The new Ubuntu Desktop: Unity

With the Ubuntu Linux 11.04 beta, we're getting out first look at Ubuntu's new Unity face.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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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.

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