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HUD's up! Ubuntu creates menu-free GUI

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Canonical has unveiled HUD, which it has billed as the "menu of the future" for its next Linux desktop.

Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, due in April, will feature the first release of Head Up Display, or HUD, which distro creator Mark Shuttleworth has predicted will ultimately replace menus in Unity applications.

HUD dispenses with drop-down menus with users accessing features and invoking commands through a system that combines search and natural-language auto-complete.

You type the action you require into a search field that pops out and produces options – a-la Google Instant – as you type, HUD then (hopefully) produces the option you want and you select it.

In a video demo here (beware – it downloads to your desktop), Canonical demos HUD being used with Firefox, CAD, messenger, and Ubuntu's Banshee music player.

In the browser, you can visit frequently accessed bookmarks by typing the URL in the HUD search field and you can click save to collect new sites. The demo shows HUD being used to model a shape without opening up the app's commands via the usual drop-down menus; integration with IM allows you to change your status, and using HUD in Banshee lets you search and play music.

The idea of HUD is to de-clutter the Ubuntu interface – a step Canonical first took with Unity, the interface that introduced 3D-style graphics and application buttons and which re-oriented the dock.

Changing the interface is a risky proposition for any software company with an established user base. Microsoft, for example, upset and confused many with the the Ribbon interface in Office 2007; it was supposed to make it easier for users to find hidden features. Canonical, meanwhile, has had its own problems, going with Unity instead of sticking with GNOME.

Referring to Microsoft's Office experience, Shuttleworth said: "Instead of cluttering up the interface ALL the time, let's clear out the chrome and show users just what they want, when they want it."

According to Shuttleworth, Ubuntu 12.04 will still give you menus – in fact he admits to having been too aggressive in user testing, having hid the menu before a replacement was finished. Shuttleworth says: "If the HUD lands in 12.04 LTS, we hope you'll find yourself using the menu less and less, and be glad to have it hidden when you are not using it. You'll definitely have that option, alongside more traditional menu styles."

Another potential problem is that it's unclear how far ISVs and open-source software projects must modify their Ubuntu apps to work with HUD.

Shuttleworth reckoned there's still a lot of coding and design work left to be done on HUD, and HUD in Ubuntu 12.04 LTS will be a "first step".

"We haven't addressed the secondary aspect of the menu, as a visible map of the functionality in an app. That discoverability is of course entirely absent from the HUD; the old menu is still there for now, but we'd like to replace it altogether not just supplement it. And all the other patterns of interaction we expect in the HUD remain to be explored," he said. ®

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