Ubuntu desktop drops Gnome UI for Unity

Canonical has said it will replace the Gnome Shell with Unity, its recently introduced netbook UI, as the default skin on the desktop version of Natty Narwhal

The next version of desktop Ubuntu, Natty Narwhal, will ship with Canonical's Unity as the default skin instead of Gnome's user interface.

Ubuntu 11.04 and future desktop releases will use Unity as standard, Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical, said during a keynote speech at the Ubuntu Developer Conference on Monday. However, the Gnome Shell will still be available as an option for people to install themselves.

Unity, developed by the Canonical-backed Ubuntu project as the default UI for its netbook Linux, made its first appearance in the Maverick Meerkat release on 10 October. Gnome and KDE applications will work on Unity without installing an update, according to Canonical.

The move was partly prompted by bug requests from Ubuntu developers asking for a desktop edition of Unity, Shuttleworth said. However, he acknowledged that Unity on the desktop needs better multi-tasking capabilities than are available in the netbook edition. "The next cycle will focus on multiple simultaneous activity," he told the keynote audience.

Ubuntu users have already been trying to use the netbook skin on desktops, Canonical told ZDNet UK. "Unity has the capacity to meet user requirements for a UI, such as touchscreen interface and screen size. Many [users and device manufacturers] are already committed to Unity," a spokesman for the Linux company said.

In his speech, Shuttleworth conceded that the switch could shake the faith of some Ubuntu community members.

"[It] is a significant, risky step. It will throw people's confidence. I will pre-empt one important question: Unity is a shell for Gnome, even if it isn't Gnome shell. We're committed to the principles and values of Gnome," he said.

Comments on the official Ubuntu forum suggest the decision might split the community into those who prefer the Gnome Shell and those who are happy with Unity.

"I don't like Unity at all myself. Gnome Shell 3 on the other hand is very very slick. After they work out the bugs... man what a slick desktop... When it's ready I am defo switching to it. If it's not supported in Ubuntu then I'll just go with a distro that does support it... Unity in its current state is not for me," wrote a user by the name of Shakz on the forum.

Jono Bacon, Canonical's Ubuntu community manager, stressed in a blog post that the move is not a break with Gnome. "I want to make something crystal clear: Ubuntu is a Gnome distribution, we ship the Gnome stack, we will continue to ship Gnome apps, and we optimise Ubuntu for Gnome," Bacon wrote on Monday.

When Unity was unveiled in May, Shuttleworth wrote a blog to explain the relationship between the Ubuntu-developed UI and Gnome.

"Unity does embrace the key technologies of Gnome 3: Mutter, for window management, and Zeitgeist will be an anchor component of our file management approach," Shuttleworth wrote. "The interface itself is built in Clutter. The design seed of Unity was in place before Gnome Shell, and we decided to build on that for the instant-on work rather than adopt Gnome."

In July, the Gnome project said the release of Gnome 3.0 had been delayed until March 2011 to give more time to feature development, user feedback and testing. On Monday, Canonical said the Ubuntu project plans to drop Gnome 3: Mutter, replacing it with Compiz for its window management for performance reasons.

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