The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

Summary: With the Ubuntu Linux 11.04 beta, we're getting out first look at Ubuntu's new Unity face.

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When Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu announced that the next version of the popular Linux, Ubuntu 11.04, would use Unity, instead of GNOME as its default desktop interface he shocked the Linux desktop community. Now, with the release of the Ubuntu 11.04 beta, we can get a real look at Unity.

Before going into that though, let me answer the question of why Ubuntu has decided to move from pure GNOME to the GNOME-based Unity. As Shuttleworth explained to the Ubuntu developers, "Lots of people are already committed to Unity--the community, desktop users, developers, and platform and hardware vendors." In particular, he noted, "Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) favor Unity. They're happy to ship it."

That last part is important. Shuttleworth has told me that Dell, which he said had sold several million Ubuntu desktops, laptops, and netbooks, supports the project. In addition, Canonical has desktop deals in place with Lenovo and Acer. These arrangements may lead to these, and other, major PC OEMs finally releasing Ubuntu desktops in the U.S and European markets.

In short, Unity is Shuttleworth, and Ubuntu's attempt, to capture not just a bigger share of the now stagnant desktop market. Its Ubuntu's shot at capturing a lion's share of the netbook, desktop, tablet, and smartphone markets. The master idea is that users, and OEMs, will want one interface for all user devices. Or, as Shuttleworth put it, "There will be no fault-line for OEMs between desktops."

First things first. Unity is not a GNOME fork. "Unity is a shell for GNOME, even if it isn't GNOME Shell," explained Shuttleworth. "We're committed to the principles and values of GNOME."

Some people in GNOME circles would disagree, but be that as it may. Just as Ubuntu is based solidly on Debian, so Unity is based on GNOME.

Under Unity's hood, there are several technical differences. Instead of GNOME's Mutter windows manager, Unity uses Compiz for the windows manager. On top of this, Ubuntu developers use Zeitgeist, a framework that tracks and correlates relationships between the user's activities to supply applications with contextually relevant data.

Page 2: [You and Unity] »

You and Unity

So, what does it look and work like? Well, nothing like any other Linux desktop you've ever used unless you've played with earlier versions of it on Ubuntu 10.10 Netbook Edition.

To kick its tires, I installed the Ubuntu 11.04 beta on my Gateway DX4710. This PC is powered by a 2.5-GHz Intel Core 2 Quad processor and has 6GBs of RAM and an Intel GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) 3100 for graphics. It's no speed demon, but it gets the job done.

Unity looks more like a tablet operating system with a Mac OS X style application dock on the left instead of at the bottom. It neither works nor feels like other Linux desktops such as KDE, GNOME, or lesser known desktops such as Enlightenment.

Unity's Multiple Desktops

The Unity display is meant to make the best use of screen real estate, while still giving you useful information. The design philosophy behind this is in Project Ayatana. According to Shuttleworth, there are two main aspects to this: Notifications, the sole purpose of which is to notify you of transient events and Indicator Menus. These combine persistent awareness of a state with a set of options for modifying that state.

The interface is also designed for 16:9-sized interfaces. You can still use it on an older 4:3 display. It looks best on 16:9.

Although I wasn't able to test it, Unity also supports multi-touch via Utouch. A while back Shuttleworth told that multi-touch would be integrated into Unity and applications. "I think in the near future all laptops will have sophisticated multi-touch hardware. All the hardware vendors that are working on touch are talking to Ubuntu."

After playing with it, I found that Unity interface is simple. Indeed, many Linux users will find it both far too simple. That's because it really limits what you can do from the Unity desktop and because it doesn't work that well yet. This is, and I can't make this point strongly enough, beta software.

For example, I found starting applications to be a hit or miss procedure at this point. In particular, sometimes I could get LibreOffice, Ubuntu 11.04's default office suite, to work sometimes I couldn't. If there was any rhyme or reason to this behavior I don't know what it was.

