What's coming in Ubuntu's new Unity Linux desktop

Windows 8 isn't the only operating system that's bringing a new look to the PC desktop. Canonical is changing the looks of its Ubuntu Unity Linux desktop.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

As Microsoft shows Windows 8 off in its first dog and pony show, it seems to me to be a good time to note that Microsoft isn't the only company bringing out a new look for the PC desktop. Canonical, Ubuntu Linux's parent company is also transforming its Unity desktop.

Unity, for those of you who don't know it, is based on the GNOME desktop, but it takes an entirely different approach with the desktop shell. Since I dislike the latest GNOME 3 desktop, that's fine by me. Unity, with its tablet-style interface isn't designed for hard-core Linux users, although we can use it too. It's really designed more for casual users who are new to Linux or casual Windows users who want to try something better.

According to Canonical founder, Mark Shuttleworth the next version of Unity, which is due out in October, "Our goal with Unity is unprecedented ease of use, visual style and performance on the Linux desktop."

In a recent blog posting on Dash, Ubuntu Unity 11.10, Shuttleworth talked about the biggest changes from Ubuntu 11.04. In Dash. "Places," Web servers, file servers, and directories will be handled by Scopes and Lenses. "Scopes are data sources, and can tap into any online or off-line data set as long as they can generate categorized results for a search, describe a set of filters and support some standard interfaces. Lenses are various ways to present the data that come from Scopes."

Shuttleworth went on, "The Scopes have a range of filtering options they can use, such as ratings ("show me all the 5 star apps in the Software Center please") and categories ("… that are games or media related"). Over time, the sophistication of this search system will grow but the goal is to keep it visual and immediate - something anyone can drive at first attempt."

I've long thought that Unity was meant to be not just a desktop but a tablet interface as well. Shuttleworth sees it the same way. "This delivers on the original goal of creating a device-like experience that was search driven. Collaboration with the always-excellent Zeitgeist crew (quite a few of whom are now full time on the Unity team!) has improved the search experience substantially. .... Since we introduced the Dash as a full screen device-like search experience, the same idea has made its way into several other shells, most notably Mac OS X Lion.

Of course this is still a work in progress, "The existing Places are all in the process of being updated to the Scopes and Lenses model, it's a bit of a construction site at the moment so hard-hats are advised but dive in if you have good ideas for some more interesting scopes. I've heard all sorts of rumors about cool scopes in the pipeline and I bet this will be fertile ground for innovation. It's pretty straightforward to make a scope, I'm sure others will blog and document the precise mechanisms but for those who want a head start, just use the source, Luke."

At the same time, the Ubuntu crew is working on improving the Unity panel. So, for example, in Ubuntu 11.10, "You'll see that the top left corner is now consistently used to close whatever has the focus. Maximizing a window keeps the window controls in the same position relative to the window - the top left corner. We have time to refine the behavior of this based on user testing of the betas; for example, in one view, one should be able to close successive windows from that top left corner even if they are not maximized"

Why on the left instead of the right? Shuttleworth explained, "It was the only place where we could ultimately keep them consistent all the way up to a maximized window with the title bar integrated into the panel. I'm confident this part will all be settled by 12.04."

The interface is also changing in other ways. Shuttleworth continued, "As part of this two-step shuffle, the Dash invocation is now integrated in the Launcher. While this is slightly less of a Fitts-fantastic location, we consider it appropriate for a number of reasons. First, it preserves the top left corner for closing windows. Second, the Dash is best invoked with the Super key (sometimes erroneously and anachronistically referred to as the 'Windows' key, for some reason). And finally, observations during user testing showed people as more inclined to try clicking on items in the Launcher than on the top left icon in the panel, unless that icon was something explicit like a close button for the window. Evidence based design rules."

Shuttleworth and company are also working on Dash's fine-tuning. "Rather than a flat darkening, we're introducing a wash based on the desktop color. The dash thus adjusts to your preferred palette based on your wallpaper. The same principle will drive some of the login experience - choosing a user will shift the login screen towards that users wallpaper and palette."

"We've also integrated the panel and the dash, so indicators are rendered in a more holographic fashion inside the dash. Together with efforts to mute the contrast of Launcher icons the result is a more striking dash altogether: content is presented more dramatically," added Shuttleworth. Ubuntu is also working on speeding up the Unity desktop. They're able to do this because, "We have raw access to the GL pipeline, we're taking advantage of that with some real-time blur effects to help the readability and presentation of overlay content in the Dash, too. Both Nux [the OpenGL based widget toolkit]in the case of Unity-3D and Qt [a popular open-source, graphics software development framework] in the case of Unity-2D have rich GL capabilities, and we'd like to make the most of whatever graphics stack you have on your hardware, while still running smoothly on the low end." In other words, as improvements are made to the graphic libraries, Ubuntu's developers are picking them up on the fly to improve the desktop's performance.

The result, based on what I've seen of the recently release Ubuntu 11.10 beta looks pretty impressive. While I don't think millions of users are going to be switching from Windows to Ubuntu anytime soon, I do think that Unity is looking a lot more usable than Windows 8's interface does at this point. Soon, you'll be able to see for yourself.

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