Ubuntu 11.04 has been out for a few days now and while, generally speaking, I like Ubuntu’s new Unity interface, I know some people really dislike it. So, who better to explain why Unity looks and works the way it does than Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu and the company behind it, Canonical?
Shuttleworth opened by saying that the main point of Ubuntu 11.04 with Unity was “to bring the joys and freedoms and innovation and performance and security that have always been part of the Linux platform, to a consumer audience.”
How did Canonical do it? Shuttleworth explained that it was a combination of user design testing with professional design work. “We committed to test and iterate Unity’s design with real users, and evolve it based on those findings. We’ve documented the process we’re following in that regard, so that other free software projects can decide for themselves if they also want to bring professional design into their process. I very much hope that this will become standard practice across all of free software, because in my view the future of free software is no longer just about inner beauty (architecture, performance, efficiency) it’s also about usability and style.”
That design decision really annoys some hardcore Linux users. On the other hand, I can’t argue with it. Just look, for example, at GNOME 3.0. I haven’t written about it yet, but I find it hard to disagree with a blogger named Juan Rodriguez who wrote, “Gnome Shell is Defective By Design.” GNOME 3.0, like too many Linux/Unix interfaces, was designed by software developers for software developers.
Is Unity too simple for power users? Yes, it is. But, as Shuttleworth tells us that’s by design. If you don’t like simple, consumer-oriented desktops, you’ll want to look at another Linux distribution because that’s exactly where Ubuntu is now and will continue to go.
So where did Shuttleworth and company get their ideas? Shuttleworth explained, “In the design of Unity we chose to be both humble and bold. Humble, because we have borrowed consciously from the work of other successful platforms, like Windows and Mac OS. We borrowed what worked best, but then we took advantage of the fact that we are unconstrained by legacy and can innovate faster than they can, and took some bold leaps forward. In category indicators, the dash, overlay scrollbars and other innovations we are pioneering desktop experiences that I am sure will be emulated elsewhere, in both the free and proprietary platforms.”
Of course, he continued, “This is the public '1.0,' there are rough points which will affect some users more than others, but we will iterate and polish them up one by one. Our goal should be to continue to set the pace and push free software to the forefront of usability and experience, growing the awesome Ubuntu and Unity community that shares those values and is excited by those ideas.”
I’ve found some of those “rough points.” For example, the global menu bar has trouble fitting on some of my displays from time to time. Curiously enough it does best on my smallest screen—my Dell Mini 9 netbook with its 8.9” display. I also found that in the Ubuntu Software Center I can’t seem to click up the recommended to install program list.
At the same time, Shuttleworth recognizes it’s not all about Unity. Shuttleworth wrote, “Of course, Ubuntu is far bigger than Unity. And the needs of the Ubuntu community, and users of Ubuntu, are far more diverse than simply Unity could address. So I’m proud of the fact that the Ubuntu community publishes the whole expression of software freedom across its archives. Kubuntu continues to improve and set a very high standard for the KDE experience. Lubuntu, the LXDE based expression of Ubuntu, is moving towards being 100% integrated. There is unique work being done in Ubuntu for users of the cloud and other server-oriented configurations. While we can be proud of what’s been achieved in Unity, we are equally proud of the efforts that go into ensuring that the full range of experiences is accommodated, to the extent possible with the effort put in by our huge community, under the Ubuntu umbrella.”
And, I would guess that, if there’s demand for it, there will continue be an old-style GNOME 2.x Ubuntu or even a GNOME 3.0 Ubuntu. Even if Canonical won’t sponsor them, someone else can always create them. This is Linux after all. If you really want a Linux that looks like Windows XP, you can have it.
So, while Canonical will stay focused on Unity, Ubuntu’s door remains open to other desktop paths. That said, for the time being, Unity is its number one desktop.