This left-hand launcher bar/dock is also still on the rough side. For example, you'd think that you'd bring applications to it by dragging and dropping them to it ala Mac OS X. Nope. That doesn't work. Instead you need to first open the app; right-click its icon, which will now be in the dock and then pick "Keep in Launcher." OK, that's a lot of work just to place an application.

When you have an application, or a full window open, you'll still get a top menu bar that will look basically the same from one program. Indeed one reason why Ubuntu went its own way from GNOME is that GNOME 3.0 doesn't support Ayantana's global menus. When a program isn't using up the whole desktop, its menu-bar will be on top of the application's window. It's different, but I quickly picked it up.

In Unity, an application that takes up only part of a Window has its menu bar on top of the application itself.

In Unity, an application that takes up only part of a window or doesn't touch the top of the screen has its menu bar on top of the application itself.

I also really liked how fast Unity felt. I didn't expect it to feel quite as lively as a beta. Still, there's a lot of work to be done here, and I worry over just how ready for prime-time Unity will be come Ubuntu's 11.04's current April 28th release date. Eventually though, I'm really looking forward to Unity. It may give me the fine-control I want over a desktop, but I can see many users, especially those who wouldn't know Linux from OS/2, being really happy with it.

And, if you really don't like Unity, don't worry about it. It's easy to switch Ubuntu 11.04 back to a classic Ubuntu GNOME desktop.

Related Stories:

First Look: Ubuntu 11.04 (Natty Narwhal) Beta 1

Ubuntu Linux 11.04: A whale of changes for Canonical's user base

Beyond Natty: The next version of Ubuntu Linux

Shuttleworth on the Ubuntu Banshee controversy: Mistakes were made

Topics: Hardware, Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software

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  • RE: The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

    It really reminds me of GNUStep which I gather took its salient look and feel elements from NeXTStep.

    How invested is Canonical in Unity's polishing? You know what? it doesn't matter. It costs me just as much to use Ubuntu as Mint as PC-BSD/KDE. I'm not paying anything so I don't care where they put the buttons or what color is the background. Or what the window manager is. Does it take a single or double click to open?

    Seems to me, though, that if Canonical had paying customers who were invested in the system's stability and usability, we wouldn't see releases, such as Kubuntu after KDE went 4.0, that were barely usable. Is 11.04 Ubuntu going to be cleaned up in 3 weeks, or will it be deja vu all over again?
    DannyO_0x98
    • RE: The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

      @DannyO_0x98 I agree that it doesn't matter. I don't care for Unity myself, so I switched to Linux Mint. Problem solved.

      I applaud Ubuntu for trying something new. I realize I am not the only one who uses Linux, and so no distro has to cater to me alone. I wish Canonical luck, and who knows, maybe a few years down the road I will be using a fork of Unity that addresses all the problems I had with it.
      Doughbury
      • RE: The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

        @Doughbury Please elaborate on what problems you had with it. There are those, like myself, who are not familiar with the ins and outs of all these different shells, and we appreciate any constructive criticism that is made available. Thanks in advance.
        David A. Pimentel
      • RE: The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

        What I dislike most about Unity is its inflexibility. I like that GNOME let's me add panels, move them around, and populate them with what I please. Unity doesn't allow me to change much. Mostly, I'd like to autohide the launcher. It takes up too much space. I also don't like to have one UI for all my devices. I like two panels on my desktop, one panel on my laptop, and the stripped-down panel of Joli OS on my netbook. In a nutshell, I want more options than what Unity offers.
        Doughbury
      • RE: The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

        @Doughbury Good points (with your above post, starting "What I dislike most...than what Unity offers") about the inflexibility of Unity (I agree), but in Ubuntu 11.04's version of Unity, the launcher does auto-hide (as long as the app running is maximized or on the left edge of the screen, to the point where it would normally overlap with the launcher).
        zandm7
      • Message has been deleted.

        nomorebs
    • RE: The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

      @DannyO_0x98 It does look like GNUStep, which you're right comes to us via NeXTStep, but the feel is quite different.

