Ubuntu's "risky step" of standardizing on Unity instead of GNOME

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Oct 29, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

OK, it's finally happening. For a couple of years, the standard for desktops has been edging towards mobile devices with every new netbook interface. Now, with Ubuntu's decision to replace GNOME with its own Unity desktop, the shift away from the workstation standard has actually arrived.

But while the decision may be in keeping with the times, it's still every bit the "risky step" that Mark Shuttleworth described it as when he made the announcement earlier this week.

In making the announcement, Shuttleworth focused on technical issues. The GNOME project, he said, had made some design decisons that were not in keeping with what Ubuntu wanted to do. He also mentioned the greater ease of supporting one desktop, rather than two.

These comments have been duly reported. But what has not widely discussed are the implications of the decisions for Ubuntu's future growth and its relationship with the larger free software community.

The risk begins with the fact that Unity is still very much a work in progress. The current version of Unity has elements that need to be standardized, and is designed with assumptions about how the desktop is used that hold true for only some users.

No doubt Unity will improve by the time it becomes Ubuntu's default desktop, but a poll on the Ubuntu forums whose results are roughly equally divided between Unity, the forthcoming GNOME Shell, and "Anything that works" suggests that, even with improvements, Unity will have to struggle for acceptance.

Jockeying for market advantages

As the reception of KDE 4.0 and the lukewarm enthusiasm for the GNOME Shell demonstrate, any major interface change may meet with resistance. There seems no reason to think Unity will be an exception. For this reason,you can safely assume that Ubuntu and Canonical, its commercial arm, have some compelling reasons (read: business reasons) to take the risk in the first place.

Perhaps, as some pundits have suggested, the somewhat minimalist Unity is intended for the promised future of cloud computing, in which the desktop is just the launcher for the browser. The only trouble with that, however, is that one innovation rarely replaces older ones completely; cloud computing is likely to continue to grow, but it is likely to co-exist with traditional computing for some years.

Similarly, if the distro is willing to risk annoying existing users -- users who have already endured a barrage of changes in the sometimes dubious name of usability -- then perhaps another calculation is that Unity will appeal to the new users whom Shuttleworth expects to be flocking to Ubuntu in the next five years. But will those users, most of whom will have experience with Windows or OS X, appreciate Unity's ease of use, or regard it as a step down from what they are used to?

Probably the most compelling reason is ease of maintenance as Canonical and Ubuntu expand. Not only is one desktop easier to maintain than two on a workstation or netbook, as Shuttleworth suggests, but it is far easier to maintain on tablets and mobile devices, too -- assuming that Canonical should ever expand into them.

KDE has already shown a realization of this simple truth with Plasma Netbook, which uses most of the same code as standard KDE except for the desktop shell. However, perhaps Ubuntu's plan is to take the approach one step further, and make the code completely identical across all hardward platforms. If so, then the increased coding and testing efficiency is self-evident.

Yet the nagging question remains: Do users want or expect the same desktop everywhere? What may seem efficient on an eight centimeter phone screen can seem cramped and restrictive on a workstation.

Like Shuttleworth said, it's risky. Yet if Canonical is going to manage what no one else has ever managed to do and make a living from a distribution, some assumptions have to be made and some risks taken. What is interesting about Ubuntu standardizing on Unity is that the decision strongly suggests what assumptions Ubuntu is currently making.

Redefining relationships

Just as importantly, with the decision to focus on Unity, Ubuntu now has the usability issues upon which it is focusing completely under its control. This is a position that Ubuntu has been moving towards for several years now, as a review of Shuttleworth's blog reveals .

A few years ago, Shuttleworth was attempting to get the larger free software projects to coordinate release schedules -- a move that would have greatly aided commercial distributions like Ubuntu, but done little for most projects.

When that effort was greeted with only mild interest, Shuttleworth next attempted to rally free software around usability issues. That call to common interest aroused interest, but GNOME in particular moved more slowly and in different directions than Ubuntu. Consequently, Ubuntu began its own development, modifying such desktop elements as notifications and title bar buttons on its own, and introducing centralized indicators for social networking and sound.

These modifications of GNOME left Ubuntu in an anomalous position. With the release of GNOME 3.0, Ubuntu would have been faced with a choice of abandoning or overhauling its interface code, or of continuing to develop an offshoot of GNOME 2.0 -- either of which would have been embarrassing and harmful to its reputation. Now, by focusing on Unity, Ubuntu can announce its own new desktop at about the same time that GNOME 3.0 is released.

