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

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

Summary: Canonical's Ubuntu 11.04 "Natty Narwhal" is a significant departure in terms of User Interface from previous versions. But will end-users accept the changes?

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Canonical's Ubuntu 11.04 "Natty Narwhal" is a significant departure in terms of User Interface from previous versions. But will end-users accept the changes?

I recently had a chance to take a look at the Alpha 3 release of Ubuntu 11.04, the latest version of Canonical's Linux desktop OS that is due in April. 11.04 is considered to be a major release for Ubuntu because it represents a significant departure from the default GNOME UI to the new Unity UI.

(EDIT: In the video, I state that Unity is written in the Qt Application framework. In actuality, the 3D version that most users will see is written in C++. Only the 2D version uses Qt.)

Unity doesn't so as much replace GNOME interface entirely but acts as a replacement shell layer for the default GNOME 2.3.x shell.

(For a close-up look at the new user interface, browse my image gallery: Ubuntu 11.04 Alpha 3.)

Unity has received quite a bit of criticism from the GNOME purists because it was developed entirely in-house by Canonical without consultation from the greater GNOME/Ubuntu and Open Source community at large. Much like Steve Jobs drives many of the design changes for Mac OS X and other products at Apple, for better or for worse Canonical's Mark Shuttleworth decided that the future of Ubuntu's desktop was going to be with Unity.

First, the good stuff about Unity -- with the 3D alpha-blended effects it looks very pretty and overall it tries to make the OS friendlier for the average end-user. Linux distributions and Ubuntu specifically has often been criticized for lagging behind both Mac OS and Microsoft Windows in terms of desktop beautification and user-friendliness, so this is a step in the right direction.

For the Linux neophyte, Unity is good news because it essentially reduces the menu complexity of the GNOME desktop into a vertical "Launcher" which displays running tasks and favorite applications/programs. It also integrates a search engine that helps users find their way around the system.

However, as you can see in the embedded video and in the accompanying screen shot gallery, the way the desktop behaves is very different than previous versions of Ubuntu and on other GNOME 2.3.x-based Linux distributions.

Unity has chosen a very Mac-like approach by where the foreground application menus are displayed at the top of the screen where the main GNOME menu system/Nautilus navigator used to be (although this legacy "Places" menu appears along with the file management dialogs if Nautilus is actually running).

This takes quite a bit of getting used to.

Additionally, the Unity "Launcher" that functions as an icon bar and task manager which is on the left-hand side of the screen is not yet easily customizable. There's no apparent way to move it to the bottom of the screen (so it more resembles Windows 7) or to the right of the screen a la old-school NeXTStep, the forerunner to Mac OS X where the paradigm originated.

Additionally, you can't right-click on the bar to add widgets like the old GNOME panel, and you can't add favorite programs to it unless you search for the program in the search engine (which pops up if you hit the Windows/Super key), and then drop it into the Launcher.

There's also no default icon for the Control Center and many of the other typical Ubuntu common tweaking and configuration applets that you would normally find in the legacy GNOME menu, although they can be easily added and found via the integrated search engine.

Unity is still very much a work in progress in terms of it being able to completely replace all of the functionality of the traditional GNOME menu system and traditional UI.

Fortunately, for power users, you can still return to the old GNOME 2.3.x UI by choosing "Ubuntu Classic Desktop" during the login process. For those of us that are not quite ready to migrate to Unity yet as our default interface, that should be welcome news.

I'm not sure entirely what to think of the changes as a long-time Ubuntu user. Clearly, Canonical and Ubuntu needed to do something drastic in order to differentiate itself from Debian, Fedora and OpenSUSE and to advance the Linux desktop to a more modern, user-friendlier system for the average person.

Hopefully, it did not do this at the cost of alienating much of its core user base, and they'll listen to user feedback as Unity is used by more and more people in the coming months and years.

What is your impression of Ubuntu 11.04 and the new Unity interface? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Operating Systems, Linux, Open Source, Software

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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162 comments
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  • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.04: A whale of changes for Canonical's user base

    Linux, the great lost cause because it doesn't know what direction it wants to go in. Is it a server, is it a desktop, it doesn't know so it fails at both. The problem with Canonical is that its just putting lipstick on a pig. Trying to add new icons isn't going to change the fact that its still linux underneath and users will still endure those same problems they've had for years. I don't see how taking up even more screen real estate is going to help anyone. I especially like how linux is trying to dumb itself down thereby insulting its user base. Linux was made for geeks to play around with, they are taking that freedom away from you. I can't think of anything that linux has done right, this desktop included.
    Loverock Davidson
    • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.04: A whale of changes for Canonical's user base