      Steven
      sjvn
  • RE: The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

    Great job Linux developers. If this OS is multi touch, that means we're going to see many professionals using Blender and Gimp application on Ubuntu 11 tablets for multimedia projects for free. I would also think the Linux community should have a nice application suite for music production like GarageBand, this would enable many professionals for the music industry to install Ubuntu 11 on their tablets and do some great innovation on the music industry.
    Gabriel Hernandez
    • RE: The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

      @Gabriel Hernandez

      Uh no blender doesn't even come close to the gaming industry standard unreal engine And as for gimp something it dosent even come close to photoshop so...
      Viper589
  • RE: The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

    Again linux makes another desktop that makes the user feel stupid. Why linux always insists in belittling the intelligence of its users is beyond me. I feel good knowing I'm too smart to use this OS with this interface. I can go on to other OSs and be productive. Best part of this article is how Dell is blowing smoke up Shuttleworth's butt by saying they sold millions of ubuntu desktops. I had to laugh when I read that. Everyone knows its not true but the linux fanboys will believe it anyway because they desperately want linux to succeed even though its been one failure after another. Go back to compiling your source code boys, I'm actually going to use my computer for its intended purpose instead of waiting for code to compile or tweaking config files. I have to laugh when I see the mere mention of ubuntu.
    Loverock Davidson
    • RE: The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

      @Loverock Davidson
      Someone sounds more jealous than anything.
      daikon
      • RE: The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

        @daikon
        That's right, linux has every reason to be jealous of other operating systems, after all that is where it steals all its ideas.
        Loverock Davidson
    • RE: The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

      @Loverock Davidson

      Funny, i thought people criticized linux for "apparently" being harder to use than windows, but here you are criticizing it for being too easy, i guess you just can't please some trolls.

      All i can say is that you must really find linux threatening if you feel the need to post your FUD on every linux article.
      guzz46
      • RE: The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

        @guzz46
        I never said it was easy or hard, I just said it treats the user like they are dumb. I don't find linux the least bit threatening, but you do since you are spreading your FUD to protect it.
        Loverock Davidson
      • RE: The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

        @guzz46
        When I first started reading & commenting here I thought that Loverock was actually trying seriously but then I went to consider him as exceptionally funny troll ;)

        I guess it's best to troll for all directions - someone will surely get hit specially if you do it all in same post ;)


        @loverock
        robin@raippa:/var/www/testblog$ wtf FUD
        FUD: fear, uncertainty and doubt

        Heh, how does that work for you? :D
        robsku
    • Message has been deleted.

      guzz46
    • RE: The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

      @Loverock Davidson So you praise the bathroom tile interface which markets itself specifically as being so simple an ideiot can do it, then criticize Ubuntu for coming up with a similarly simple interface. Double standard much? I'm personally excited that I can use this on my TV or tablets. Quick, easy, and most importantly free.
      Socratesfoot
      • RE: The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

        @Socratesfoot
        What double standard? I praise good UI design which ubuntu lacks.
        Loverock Davidson
    • RE: The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

      @Loverock Davidson
      your experience seems different from mine. I recently switched to Ubuntu and have not noticed any code compiling or other issues you describe. I switched since I actually wanted to use my computer as you describe "for its intended purpose". Basic wordprocessing, spreadsheets and internet acccess. I dont need several hundred $ worth of software for that and wait for minutes until it boots (yes, I have old, old hardware but it works fine).

      So, take it from the non-IT expert, Ubuntu just works fine for every day use.
      Splatus
      • RE: The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

        @Splatus
        You spent multiple hours downloading and burning an ISO and then twice as much time installing and reconfiguring just for those tasks. Yep, you just wasted your time trying to do something "for its intended purpose" but it ended up costing you more.
        Loverock Davidson