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?





Ubuntu 10.04 Desktop and Netbook

1 05 2010

With the arrival of the Ubuntu 10.04 Release Candidate I took the plunge and did fresh installations on both my Desktop and Netbook. I’ve previously tried the Alpha and Beta and was generally impressed with the evolution of Ubuntu. My netbook is a ‘never leaves my side’ kind of thing and has to be 100% reliable and operational. My desktop is a compliment to my main desktop, which out of necessity, runs windows. The linux desktop provides my media, social networking, chat/IM, browsing/monitoring and secure access to numerous systems.

10.04 is an evolution but one in an evolutionary process that has visibly slowed down recently.That’s not to say there has not been a lot of work going on or that 10.04 is not impressive, there has and it is. When I say visibly I do mean visibly. Yes its a prettier place to live but, for example, its not got the next generation of Gnome. For that we will wait, hopefully for the next version of Ubuntu, however I do wonder how many who have opted for this latest LTS will not upgrade until the next LTS?

So, what was the install like? Well, it was pretty painless. The Operating System installed quickly, booted with no trouble (and booted fast but don’t believe the hype, its not that fast!). Sound, graphics, media cards all played nicely out of the box. It only took a short while to replace the now, quite frankly, hopeless FireFox with Opera, install the other usual suspects of my daily desktop life and be operational. I’ve always preferred a simple dock to desktop shortcuts or quick launch icons so I installed (as usual) Avant Window Navigator (0.4.0) and replaced the lower panel. I have to say AWN has improved, it feels a little more together than it used to and its not like it was bad before.

My only gripe with the new look and feel is that on a multi desktop system the close, min, max buttons are missing a menu drop down to send the window to another desktop. A right click on the title bar takes care of it but this is something that needs to be covered in the next release when, hopefully, we will see the reason why controls are on the left (ala Mac) and not the right (ala Windows), that space thats opened up on the right is going to have purpose soon we are told.

Media playback is sadly still not there out of the box, licensing and re-distribution can be blamed for this I think. Happily its not difficult to quickly have your MP3’s and DVD’s spinning away. I had one issue with Handbrake, but this was resolved by using the latest snapshot and should be resolved now that 10.04 is on general release. GIMP had to be pulled out of the repo’s as its not part of the standard install, no big deal really but silly in my opinion

BBC iPlayer, Tweetdeck, Filezilla, Dropbox and Skype all worked fine. I installed Sunbird, a screenlet I use to provide weather updates from Weather Underground and my own weather station and that was more or less that, desktop done.

Ubuntu 10.04 Desktop

Ubuntu 10.04 Desktop

The story was barely any different installing the Netbook Remix onto my EeePC901, though the desktop is, of course, the UNR standard.

Ubuntu 10.04 Netbook

Ubuntu 10.04 Netbook

One of the new features in 10.04 is better integration between the desktop and the various social networking offerings, twitter and facebook really. This takes the form of two tools, yes two, why use one when you can make everyone do everything twice? Emapthy (which replaced Pidgin as the standard IM client back in 9) handles chat and Gwibber takes care of social broadcasting to twitter and facebook.

I have to say its good to have the ability to have a single chat client, Empathy, to work with Yahoo, MSN and Facebook but it does not handle Skype – I’m not blaming anyone but this is really a huge shortcoming now for me. Skype remains outside but has become almost ubiquitous for voice and IM communication. Not having integration into a single messaging client is something that needs to be addressed. Always preferring the open route I would prefer to see Empathy (or other) include at the very least Skype IM if not voice, however, I wonder why Skype has not built the IM ability for the other popular clients?

The ‘broadcast’ client, gwibber (come on guys, time to pay someone to come up with better names) is pretty weak and not without its problems. but it works in a pretty neatly integrated fashion and lets be fair and say that with some TLC it will do the job, but it needs some love pretty soon. No one who uses facebook or twitter much already will bother with it, they will install tweetdeck or whatever. But it might help tempt newer users into the social media and networking club. Its  quick to get something out in a hurry but links, pictures, etc, forget it!

Its pretty ironic to think, again as with all things in computing tech, that we have advanced so far only to be no further forward in real terms. In much the same way that cloud was my old mainframe, the latest fancy Excel spreadsheet fails to better my old Lotus 1-2-3, now the new gwibber and empathy and skype still need as many clients as MSN, Yahoo and AIM did before. Anyway, enough of that….

There is a lot more, people are raving about the Ubuntu One Music store, sorry but I cant think of anything less exciting. I dont use iTunes and I cant see me using this. I would like to see a native Spotify client though.

I mentioned above that I installed Dropbox, Ubuntu One has been around for a while but to be quite honest it still feels unreliable, slow and badly made. However the killer is its not got a Windows client (or anything else for that matter) so its useless for me and I suspect many many others. It does however, if you can use it, allow you to synch ANY folder not just a single specified one like Dropbox. Thats a very nice feature.

Performance wise I would say its too close to call. My desktop is nothing special, its getting on and doesn’t have a spec to die for. 9 was fine, 10 doesn’t feel faster in any tangible way but it does feel a little more together and it does boot that little bit faster too. On my netbook, again not the latest hardware, I would say its the same story. In short it all runs fine and I suspect on more modern tin its going to be a real delight. The bottom line here is that I can continue to take advantage of new features, better looking desktops, without having to shell out on new hardware. Thats a big plus with linux and Ubuntu.

There is no question 10.04 is a good operating system, if you already use Ubuntu its a no brainer upgrade. I usually find problems in a week of use and I’ve not had anything so far. Its been stable and reliable and everything works as it would.

Upgrade now, you wont regret it (however if you do don’t come crying to me!)