Just as importantly, with Unity, Ubuntu has control of its significant code. Not that Unity is not free software -- it is. But, practically speaking, its Ubuntu volunteers and Canonical employees are apt to be the majority its contributors. Both are more likely to accept Canonical's directives than outsiders. In this way, Ubuntu can continue to express its allegiance to free software while not having to manoeuver through the usual give and take found in the community. In effect, it can now make decisions more like a proprietary company can.

Waiting for the dice to fall

How successful Unity will become remains to be seen. Given Ubuntu's popularity, probably it cannot help but succeed to a large extent. That inevitability, more than anything else, may make the risks associated with Unity acceptable. Eight months from now, we will probably see distributions derived from Ubuntu happily using Unity, rather than the GNOME 2 or 3 series of releases.

Yet if Unity is unlikely to fail completely, it may not completely succeed, either. Instructions about how to switch from Unity to standard GNOME are sure to be widely available, and we may never have a sense of how many people use them. Perhaps, too, using Unity as default will increase the popularity of Kubuntu and Xubuntu, Ubuntu's in-family alternatives.

But these, too, are part of the risk: that, despite its name, Unity simply becomes another choice among the distinctly un-unified GNOME-based desktops available.

No matter how you interpret the gamble, it's not a small one, and seeing how it plays out promises to make 2011 an interesting year.

Comments

  • I'm ready

    I like Gnome but I'm not crazy about the Gnome Foundation. If they had any brains at all, they would've embraced Compiz instead of trying to reinvent the wheel. Same goes for KDE and Kwin. More of the same fragmentation-for-the-sake-of-pride that I have come to expect from Gnome and KDE. Canonical/Ubuntu on the other hand, are giving me a reason to care about Linux as a desktop.

    Canonical listens to its customers/users. When Linux starts getting a huge wave of games, don't let Gnomeor KDE take the credit, because they've done nothing to help the situation; thank Canonical for partnering with the right people.
  • Unity

    Hi all,

    I'm a simple end user of linux for many years, and I see Unity as a really simple and relaxing Desktop environment.

    No complication, no useless features, just a launcher and a status bar, and if you don't find what you want just hit ubuntu and search for it.

    Really I adore that philosophy.

    I'm tired of computer interfaces getting more and more complex. This is a breath of fresh air.

    Chapeau!

    Dominic
  • Unity

    I’m a Gnome guy myself, but im excited to see what Canonical does with the unity desktop. By the time Canonical rolls it out im sure it will be more advanced than it is in its current state. Also I dont think its going to stray very far from the Gnome experiance either. If your experianced enough to prefer one environment over the other you should know how to switch.
  • goodbye ubuntu

    im horrified by canonicals decision to go with unity, it is a horribly ugly cluttered desktop ... experienced users like me will have no problem switching to the old standard gnome desktop then customizing it from there to their preferred tastes ... but for new users just switching from windows , they will take one look at this pile of garbage and run screaming back to windows ... with no new adopters , ubuntu will fade into oblivion and be gone within five years . I personally DO NOT want a bunch of buttons on my desktop , i have always kept my desktop completely clean with not one single icon on it . .... i can see a desktop like that working on something like a tiny netbook where having big butons may help with functionality , but i have a 36 inche monitor , i don't need one inche by three inche buttons down the side of my screen.

    i've loved my experience with ubuntu but knowing that it will be dead in the next few years has forced me to look else where for an OS fedora has it's quirks but it's proving to be a decent desktop OS ... Good bye Ubuntu
  • window manager freedom or desktop manager tyranny

    I also started with Slackware in the mid 90's before there was even the gimp. Then Gnome and KDE and the other Desktop managers started competing with all of the various X window managers. The new desktops were supposed to solve problems with applications that didn't work with each other. I never had those problems and the "solution" was much worse than the problem so I have stayed with the simple window managers. I don't want Gnome or KDE or any desktop manager. Programs that only work under a certain desktop and do not work under plain old Linux with standard window managers are easily avoided. I hope Unity is less of a desktop manager and more of just a window manager. I plan to try Ubuntu 10.10 and compare Unity with my favorite X window manager.
  • Lucid looks good enough for me for a while :-) I will see if Unity works... 1-2 years from now.

