Ubuntu and Desktop Notifications

This past Monday, Mark Shuttleworth wrote about their plans for an overhaul of desktop notifications (the little popup bubbles telling you someone IM’d you or there’s updates available). Many people have asked me about this, some concerned, and wanted to know what I thought. Being the maintainer of libnotify, notification-daemon and the Desktop Notifications specification, some people were concerned that this work would supersede my own.

The reality is, this isn’t a replacement of my project. This is a new joint effort between Ubuntu, KDE, and myself. What’s been written in Mark’s post may not end up being the end result. We’re still deciding how this will progress, and Ubuntu wants to experiment a bit. Aaron Seigo’s post on the subject sums up a lot of my thoughts on this, and I recommend reading it, though I’ll go further and discuss where this all started and how it’ll affect the project.

First of all, libnotify/notification-daemon isn’t going anywhere. It’s not being replaced, nor is an alternate spec being drafted. Ubuntu’s User Experience team has some new things they want to try, and that’s fine. The plan is to see how this stuff goes in their codebase, with the intention of migrating code back upstream.

A couple of weeks ago, during the Ubuntu Summit, I was invited to speak with some of the developers and User Experience guys from Ubuntu about their plans. They showed me the mockup that’s on Mark’s blog and told me about their plans. They have things they want to do that could definitely improve the experience. Some things are pretty controversial, such as the removal of actions on notifications. We sat down, discussed and debated various aspects of the proposals for a while, and I believe reached a general course of action for the project. The highlights include:

  • Actions will be removed for applications packaged in Ubuntu. The developers will try to replace them with something that they feel makes more sense, with the hope of pushing these changes upstream.
  • The released notification-daemon will, I believe, support actions, since many non-packaged applications do use them. They will, however, appear as old-style notifications and not appear in the new window stack demoed in Mark’s blog post.
  • We’ll be drafting new additions to the notification spec in order to address the needs of KDE and Mozilla.
  • The work will be done by their developers in either a fork or a whole new notification-daemon implementation, allowing them a greater ability to experiment. These changes (or parts of them) will make their way upstream. It will be spec-compatible so users won’t have to worry too much about losing features (aside from actions, perhaps).
  • In the end, it’ll likely be that the Ubuntu theme specifically works this new way, and that other themes will work differently (they may support actions more directly, for example).

Now I should point out that I don’t believe actions are a bad thing. There’s many use cases where actions are very much warranted, and it seems Aaron agrees. While the Ubuntu team has discussed the possibility of deprecating this in the spec, I believe the end result will be that actions will live on. I’m also pretty adamant that upstream notification-daemon will still support actions and some other features. Ubuntu can choose what experience to give their packaged applications, but that may differ a bit from what we decide upstream.

Time will tell how this all turns out. I personally think it’s great that there’s some momentum on this project. I know I haven’t had much time to work on it as of late, between VMware and Review Board, which is why getting some new people on board with fresh thoughts will probably be a good thing.

On a related note, I’d like to welcome Andrew Walton to the project. He’s going to be working as a co-maintainer and helping out when I’m busy (which will be a lot of the time for a while).

Over the next month or two, the project should start to pick up. We’re beginning to look at ways to improve the spec and at what work needs to be done in the near future for the project. These discussions will take place on xdg-list.

And with that, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas (or just a very good December 25th for those who don’t celebrate Christmas)!

8 thoughts on “Ubuntu and Desktop Notifications”

  1. Hi,

    It is not clear to me how Ubuntu will replace actions that are present as now in Gnome.

    Ekiga 3.0 do use action within notification for incoming calls and is in the dev tree of Ubuntu as a main component.

    I would like to know more about their plan about it.

    Best regards,

  2. Well, you’re also one person who is missing the point entirely. It’s solving the symptoms instead of the problem once more. The problem isn’t that that current notification system is bad. The problem is that the computers spam the user in the first place and are not intelligent enough to solve things. It causes the user having to tend to the lame computer stuff instead of solving their real life problems. 99.9% of the present notifications are just stealing the users’ precious attention without any real benefit.

  3. Hey Christian,

    nice blog post! I totally agree with everything you say, and I am so glad that I pinged you about this all during UDS and that you agreed to come over! It was good seeing you again and I hope it doesn’t have to be another year to see you again.

    Merry Christmas!

  4. @Gary: Much of this post was based on discussions in e-mail with others since you and I last talked two days ago. The proper time to be upset with me was 4 years ago.

    @Yannick: I wonder that too. This is a good question to bring to the Ubuntu guys.

    @rawsausage: I fully get the importance of this problem. It’s an issue we were aware of when we first developed this software nearly 5 years ago. I believe a HIG/best practices document is going to be developed. We also drafted categories and severities support into the spec right at the beginning with the eventual goal of letting users filter out/block noisy apps.

    @Christian: It was great seeing you! We need to hang out more when you’re here next. Definitely keep in touch 🙂

  5. I never intended this to be public on here, and was assuming you would moderate the post out of existence. However, 4 years ago we were on the same page with two different methods, now however it seems you have stepped away from that. -fin

  6. Oh, and i forgot to mention, 4 years ago would be 2004, not 2002-2003 like you said in IM the other night. Still wondering why I’m pissed? (sorry for the spam, but i don’t see a way to update a post)

  7. I also worked on the very first implementation of this notification system, several years ago.

    “though we may not display notifications sent through that API that use capabilities we are suggesting be deprecated.”

    Is this for real? Am I asleep? Apparently not, but sadly this kind of madness is not surprising coming from the Ubuntu/Debian world. The whole concept of significantly and silently changing upstream user interfaces in such a way is asinine.

    Do they have any concept of trademarks, brand names or backwards compatibility at all? Are they REALLY going to break existing software and go on a giant patch spree? Didn’t they learn ANYTHING AT ALL from the OpenSSL fiasco?

    Apparently no. These guys don’t live in the real world do they?

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