu users and developers is vast, and despite some misconceptions you may have, you don’t really need to know anything about programming (or even computers!) to contribute to Ubuntu.

As an example, community photographers contribute their work. For each new release, which come every six months, the design team asks for photograph submissions on Flickr. They sort through a plethora of excellent candidates and include 17 new photo wallpapers with each Ubuntu release. For people like me who always love them all, they also have a “wallpaper slide show” that changes the wallpaper photo a few times per day. This way I can experience all of the photos without having to choose, and I constantly have a fresh new wallpaper to see.

When I first start my computer or when I get everything else out of my way, I want to have something sleek and refreshing to look at. Ubuntu made me a happy because it gives me beautiful photographs for my desktop wallpaper. [Larger individual photos]

Wallpapers for Ubuntu

Ubuntu Made Me Happy: Notifications

Ubuntu is good at staying out of my way. The last thing I need when I’m writing an important email is something popping up and breaking my concentration by saying “You should install this update (or tell me you’ll do it later).” When I’m working, I want to work. I don’t want my computer creating distractions for me. For this reason, when it’s time to install some updates Ubuntu’s Update Manager always starts behind all of your running applications. It’s there to remind you to update, but it never steals your focus. While software updates are important, they never require immediate attention, so I like that Ubuntu doesn’t nag me to install them.

Sometimes notifications are time-sensitive, and they require an interruption. Since it’s often difficult to tell which notifications are important to me, Ubuntu notifies me without completely interrupting me. A shaded box appears at the top right corner of my screen with a message. It’s there if I have time to look at it, but it quickly disappears and does not nag me if I don’t. If I need to click on something behind the box, it nearly disappears and stays out of my way.

As an example, Empathy, Ubuntu’s instant messaging application, shows me the contents of a new instant message without disrupting my work. In addition to notifying me, it also turns the Messaging Menu icon (grey envelope at the top right of the screen) a bright blue so that if I temporarily ignore a message I don’t forget to reply to it later when I have some free time. Also, I like that the notification shows me who is messaging and what they want. This means that I don’t have to switch over to a different browser tab or open an application to figure out whether it’s something I can ignore. Ubuntu made me happy because its notifications do not intrude on my work.

Ubuntu Notifications

Ubuntu Made Me Happy: Sound Menu

Ubuntu’s music player is called Banshee. It’s really great. It caught my attention because it feels like an integral part of Ubuntu, not just another music player like iTunes or Winamp. When I click on the volume button at the top right part of my screen, of course I can change the volume. However, I also see a picture of what music is playing in Banshee. I can pause, skip songs, or choose a new playlist. And I can do it without having to fully open Banshee. Banshee itself may get mentioned later in this series, but for today Ubuntu made me happy because my music player feels like it was built right into it.

Ubuntu Sound Menu

Ubuntu Made Me Happy Because…

During the development of Firefox 4, Mozilla added a button so that users testing it could easily share their thoughts about Firefox’s design. You could either click on “Firefox made me happy because…” or “Firefox made me sad because…” and share your feedback with Mozilla. This is a really user-friendly way to gather feedback about software. I liked its simplicity and the way it addressed an emotional response to using a computer. Humans are emotional beings, and let’s face it: computers can be frustrating. It taught me to pay attention when a computer makes me feel an emotion.

As you may be aware, Ubuntu 11.04 was released a few weeks ago.  It received a completely revamped user-interface. While using it, I’ve begun to notice the thoughtfulness that Ubuntu developers put into its design, and I would like to share some of the things that caught my attention. Not all of them are new in Ubuntu 11.04, but they all deserve acknowledging. This is an introduction to a new series of short, non-technical blog posts, usually accompanied by a screenshot. I hope you enjoy them!