Ubuntu 11.04 Gnome and Unity

1 11 2010

I’ve been wondering about the news today that Ubuntu 11.04, the next big release, scheduled for April 2011, is to ship with the new Unity user interface as the default, replacing Gnome. Gnome will still ship and users can switch to it but what strikes me is this is either exactly what the Linux desktop needs or exactly what it does not need.

For years the Linux desktop has been dogged with the simple fact thats its UI and hence UX is, charitably, not as slick as OSx or Windows, but more accurately its a pig. Given enough time and knowledge it can be much better than either of them, the problem is the popular desktop environment is not populated with Linux hackers, so those brave enough to try it see its looks crap and go back to something they know.

I’ve generally thought that between KDE and Gnome, plus a handful of also rans and slightly more specialized offerings the Linux desktop is a complete failure. Sure choice is king and being able to do what you want id fantastic, but not at the expense of being able to use the thing to get a job done. Gnome is usable, just. KDE recently isn’t even that. Both are amazing when you spend time getting them just right. But who has that sort of time? and in an environment of any size who wants that sort of maintenance headache?

Then comes the apps, tools, widgets, thingies and whatsits. The essential collection of things you actually need to use to get something done. Try finding a comprehensive set of anything that adopts any thing approaching common ground to either the desktop manager or anything else, its not a pretty picture most of the time, literally. This all severely hurts, it hurts the Linux desktop and it hurts adoption because it hurts productivity, it doesn’t help that it looks like something thrown together in a kiddies art class either.

Ubuntu has popularized the Linux desktop, growing its reach hugely and despite my misgivings about its somewhat slapdash approach to releases it proves to be ‘The Linux Desktop’.

So, one might think that Ubuntu could lead the charge and sort out the desktop UI/UX in fact I was beginning to think it might happen until the slippage of Gnome Shell and the emergence of Ubuntu Unity in its netbook remix. Unity is another desktop manger, its not Gnome, its not KDE, its Unity. Quite frankly it sucks, Ive been putting up with it on my netbook for a while and as its a device I use when I have to rather than when I want to its not such a big deal, probably more so as the application I use on it is a terminal 99% of the time.

So I was quite surprised to read that 11.04 will use Unity and not Gnome. I would have been comforted to read that Ubuntu was going to be working very close with Gnome to sort out the desktop, but that seems to not be the case. There have been a few blogs today about what this means for Gnome, well quite simply it doesn’t mean anything much. Ubuntu has barely contributed anything to Gnome, Gnome will live on and prosper based on it being largely contributed to by Red Hat et al. For sure not being the default in Ubuntu is going to hurt, but Gnome is’nt going to suffer much. Ubuntu might though…

I don’t know how many desktops use Ubuntu right now, but how many of them are going to be using it after the upgrade to 11.04 and the switch to Unity? Lets consider Unity is new, right now its not pretty, its slow, buggy and in my opinion not ready for release. But they have got time, not much though.  I wonder how many people will stick with Ubuntu when the UI changes, its going to have to be something of an amazingly successful upgrade isn’t it? Any problems could have people reaching for any of the other popular Linux distro’s and the familiar Gnome desktop.

I think its an interesting move, for sure its vital they get the news out now and start to wade through the reaction to it. Right now I think Unity for me will be on my desktop for as long as it takes to switch to Gnome and if that isn’t less than 10 minutes the switch will be to to Fedora, Debian or any one of a dozen other perfectly viable desktop Linux distributions. Unity needs some very positive media in the next month and some well led promotion, making it work well might be a good first step too.

My final thought, for now, is why didn’t Ubuntu try to adopt the Google ChromeOS type of browser based desktop, isn’t Unity actually about anything but?