    The message is in the title happy
  • its just a desktop

    Amazing that so much fuss can be made about a "Desktop" - which in the final analysis is just an application launcher cum file finder. You might as well have an in depth discussion about the shape of the power button on the PC. Who gives a?
    All of these desktops share the same basic design - none of them is radically different in any meaningful way. You can have the launcher at the top, left, right or bottom, and you can change the colours. Wow. Be still, beating heart. Fact is that hundreds of developers have been working on the various "desktops" for years, and they look much the same now as they did ten years ago.
    What would be nice is if the desktop developers finished the desktops, and started work on something else that really matters - the applications.
  • Unity, Gnome, KDE and Xfce

    Unity, Gnome, KDE and Xfce..., hhhmmm..., I Like Gnome. Xfce has come a long away and is nice to.
    KDE, I never used to like but I just tried it on the new Kubuntu and it is very nice.
    I certainly like all the Compiz cube etc.., on Gnome but it is just look with no real added function.
    Unity..., hhhmmm..., I like Ubuntu but prefer the older Gnome based desktop to the Unity. But it is only superficial and within some months I will probably adjust. Ubuntu Netbook addition works well on my EEEPC 701 but it would not on my Desktop.
    Guess it comes down to what you like and how it fits on each type of device?
    Variety id the spice of life after all.
  • What is Mark Doing?

    Hello,

    I left Microsoft because Mr. Balmer was forcing us to use another os. This is when i discovered Ubuntu. Now Mark seems to be taking the lead from Microsoft. Forcing us to use a platform that more than 3/4 of its users have no need for or even want. Thankfully Linux is not ubuntu and i will be leaving this distro as i did with Microsoft. What does not make sense here is all the positive press over this on the net, I currently know 26 long time ubuntu users that are upset with Marks decision and will be leaving the distro as well. Its his money and his investment but i think he's had to many dinners with Obama and his dictatorship is wearing off.
  • ubuntu's risky new changes

    As long as Ubuntu continues to allow freedom to install alternate desktop shells I don't really see a problem. Maybe the computer illiterate will have some adjustment to make. I happen to like Gnome desktop and don't want any change to that, but all things change. I just hope Ubuntu doesn't take a step in the wrong direction and push people and prospectors away, making changes that are not constructive. Long live computing freedom!
  • ubuntu risky state

    In regards to unity.
    Isn't that what lots of people like my self been asking for years.
    Well yes.
    I have been asking for some sort of unification to the desk top & most of the apps.
    To have all application to work to the same goal, is to make another stander, and that it has open code beneath it.
    Would it not show the other communities, that working together really makes more since.
    Then what most people do all the time witch is to complain a bought all the different Linux.
    Witch is not to say, {that variety!! Is what we all look for in Linux}.
    But it would make all of dose other close system bite there hands in embitterment.
    Just to see Linux leap in to limelight even more a new stander of OS, and open to the public for development for all.
    Just think Ubuntu was not the only Linux that was unified, but Slack, BSD, Arch, showing that it can be done.
    At least 5 open source projects that are all working to make the processes better in the desk top, net tablet, and all those mobile devices, to work in sync with out the need for other software or devices.
    Well there is Drop Box, but it only syncs devices that are sponsored.
    That leaves a great deal of devices out of sync.
    That can not be helped.
    The competition for dose domains is to great.
    But it would go a long way to show that Linux is an alternative.
  • In regards to unity is it risky.

    In regards to unity.
    Isn't that what lots of people like my self been asking for years.
    Well yes.
    I have been asking for some sort of unification to the desk top & most of the apps.
    To have all application to work to the same goal, is to make another stander, and that it has open code beneath it.
    Would it not show the other communities, that working together really makes more since.
    Then what most people do all the time witch is to complain a bought all the different Linux.
    Witch is not to say, {that variety!! Is what we all look for in Linux}.
    But it would make all of dose other close system bite there hands in embitterment.
    Just to see Linux leap in to limelight even more a new stander of OS, and open to the public for development for all.
    Just think Ubuntu was not the only Linux that was unified, but Slack, BSD, Arch, showing that it can be done.
    At least 5 open source projects that are all working to make the processes better in the desk top, net tablet, and all those mobile devices, to work in sync with out the need for other software or devices.
    Well there is Drop Box, but it only syncs devices that are sponsored.
    That leaves a great deal of devices out of sync.
    That can not be helped.
    The competition for dose domains is to great.
    But it would go a long way to show that Linux is an alternative.
  • Usability

    IMHO, usability suffers in Unity. The fact that Ubuntu users are using a Linux distro in and of it's self means that they will need to accomplish complex tasks that are made more difficult by Unity in it's current state. The reason I use Ubuntu is the ultimate control over my desktop. Don't get me wrong, I like Unity, but there are a few things that need to happen to it before I'll want to adopt it on my computer:

    Unity needs to be more logical. ALL of the tasks that Ubuntu (and extras) accomplish now with GNOME must be just as easy or easier to accomplish in Unity.

    Unity needs to be more attractive, more along the lines of what Ubuntu has done with GNOME.

