Install Unity to experience the future of Ubuntu

Mark Shuttleworth announced the new default desktop for Ubuntu 11.04 will be Unity. Jack Wallen offers his take on the subject and shows you how to install it now.

Unless you've had your head in the sand the last couple of days, you know that Canonical has announced it is moving away from GNOME being the default desktop and switching to it's netbook-centric desktop Unity. Why was this done? Mark Shuttleworth said that having a single interface for both netbook and desktop would improve quality assurance and make it easier for OEMs to integrate and support the desktop. I want to believe the reason is because Canonical has big, very big, things in store for the planet's favorite Linux distribution.

I took the time to install Unity on a number of PCs to try to get a hold on exactly why this change is happening. The installation was simple, but depended on which release of Ubuntu it was being installed. For example, if you are using Ubuntu 10.10 you would install using the following steps:

  1. Open up a terminal window.
  2. Issue the command sudo add-apt-repository ppa:canonical-dx-team/une.
  3. Type your sudo password and hit Enter.
  4. Issue the command sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get install unity.
  5. Close the terminal window.

Now log out and log back in selecting the Netbook (or Unity) desktop.

If you are using Ubuntu 10.04, you need to install with the following steps:

  1. Open the Ubuntu Software Center.
  2. Search for "netbook" (no quotes).
  3. Mark ubuntu-netbook for installation.
  4. Click Apply to install.
  5. Accept any dependencies necessary.

Again, you will need to log out and log back into the Unity desktop.

What is Unity like?

Figure A

The answer to that question will depend upon the hardware you are using. As I mentioned, I installed Unity on different machines to see what the various experiences would be like. On a machine with hardware enough to take advantage of compositing, I have to say the experience was certainly not unpleasant (in fact, I am using it now as I work on this article.) Figure A shows what the current state of Unity looks like. This was installed on Ubuntu 10.04 and displays The Unity desktop on the Favorites tab. This illustrates exactly what Ubuntu is going for - a simplified interface based on tabs. I do not believe this is what will be released with 11.04. For example, as it stands Unity is missing the following:
  • Linux pager.
  • Configuration tool.
  • Panel options (such as adding applets).

That is the short list. Naturally there are bugs and various and sundry issues...but ultimately the system runs well. But the big question is this:

Is Unity the right direction to go on the desktop?

My immediate reaction is "No." Why? Simple: The world does not use netbooks and, as well as multi-touch works for tablet PCs, it is no replacement for the keyboard/mouse combination that currently drives the desktop. And that, it seems, is what Ubuntu is shooting for - a future where most PCs are touch-only interfaces sans keyboard/mice. Bold move, but big mistake. Why? Simple: Multi-touch works great when the device is in your hand. When you are sitting at a desk, the idea of reaching out to a monitor is antithetical to comfort and begs for repetitive stress injuries to more than just wrists and fingers.

And although Unity does work well with the keyboard/mouse, it is not nearly as efficient as what you see in more standard Linux desktops. I would even go so far to say that GNOME 3 is far more efficient than Unity. Of course Unity can change this with the addition of the pager and some configuration options.

Where do we go from here?

Mr. Shuttleworth...I get (and greatly appreciate) where you are going. Canonical might be the first Linux "company" that is looking toward a very bright future for the Linux desktop and to that I say, Bravo! And maybe, just maybe, your vision of the Unity desktop is exactly where the desktop needs to go (I said so much about GNOME 3 being the future of the desktop at one point). But Unity has a ways to go before it's ready for public consumption. You have around 6 months (as of this writing) to get Unity to a place where the masses won't experience absolute meltdown when they first boot their machines. I'm sure you understand there will be many among those masses that will bypass Unity and install their desktop of choice - regardless of how good Unity turns out to be. There might also be those that jump the Ubuntu ship in favor of another Linux distribution.