Linux Desktop Cohesion part 1

3 01 2010

I’m a big fan of Linux and also Windows, I work on a simple concept of using the right tools for the job. All the servers I work with are Linux based, but that’s because it provides the right environment and performance over Windows (though its a much narrower advantage now than ever before). If Windows turned out to be the right server for as particular deployment, in exactly the same way if a Sun box or iSeries did, then I would use it. Operating System Fundamentalism is pointless and does nothing to drive forward anything useful.

On the desktop it gets more complex. Windows works. OSx works. Linux really struggles. Why does Linux struggle? Well look at Windows and OSx, they do not provide a dozen different window managers, desktop managers, theme engines, windows controllers, widgets, gadgets, thingies, whatsits and godknowswhateles. They do one! I’m all for diversity and choice but how about some natural selection too? (or is that what’s happening and the Linux Desktop is breeding itself out of the gene pool?)

Under Windows or OSx pretty much every thing works in a similar way, looks the same at the application control level, uses the same mechanisms for interaction. One of Linux’s greatest features is the one thing that continually stops it making any real inroads into the desktop market. Saying Linux allows you to make it work exactly how you want it to is great, pointless, but great. Sadly though no one wants to spend a week building a desktop environment that works and doesn’t hurt their eyes. Even distributions that try to (and continue to) tidy up the mess only get so far and once you go past the very basic and very short list of distributed applications you’re lost in a sea of miss matched GUI’s and bad UX. I think a fair measure of acceptable levels of success would be to be able to move from word processor to email to IM to web to micro blogger without having to adapt to 5 different UI’s for the basic applications.

You would (sensibly) think that this mess should have been resolved by now, but in my opinion its getting worse. Its probably true to say that Gnome and KDE represent the two dominant desktops under Linux and they are both as bad as each other. I love them both but boy they make it hard to create a desktop environment that looks decent and works across all the applications required. And its not just the Linux side that continues to make a mess of it, so called ‘cross platform’ systems like Adobe AIR also make a hash of it, seriously how much of an ask is it to expect a application to use the standard frame buttons for min/max/close?

So how much of this is down to the development philosophy of ‘my way is better’, well possibly all of it. I’m not saying ‘your way’ isn’t better, but if it makes ‘your’ application behave differently then quite likely that’s going to mean it doesn’t get used as much as it would otherwise do.

The UI/UX battleground is a war torn landscape dotted with small victories lost in a mire of defeats.

Perhaps the increasing number of interface systems; desktop, web, mobile, netbook, is making for a problem that is simply too large, too out of anyone’s hands to ever be solved in a meaningful way. Gesture based multi touch can greatly simplify things and if you can think past your preconceived ideas of Windows Icons Mouse Pointer, can be intuitive and productive, but it does not lend itself easily to being a cross device method. We will see multi touch desktop based systems and even if their price makes them real they wont work as the keyboard is the primary interface and ‘touch’, multi or otherwise is a control method.

An early conclusion could be that the reason we have such a diverse ecosystem of interfaces is because no one has got it right yet, I would say that after Xerox got the basics and everyone stole/copied it progress has been very slow.

So, what do I want for my Linux desktop? Well I would like to be able to have a desktop environment where everything worked well, was easy to make it look like it is all part of the same thing (without a degree in astro-emerald-compiz-physics) and looked good out of the box. Until then I will still be using it as a desktop (alongside Windows of course) but I’ll be one where a thousand others will stick to Windows (or OSx) only.

Posted via email from Steve’s Blog





My Desktop

12 11 2009

I have various PC’s, some Windows based, some linux based. I use Windows daily for the bulk of my work despite that fact that most of the systems I manage are linux based. My personal view on operating systems has always been they are just a tool to do a job, choose the right one and the job gets done, choose the wrong one and its slow and painful for everyone.

I do love the fundamentalist’s views over which operating system is best; Windows, OSx, linux, etc. Personally I really liked OS/400 on the AS/400 (iSeries), but then maybe that’s because it was designed and built to do the job required, not fulfill the need to fluff about with a thousand pointless other things.

So, on my desktop (thats the actual wooden desktop of my desk) I have 2 decent size screens. The main one is the display for my workhorse PC and its Windows, currently Vista (with which I have to say I have had very little trouble since installing it when it launched).

The second, slightly off to the side is, as it happens Ubuntu 9.10 Karmic Koala. I have fiddled with this, it runs a Mac like dock (AWN) and is used generally for web browsing, Tweetdeck (or Seesmic), Skype, iPlayer, SSH, development, etc – a general all things to all men but not Windows PC.

Sometimes I choose the Windows PC, sometimes the  linux PC, sometimes my choice is made for me by what I need to do. We all use Microsoft Word or Excel, that dictates using the Windows PC. Yes, I know, I could use the linux one, but why?

The best choice is not having to choose one but rather use both.

So this brings me to mobility and the generally accepted total lack of in relation to a desktop PC. Enter desktop left, a laptop. In my case a nice 17″ Dell Vostro running Windows 7 (but with a dual boot to Ubuntu 9.10).

A little while ago, as part reward for assisting migrating my brother from Windows to Mac I acquired an Asus EeePC 901. This came with Windows XP and once set up has proven to be quite useful when lugging a full size laptop about seems too much. The trouble is XP is not a light weight operating system, its pretty heavy and slow and not very well built for low power netbooks. Its no surprise that it has taken over netbook sales though, I mean linux is scary, its strange and mostly, it doesn’t do things people want very well. I think it gets a bad rep. but no doubt about it, a normal PC user confronted with some linux distro or Windows XP is going for XP every time.

So what else is on my desktop? Well typically some other assorted junk, usually my cell phones; a little Nokia thing and a Sony Ericsson Xperia X1 (which on various days I either love or hate). Normal land line telephone, often my camera (Eos40D) and always a mess of papers, notes and documents related to whatever real work I’m doing at the time.