    Unity needs to be WAY more efficient with screen space. For those of us with higher resolution capacities, it's frustrating when a menu in Unity takes up half the screen just to look cool. I don't care about looking at the menu, I care about getting to the goodies it contains.

    Unity needs to offer enough productivity tools to be attractive to power users. I like GNOME 3 because it lets you do things with virtual workspaces that are highly attractive. No longer does someone using Ubuntu studio need to spend ten minutes starting each application they need in each workspace they want it in. If we could, for example, view all workspaces simultaneously, click-and-drag applications from the menu to the workspace we want it to start in, and resize it inside of that workspace in Unity, all with intuitive and fast menus, I would switch over today.

    I, for one, don't much like the whole "Unity" idea, but that opinion is subject to change without notice.
  • Not that there's anything wrong with that.

    The good thing is that a lot of users will come to realize that although Ubuntu may be Linux, Linux is not Ubuntu. There are a lot of other distributions out there, you aren't stuck with whatever Mark Shuttleworth decides is best for you. If you want a Gnome desktop, just install Mint Debian.
  • None of the options are appealing

    Shuttleworth's assumptions are backwards. Rather than pining away for the netbook experience on my desktop, I want the desktop experience on my netbook! Personally, from what I've seen of Unity to date, I don't care for it at all. Neither do I care for KDE 4.x (Vista-ugly) or Gnome Shell (doesn't fit my workflow). In fact, the only reason I'm using Gnome 2.x right now is the loss of my preferred desktop, KDE 3.5. If it ain't broke, etc.

    I plan on holding onto 10.04 until the next Long Term Support version of Ubuntu is released. At that point, we'll see which way I go. Fortunately, this is Linux, and changing distros is simple, given a little basic planning. If I can't restore the old-style interface (10.04 already has the buttons on the right side of the window titlebar where they belong), then perhaps it's time to move on. I don't *want* to move on, mind you. I have better things to do than play with the operating system. But mess with my workflow, and you leave me no choice.

  • Huh? Wha?

    Because of my second sentence, I have to begin my first one like so: I've been a Linux user since late 93 or so (not even sure Red Hat existed.. I ran slackware). Years ago I gave up on Fedora, as it required 2 days to upgrade, and once it did upgrade you had to be VERY careful not to upgrade or you would break the system... not through any direct defect in the package manager, but because the only way to get REAL multimedia was to add a whole bunch of incompatible repos. Then another one for web fonts, and another one for Amarok, and so on.

    I use Linux far too much to bork my system on rpm conflicts, and to pray during updates. I switched to Ubuntu because I could FORGET about Linux while I use it. Which gets me to my point.

    So I read this article, about 3 paragraphs into it i have to wonder what the HELL is Unity? So then I skim through the article clicking on links near "Unity" and none of THOSE explain what Unity is, either.

    There's probably another reason I am caught off guard about desktop changes - people have stopped caring about the desktop. It is good enough and getting better. All the real exciting applications have moved to the web. You can do everything on the browser now except high-frames per second games, and even THAT is about to change with browsers supporting Canvas.

    I guess I'll have to go Google and maybe I'll come back... but you really ought to put in a 1 paragraph recap.
  • Unity ... pffft...

    I do not like the idea of the change and of the 75-100 desktops I do a year for free they will no longer be Ubuntu ... this is the final straw ... time to change distro's and I will be able to shorten my magazine purchases as I will not have to bother with ones touting the "Unity" desktop. I'm so tired of the cloud hype. It is nothing new, we choose to own and control our data as opposed to leaving it open for the winds of political change to dictate their access to it
  • It is risky either way

    Going for Unity might be very risky, but Using GNOME 3 is also very risky. We know GNOME2.x, though, it might not be most impressive Desktop, but it function very well. No too pointless stuff, working with just about any WM, and very flexible. Ironically, GNOME 3 is just the opposite. User, no long take charge of the Desktop, instead, everyone much now "enjoy" the experience the "smart" designer designed Desktop. Ubuntu (as today) is pretty much did the same mistake that GNOME 3 did, but sense, GNOME2.x it is the default, this mistake might not be very noticeable. However, from now on, user might very soon, have no say to what their desktop, their work space would end up. Just because it is called GNOME, GNOME3 might not have the "known" property, of GNOME. It is totally another school of thought on its own. In order words, doesn't what distro, as long as it switch to GNOME 3 as their default desktop, is just as much change as Ubuntu switch to Unity. Which would be the right choice. a bit too early to say at this point.

    I personally, didn't like both of them, because the desktop aren't really "up to me", switch is one of the most impressive experience I have in Linux computing. But I feel less and less about that in the recent update with most of the Major Project, and Distro.
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