But Ubuntu does need to continue forward. Mr. Shuttleworth has made this bold decision and he should stick to it. And although his ultimate goal is to make supporting the Linux desktop a simple task (especially for vendors), I do hope there is some differentiation between the netbook and the desktop releases of Unity. At least give the desktop users some way to really tweak that interface and make it theirs. The Linux desktop has always been a highly configurable, very flexible one - I only hope Shuttleworth's new take on this doesn't water down that feature. If not - Unity might be a brilliant move.


Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.


I have tried touch screens and find them a good alternative on a PAD format, but very inconvenient in the desktop setting. Using a screen-based keyboard slows me down to a crawl and can be very frustrating. The idea of reaching across my desk to the screen for any input in my daily work isn't anything I'd relish. If Ubuntu's forthcoming installation requires that I install an interface like Unity, then I'll definitely move on to another Linux distribution, although I've been an Ubuntu user for some years. Mr. Shuttleworth apparently has his eye on the blooming PAD market. I use an Apple iPAD as well, so I'm writing from some experience with the interface.


I have seen Unity on 10.10, and don't care for it. It's a good example of the shiny-object ("glitz sells") principle as applied to apes of various stripes, in this case, humans. I climbed on the Ubuntu bandwagon for three primary reasons: 1) security, 2) simplicity (which translates into productivity), and 3) reliability (ditto). I don't see how Unity enhances any of these. I *do* see how it would damage my clients' personal productivity, however -- apes play with shiny objects. Unity is a major shift in the desktop paradigm, and upgrading users are going to go bat-sh!t when they see it for the first time. Ergo, it's a deal-breaker for the enterprise. Watch support costs rise as users need re-education. A savvy developer would offer a choice of desktops for Ubuntu 11, with Gnome 3 and KDE at the top of the list and Unity as a third-place option. If the install defaults to Unity -- well, I can hear the user shrieks already. Ergo, if version 11 offers no easy way to install with Gnome 3 as the default -- or worse, defaults to Unity -- I will be recommending another distro. This intro will tell us a lot about Shuttleworth's common sense. Sure, give us a way to try out your iteration of Unity, but don't stick us with it willy-nilly. You've offered Ubuntu and Kbuntu; now it may be time for U-Ubuntu.


Last point is the most important point. The ability of linux users to configure their desktop. So far i am not a big fan of unity. Let's see what they will offer in 6 months


Probably kills Ubuntu for me, and I've only played with Linux on and off, albeit for about 6 years.


A small one: How I uninstall everything now?!? Thanks


Please note that "Figure A" is NOT Unity! It is the Ubuntu-Netbook-Remix. You may want to correct the post. Also, it would be nice to show a screenshot of Unity.


Enough said.


I think if handled wrong, this could be the very worst decision Mark Shuttleworth has made for the future of Ubuntu. Ubuntu is struggling to attract Windows users, marketing, as you note in another post, is one of the reasons. The other reason is 'fear of the unknown'. People strongly resisted the move from XP to Vista, and are still resiting the move from XP to Windows 7. Much of this is because Microsoft keeps moving things around: users get used to finding a Control Panel item in a specific place, for example, and get frustrated when they can't find it. So they stick to what they know. Forcing people to use the new Unity desktop will increase the already high resistance to moving to a new OS. Gnome is reasonably similar to Windows XP, so its easy for people to find their way around. KDE less so. Unity, forget it. So what I fervently hope happens is that the installer of 11.04 gives the user a choice of which Desktop to install. By default it will install Gnome. If you _choose_ Unity, which I suspect a lot of more technical people will ... then that's something that you have to consciously select. However I'm pretty sure that there isn't enough room on the install CD for both desktops. Personally, I don't mind Gnome, so if they don't give me the choice, I know its easy enough to switch back to it. But the problem is the less technical users, and first-timers, won't know this. And these are the ones Ubuntu has to convince.


Right now I don't like what Unity will bring to the desktop but I'm willing to see what happens in the next six months.I have been using Ubuntu for about 3 or 4 years but I have no qualms switching to another distro if this little experiment doesn't work.

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