If you ever watched the movie “300” then you know that one of the supporting characters proclaims at one point that “…this is madness!” shortly before being fatally kicked into a deep, dark hole by one of the main characters.
That, I’m afraid, will soon be the fate of Unity.
I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Ubuntu will be changing its desktop interface from GNOME to Unity in Ubuntu 11.04. I could not disagree with this change more, for a number of reasons.
Changing from GNOME to Unity is truly madness on Canonical’s part and I’ll tell you why in this column.
What the Heck is Wrong With GNOME?
GNOME: A Great Desktop Interface
One of the things that puzzles me about this choice is the implication that GNOME is apparently not good enough to remain the default desktop interface for Ubuntu. Why not? GNOME is arguably one of the best, most comfortable desktop interfaces around. It has come a long way from where it started and it’s gotten better and better over the years.
I freely confess that I usually use GNOME when using Linux. Don’t get me wrong, there are other interfaces that are also quite good (KDE, Xfce, etc.) but I usually return to GNOME. It’s always worked very well for me and for many other people.
Canonical is claiming differences between their priorities and those of the GNOME developers, as noted in this article from Ars Technica:
Shuttleworth described desktop adoption of Unity as the “most significant change ever” for Ubuntu. He also acknowledged that it is a “risky step” and that much work remains to be done to prepare for the transition. The move reflects Ubuntu’s growing divergence from the standard upstream GNOME configuration and effort to differentiate itself with a distinctive user experience. During the keynote, Shuttleworth emphasized that Ubuntu is still committed to GNOME despite the fact that it will ship with Unity instead of GNOME Shell. He contends that diversity and competition between different kinds of GNOME environments will encourage innovation and benefit the GNOME ecosystem.
I also asked Shuttleworth why Canonical is building its own shell rather than customizing the GNOME Shell. He says that Canonical made an effort to participate in the GNOME Shell design process and found that Ubuntu’s vision for the future of desktop interfaces was fundamentally different from that of the upstream GNOME Shell developers. He says that GNOME’s rejection of global menus, for example, is one of the key philosophical differences that would be difficult to reconcile. Canonical has accumulated a team of professional designers with considerable expertise over the past few years. They want to set their own direction and create a user experience that meets the needs of their audience. The other major Linux vendors, who are setting the direction of GNOME Shell’s design, have different priorities and are arguably less focused than Ubuntu on serving basic desktop users.
Ugh! Talk about a bunch of self-serving malarkey! Give me a break, Shuttleworth. Seriously.
Nobody Want a Netbook Interface…Except Canonical
As you may have noticed, I write a lot of distro reviews on Desktop Linux Reviews and quick looks at distros here on Eye On Linux. I’ve never, ever gotten a comment from anybody related to replacing GNOME with a netbook interface. Ever. Nobody’s ever brought it up to me or indicated any desire to have a netbook interface on their desktop computer.
So Canonical’s decision is quite puzzling. Or is it? Perhaps there’s another agenda hidden in this decision?
Touch: The Tail Wags the Dog
I suspect, based on Canonical’s statements and on various media articles, that “touch” is what this entire change is all about. Canonical wants a desktop interface that is friendly to touch-screen usage. That’s fine as far as it goes, but even Apple (the company who introduced multi-touch in its iPhones, iPads, etc.) recognizes that the desktop is a different experience.
Apple has wisely opted to use touch via the Magic Mouse rather than introduce fingerprint-laden touch screens to its desktop computers (iMacs, Mac mini, Mac Pro). Apple knows very well that touch has its place on the desktop, but they have smartly opted to do it in a way that works for the desktop.
They have not, as Canonical seems to be doing, decided to change Mac OS X’s interface to suit multi-touch. Canonical’s switch to Unity is more an example of the tail wagging the dog, and it ought to reconsider this foolish decision.
Unity Has Its Place: Netbooks
Don’t misunderstand me here; Unity certainly has its place and that is on netbooks, not desktops. Netbooks are very useful tools for many people, and Canonical is quite right to support them with a proper netbook interface.
It is, however, important to note that a desktop is not a netbook and vice versa. The two computing experiences are very different and require a different approach in terms of interface design. What works for one may not work very well for the other.
