The Merits of Control-Alt-Backspace, or Geeks vs. Reality

Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

May 20, 2009

3 Min Read
The Merits of Control-Alt-Backspace, or Geeks vs. Reality

For the release of Jaunty, the Ubuntu developers decided to disable the control-alt-backspace shortcut for killing the graphical X session. This move prompted a lot of complaining from advanced users. Although I personally sympathize with these people, their grievances reflect the all-too-common tendency of a minority of geeky users to rise up in arms about trivial features, impeding the progress of things that matter.

As a comparatively advanced Ubuntu user, I quite liked the control-alt-backspace feature, which came in handy for logging out of Gnome quickly or dealing with X crashes. In Jaunty, I now have to go to the trouble of clicking the logout button when I want to end my session, or switching to a virtual terminal and restarting GDM if the X server freezes. This is a bit frustrating, and Canonical’s claim that control-alt-backspace was disabled for the benefit of users who accidentally pressed those keys seems silly, since a user would really have to go out of her way to kill X unintentionally using that shortcut.

That said, being an advanced user also means I’m more than capable of restoring the control-alt-backspace functionality if I want to. A quick Google search yields links to several pages with instructions for changing the default behavior, all of them relatively easy to implement. So while I find the decision to disable this feature silly and mildly frustrating, it doesn’t really bother me.

It also shouldn’t bother normal users, who never use the control-alt-backspace feature. Normal users–unlike elite hackers who cringe with every extraneous keystroke and click of the mouse–don’t mind clicking the logout button. They also don’t understand the difference between X and the underlying system; when X freezes, even if the kernel is in perfectly stable shape, normal users hard-reboot their machines anyway. They don’t know any better, and they shouldn’t be expected to.

Geeks vs. Reality

Since normal users will be unaffected by the removal of a feature that they didn’t use in the first place, and since advanced users can easily reenable that functionality if they choose, this should be a non-issue. But for a geeky minority, Canonical’s decision to disable the shortcut is a gross offense, since it’s perceived as an attempt by Ubuntu developers to dictate how to use computers, rather than allowing users to decide for themselves.

Such complaints are pure hyperbole, for the reasons discussed above. Canonical isn’t dictating how personal computers should be used; it’s merely trying to improve the experience of new users, albeit in a somewhat silly way.

Geeks who complain about the absence of advanced features represent a serious impediment to the evolution of Ubuntu into a platform that can truly be used by the masses. Those who suggest–as one user did–that unintentionally pressing control-alt-backspace and losing work as a result is “part of the learning process” are clearly out of touch with reality. For normal people, computers are a vehicle for getting work done, not a medium for exploration and learning by trial and error.

As Ubuntu developers work on making Ubuntu more accessible to normal people, they should not be distracted by complaints from the minority of narrow-minded advanced users who fail to understand how most individuals use computers. If you want to be an elite hacker, you can compile your own kernel with all the obscure features you love. But Ubuntu isn’t, and shouldn’t aspire to be, a platform for geeks.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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