Scrollbar Updates in Ubuntu, and Why They Matter
Most people don’t spend very much time thinking about the bars on windows for scrolling up and down. The design team behind Canonical’s Ubuntu, however, is in the process of redefining that component of the user interface, and recently outlined some of the changes to look forward to in coming Ubuntu releases. Read on for details.
If you’ve used Ubuntu’s Unity interface, which (for better or worse, depending on whom you ask) became the default with the appearance of Ubuntu 11.04 last April, you probably noticed that the scroll bars in most windows looked different. Departing from the decades-old paradigm that most computer users have known for decades, Ubuntu now compacts scrollbars into a smaller unit intended to be more functional.
Yet as Canonical interface designer Christian Giordano explained recently, while users responded positively overall to the scrollbar changes in Ubuntu 11.04, they also suggested further changes. Not all of them could be accommodated, but those the design team has implemented include:
- support for right-to-left languages
- various tweaks on delays before hiding the thumb
- animated scrolling on page up/down and reconnection
- a visual connection between the thumb and the overlay
- a slightly modified shape for the thumb
Room For Improvement?
These updates are good, and as much as Ubuntu’s new scrollbars drove me crazy at first, I’ve learned to live with them — and on some days even like them — over time. The enhancements the Canonical design team has introduced will only make them better.
My biggest gripe, however, centers around an issue to which Giordano briefly alluded at the end of his post, but which Canonical has no plans to address as of now: lack of scrollbar consistency across different Ubuntu applications. While the vast majority of Ubuntu apps, which are based on the GTK framework, use the new scrollbars, certain programs such as Firefox and Chrome rely on different toolsets for which the new scrollbars have not yet been implemented. As a result, these applications continue to use traditional toolbars, which can be confusing for users.
For me, this lack of consistency across applications trumps the question of whether the new scrollbars are actually better than the traditional ones. Whatever Canonical does, it would be best to do it consistently, which in this case it’s not. It’s annoying to have to remember that scrolling works differently in Firefox and Nautilus, for example. Most things in life, good or bad, are better when they’re consistent.
And while this issue in itself may be a bit petty — scrollbars are not quite the most important item on the table, after all — the problem of interface consistency across applications is a deeper one of more fundamental concern for Ubuntu developers. The inability to make upstream applications that have been built into the Ubuntu core, such as Firefox, conform to the conventions of the rest of the operating system can present a major hurdle to widespread Ubuntu adoption.
I have little doubt this issue, which is not a hugely complex one, ultimately will be resolved. Until it is, however, Canonical will face one more obstacle in convincing users that Ubuntu is the professional, mainstream platform that Canonical envisions — and which it has, despite lingering flaws, largely created.