Unity and Purpose

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Article from Issue 191/2016
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It is 2010, and Ubuntu is riding the crest of a wave. The distro named for a principle of African philosophy that is "too beautiful to even say in English" had legions of loyal users and, perhaps more importantly, legions of enthusiastic volunteers, even though the project was actually backed by a for-profit company called Canonical.

Unity and Purpose

Dear Linux Magazine Reader,

It is 2010, and Ubuntu is riding the crest of a wave. The distro named for a principle of African philosophy that is "too beautiful to even say in English" had legions of loyal users and, perhaps more importantly, legions of enthusiastic volunteers, even though the project was actually backed by a for-profit company called Canonical.

Just when everything was going well, Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth announced the distro would be giving up its specially themed Gnome desktop and switching to a brand new desktop they were going to call Unity.

First reactions were not good – people wanted their familiar Ubuntu Gnome desktop back. They said Unity was confusing and counterintuitive. Canonical said it was working on a plan to merge PCs with mobile phones, something they called "convergence," and Unity was part of that plan. But many in the community liked Ubuntu the way it was – why did it have to change just so Canonical could pursue its corporate business strategy?

Things got worse when it was revealed that Unity had the ability to beam user search results back to Canonical, Amazon, and other vendors. Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation roundly denounced Unity and Canonical for adding such a feature, and lots of rancor ensued.

Unity brought the end to a honeymoon for Ubuntu and its starry-eyed community, but no honeymoon lasts forever. Canonical really is a company, and it always was, and the point of business is to do business. Ubuntu's controversial search feature was officially disabled by default in version 16.04, but by then, Canonical was on to other things anyway, working on its OpenStack strategy and the large corporate contracts that will one day determine whether the company will survive.

As I look back on that era, perhaps the most interesting thing is that the Unity desktop is still surviving and, apparently, thriving. It is hard to get numbers on which desktops users are actually using, but a quick glance at the DistroWatch list of Hits Per Day as a measure of attention the distro is receiving from the Linux community shows that mainline Ubuntu with Unity is far outperforming the other officially sanctioned Ubuntu flavors, such as Kubuntu, Lubuntu, and Xubuntu. Even Ubuntu Mate, which was created just to give users a taste of the old Gnome 2 look and feel, does not get nearly as much attention as the mainline Unity version.

Note: Linux Mint, which leads the DistroWatch list, is also an Ubuntu derivative, although it is a separate operation that is not part of the Ubuntu project. Because Mint puts all its desktop versions in one place, rather than managing them through separate projects, it is impossible to say how much of the Mint attention is going to which desktop, but it is safe to conclude that probably no one is using Mint with Unity.

For better or worse, it appears that Unity is here to stay, which is quite surprising given the controversies that once surrounded it. Say what you want about the design or the potential for data mining (of which I am no fan), the saga of Unity speaks to Canonical's persistence and their continued focus on a long-term vision.

Possible reasons for the continued acceptance of Unity within the community despite the early problems are:

  • Unity got better – it isn't as annoying as it used to be, because the Ubuntu team is actually pretty good at what they do, and they have steadily improved Unity based on user feedback.
  • Enough new users who like Unity are replacing the old users who don't like it.
  • The desktop doesn't matter – the underlying tools are pretty darn similar, so who cares which boxes and icons you click on. (I must confess I might be in this camp. Although I certainly agree that the system shouldn't spy on the user, in terms of ergonomic functionality, I have never really gotten too worked up over the Gnome vs. KDE, Gnome 2 vs. Gnome 3, or any of the other desktop dust-ups through the years.)
  • People are downloading Ubuntu and then putting whatever desktop they want on the system afterward. This possibility is impossible to analyze based on the DistroWatch statistics, but if it were true, the fact that people would rather download Ubuntu and put LXDE on it than download Lubuntu, which includes LXDE by default, would have interesting implications as a study in branding and product definition.

What does it all mean? I'm certainly not going to be able to sort it all out in 800 words, but if you were around to see all the fallout in 2010 and 2011, it is worth pausing to note that Unity is still here.

Joe Casad,

Editor in Chief

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