Apple Understands Interfaces
Let me go back to Apple yet again for a moment, since Canonical as indicated their admiration of Apple in the past. Apple does not use a “netbook interface” for its notebook computers. Users of Macbooks and the like use a full-blown version of Mac OS X. Only users of iPads, iPhones, etc. get a different interface.
Apple knows quite well that a netbook interface does not fit the bill at all for desktop computing. The two things are apples (no pun intended) and oranges; a lesson that Canonical has yet to learn firsthand. How ironic that Canonical apparently chooses to emulate Apple on some things but seems unable to discern the logic behind a lot of Apple’s interface decisions related to Mac OS X and iOS.
Ubuntu 11.04: A Half-Ass GNOME Distribution?
Despite changing to the Unity interface, Canonical has promised that Ubuntu will still be a GNOME based distribution. Here’s what one of the Canonical folks had to say about it on their blog:
Mark just announced at the Ubuntu Developer Summit in Orlando that we will be shipping the Unity environment in the Ubuntu desktop edition. Unity is the environment we shipped on the Ubuntu Netbook Edition for the first time in Ubuntu 10.10 Maverick Meerkat, and users and OEMs have been enjoying the experience. It is an environment that is inspired by great design, touch, and a strong and integrated experience.
I think this is a fantastic opportunity for Free Software, and this is going to be a busy cycle. We have a lot of work to do, and we know that quality is a firm focus for this release, and we have identified a solid set of issues we need to focus on and resolve, but I know the final product will be something that we will all be proud of. Another key focus is performance; we have already started porting Unity from mutter to Compiz and the initial work is much faster, most notably on hardware that has traditionally had the most trouble from bug reports. Quality meets design meets performance. Together as a community we can make this rock.
There is going to be some questions about this decision in relation to GNOME. I want to make something crystal clear: Ubuntu is a GNOME distribution, we ship the GNOME stack, we will continue to ship GNOME apps, and we optimize Ubuntu for GNOME. The only difference is that Unity is a different shell for GNOME, but we continue to support the latest GNOME Shell development work in the Ubuntu archives.
Um…well okay, but then why bother with Unity in the first place? It’s like saying that you’re going to serve somebody a delicious steak dinner but instead of steak you’ll be giving them liver instead.
It’s either really a GNOME based distribution (complete with GNOME interface) or it’s not. You can’t have it both ways.
What Canonical will be serving up is a part-GNOME distribution that includes GNOME apps and other elements, but that defaults to a non-GNOME interface. Sorry but that just doesn’t cut it, Canonical. The company can spin this like a mad top but it can’t change facts.
Ubuntu 11.04 will no longer be a truly GNOME-based distribution.
Final Thoughts: Consequences, Choices & Alternatives
Choices & Alternatives
Canonical’s decision opens the door for Ubuntu derivatives like Linux Mint and others to gain more users, at Ubuntu’s expense. I suspect that many faithful Ubuntu users will be casting around for alternatives the minute they see what Unity looks like on their computer screens.
We are blessed with choices in Linux, and switching away from generic Ubuntu to one of its derivatives or a completely non-Ubuntu distro is probably going to happen once long-time Ubuntu users experience Unity.
If you are unhappy about Canonical’s foolish decision to make Unity its default interface, I recommend that you consider Linux Mint Debian Edition instead. LMDE gives you all of the advantages of Debian (and the excellent Linux Mint tools & utilities) without any of Canonical’s poor choices and silly design decisions.
You get it all with Linux Mint Debian Edition; I strongly suspect that many Ubuntu users will choose it once they are aware of the awful changes that Canonical has in store for Ubuntu users in 11.04.
Canonical has no one to blame for themselves for this mess; it will be the operating system equivalent to users switching from Digg to Reddit, after Digg introduced it’s horrific site “upgrade.” Somebody at Canonical is in desperate need of a smack upside the head to wake them up to this potential disaster.
Sadly, I doubt anyone there is listening. But they surely will be after Ubuntu 11.04 comes out and the screams of horror begin in earnest. When that happens the only thing left to be said will be this:
CAN YOU HEAR US NOW, CANONICAL?
What’s your take on Canonical’s descent into Unity madness? Tell me in the comments.