Do you use Windows not because you like it or there's some specific Windows-only application that you must use but because it's what came on your PC? If that's you, Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, wants you to try their soon to be out Ubuntu 11.04 Linux desktop.
When I talked with Canonical marketing manager Gerry Carr, I hadn't expected him to say that. Over the last few years, Linux desktop vendors haven't really tried to take on Windows head-on. Oh, to be certain, I think the Linux desktop is great. I'm writing this story on Mint 10, an Ubuntu variant, and I use openSUSE 11.4, Fedora 14, and MEPIS 8.0 on other PCs and laptops. But, I know most people are content to use Windows because that's what comes on their PCs. Carr thinks though that with Ubuntu 11.04's new desktop interface and a few other tricks up Canonical's sleeve, Ubuntu can win over "casual Windows users."
Carr told me that Canonical has been working on "transforming Ubuntu to bring it to mainstream market. Yes, it has better security; yes it's open source; but Ubuntu, and other desktop Linux distributions, lacked real reasons to switch for Windows users who don't think about operating systems. We needed to develop a better choice for default Windows users. We need to break them out the jail of habitual Windows use." Canonical's way to do that is with Unity.
Besides just having an interface that doesn't look like either most versions of Windows or Linux, Unity is meant to work in a different manner. For example, Carr notes that while you can use folders and files to organize your files, you don't have to. "Search has become essential to how we organize Ubuntu. You no longer have to remember where you put files. Unity will take care of finding them for you."
Another change is in how you work with active applications. With Unity's indicators, application icon controls that enable you to see what's what with your active programs and enable you to work with them, you can use an application's functionality without needing to minimize one program and maximize the other. So, for example, "if you're playing music using Ubuntu's media-player Banshee you can use the volume control indicator to select tracks to play rather than going to Banshee, The communications indicator gives you access to all your instant messages and e-mail in the same way.
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Unity as First Person Shooter
The idea for this kind of non-invasive heads-up information display and control comes from, according to Carr, first person shooter games. "You want to know how much ammo you have, you want to know what your buddies are saying, but at the same time your attention can still be focused on the job you have at hand."
Both Windows and Linux users, said Carr, in testing liked the Unity desktop a lot. "It was different, of course, but they didn't find it difficult to use. The feedback was very positive and they found the small learning curve was worth it for the great benefits."
The point of all this is to make a desktop that lets you to "Less of you as administrator and more of a user." Personally, I don't care for that. But, then I wouldn't be a Linux user if that had been the case. Generally, speaking Linux users love getting their hands dirty with system internals. If we were talking cars instead of operating systems, old-school Linux users would be the sort who do all their own engine work on their manual-transmission, sports cars. But, Unity isn't meant for us, so much as it is for casual Windows users and people who just want their computer to work with as little fuss and muss as possible. For these, Unity might be exactly what they want... if they can see it.
I asked Carr how Canonical plans on getting Ubuntu 11.04 in front of more users, and he told me that the company has numerous active original equipment manufacturers (OEM) deals in the work. Thus, you can expect to see a lot more PCs and laptops with pre-installed Ubuntu on sell by early May.
Would-be Ubuntu users will also, "starting in early May, be able to go to Ubuntu.com and use an Ubuntu single sign-on system to play with the 2D version of Ubuntu 11.04 from an Ubuntu cloud-based instance." In short, Carr concluded, "We're trying to break down all the barriers to entry that we can, especially for Windows users and we think the online trial will be a major accelerator."
I'll give the credit for trying. It's certainly a different way to bring a new desktop to Windows users. In my own work with Unity, I have to say I like it more than I thought I would and it's amazingly fast especially considering it's a beta. I think it just might be that Ubuntu may indeed bring a substantial number of Windows users over to Linux. I'm not willing to bet on it through.