      @Loverock Davidson Dude, do you have an alert set for whenever I do a Linux article? You're consistently the first guy to post <img border="0" src="http://www.cnet.com/i/mb/emoticons/happy.gif" alt="happy">
      jperlow
      • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.04: A whale of changes for Canonical's user base

        @jperlow
        I just happen to be up watching late night tv and decided to check the news :)
        Loverock Davidson
      • To be fair, Ubuntu 10.10 was already declared by ZDNet bloggers as perfect

        @jperlow: ... last year (being as good as any MacOSX/W7 and in some aspects better), but now once development went into another voluntaristic turn it appears that Ubintu 10.10 was not that great, right?<br><br>How a side watcher should interpret some bloggers attitude towards Ubuntu?
        DDERSSS
      • Loverock Davidson is a out and out looney

        @jperlow

        He spews his hated for Linux for what ever reason everyday.

        He disrupts every discussion about Linux and in the end Zdnet will loose responsible readership and become the laughing stock of the IT blogging community.

        By you & Zdnet allowing him to spew unadulterated FUD day in and day is ridiculous.

        By allowing him to control and take over your hard work he's making your article and others at Zdnet seem trivial in nature and nothing more than a laughing point.

        Its time that for a change

        this for allowing such people as a
        Over and Out
      • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.04: A whale of changes for Canonical's user base

        This article sucks.
        stibra
      • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.04: A whale of changes for Canonical's user base

        @jperlow
        Be kind. LD's real name is Charlie Sheen.
        ITOdeed
      • @ITOdeed .. no but

        .. they have one thing in common: they're both <i>none and a half men</i>.
        thx-1138_
      • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.04: A whale of changes for Canonical's user base

        @jperlow

        Why can't ZDnet just remove comments like those of Loverock Davidson? As you can see below, every time he, or one of his ilk, makes some stupid remark, the thread degenerates into a complete waste of time and energy.

        As for Unity, the Launcher looks like a clumsy Mac Dock. Cannonical needs to refine the GUI much more. People do not like change, but will adapt if they find it works. For the moment, I will stay with old Gnome.
        jorjitop
    • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.04: A whale of changes for Canonical's user base

      @Loverock Davidson

      "I don't see how taking up even more screen real estate is going to help anyone."

      You don't know you're talking about.
      virtualspectre8@...
      • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.04: A whale of changes for Canonical's user base

        @virtualspectre8@...
        Oh but I do.
        Loverock Davidson
      • Let's see

        If you took the unity bar and move it to the bottom... it looks just like the superbar. I guess the superbar takes up too much screen real estate for LD.<br><br>He might have a point about the search box, but I see that as a plus. Click the Windows Button, have a big window, type in what you want, get the right application/file/etc.<br><br>As for LD himself, he's a Windows user who hates Linux. He doesn't know what he's talking about. Just ask him about the Telnet Port.
        Michael Alan Goff
      • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.04: A whale of changes for Canonical's user base

        @virtualspectre8@...
        "Oh but I do. "
        ...meaning he installed some form of Linux back in 2004 and equates that with everything produced since.
        jeverettk
    • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.04: A whale of changes for Canonical's user base

      Are you Linux users still happy using CGA mode and being able to play one sound at a time ? Get yourself a grown up OS like W7 SP1, no sooner had I installed SP1 my halitosis was instantly cured. I can now talk to people without them wanting to wretch - praise be the healing power of Windows.
      Rubberduck Rabidson
      • Message has been deleted.

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

        @orionds

        Both Loverock Davidson and Rubberduck Rabidson are one in the same.

        Best to just not responded, they both like the attention.
        choyongpil
      • Message has been deleted.

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

        @choyongpil: "Both Loverock Davidson and Rubberduck Rabidson are one in the same."

        I doubt it. Rubberduck Rabidson is definitely a parody. It might, possibly, be self-parody. Hard to say. I imagine Loverock is self-aware enough to know what he sounds like, so he probably could parody himself. And his obsessive hatred for Linux is hardly sincere. So it's possible Loverock and Rubberduck are the same person, but I doubt it.

        Loverock is a troll who constantly spouts lies and should be banned.

        TRiG.
        Timothy (TRiG)
      • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.04: A whale of changes for Canonical's user base

        @Rubberduck Rabidson Praise be to Ballmer!
        snoop0x7b
      • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.04: A whale of changes for Canonical's user base

        @Rubberduck Rabidson
        Your words are mildly entertaining for the sheer absurdity of them; but do they not fall rather directly into the category of spam?
        Lubricious