Open Source

Ubuntu Unity empowers small businesses with powerful searching and easy configuration

If your small business is worrying about transitioning from Windows 7 to Windows 8, Jack Wallen proposes going with a completely different option: Ubuntu Unity.

Some people in the die-hard Linux community have come out against Ubuntu's Unity desktop, but it is one of the most SMB-ready desktops to have come out of the open source community. You'll understand why I believe that is the case after you read my insights into how the Ubuntu Unity desktop can work to empower your small business.

Desktop layout

When you compare the Ubuntu Unity desktop layout to Windows 8, you see how intelligently the interface was designed. Unity works to get out of your way without becoming a challenge to navigate. Unlike Windows 8, which requires far too much pointing and clicking (or tapping and swiping), Unity empowers the user to work efficiently from the keyboard or the touch screen alone (with some exceptions).

Instead of removing the Start button completely, Unity employs the Dash, which is a Start menu on steroids. Unity Dash allows you to quickly search for files/folders and find/start applications, search outside your desktop, and preview files/folders/applications (Figure A).

Figure A

unity_search_072613.png

The Launcher (the desktop left sidebar) allows you to add application launchers, so you can quickly access the applications you use the most.

Cloud-friendly interface

Whether it's cloud-based apps, storage, or just the general ability of a platform to remain continually connected to the cloud, the modern desktop interface must be cloud-friendly. With the exception of strictly mobile platforms, I think Ubuntu Unity outshines nearly all other desktop interfaces.

You can start to dive into the cloud with Ubuntu One. With the latest Ubuntu offerings, Unity easily connects to your Ubuntu One cloud account, where you get 5 GB of storage free or 20 GB of storage for $30.00 per year.

But, unlike most platforms, the cloud integration doesn't stop with storage; this is another aspect of Unity that has some of the Linux faithful up in arms about security issues. I'll explain the situation.

Alleviate security concerns

When you search with the Unity Dash, the search reaches out to numerous services (including Amazon and the Ubuntu One Music Store), enabling Unity to pull in lots of results. When Ubuntu 13.10 arrives, Unity Smart Scopes will also come into play. Smart Scopes includes the following (and more when 13.10 hits):

  • Amazon
  • Chromium bookmarks
  • COLOURlovers
  • Commands
  • DevHelp
  • DeviantArt
  • Dictionary
  • DuckDuckGo Related
  • Facebook
  • Firefox bookmarks
  • Flickr
  • Gallica
  • GitHub
  • Google Drive
  • Google News
  • Gourmet
  • Guayadeque
  • Ubuntu One Music Store
  • Ubuntu One Music Search
  • Musique
  • OpenClipArt
  • OpenWeatherMap
  • Picasa
  • Remote Videos
  • Skimlinks
  • SoundCloud
  • Tomboy
  • VirtualBox
  • Yahoo Finance
  • Yelp
  • Zotero
  • Wikipedia

The user will have one of the most powerful desktop search tools to date at their fingertips; they can search their hard drive, their cloud storage, their social networking feeds, and other sources. And with the ability to do a quick Unity Dash preview of the search results, searching becomes even more efficient.

Smart Scopes can be individually enabled or disabled from the application "lens" within the Unity Dash. This means you can shut off those results you don't want or need to see.

Some people believe the mechanisms used to retrieve and cache search results are privacy breaches. Also, some people fear that the very act of searching in the Unity Dash could result in your place of work assuming you are, say, shopping on Amazon during work hours. Since it is possible to disable individual Smart Scopes, this is not the case. In fact, you can disable all web-based content on the desktop from within the All Settings Privacy manager (Figure B).

Figure B

unity_config_072613.png

Head Up Display

Unity does everything it can to make work the focus and not move the users' hands from the keyboard to the mouse. With that in mind, the Unity developers created the Head Up Display (HUD).

When you're in an application, click the Alt key, and a search bar will open where you can search through the application's menu system. This means you don't always have to remember which menu the feature you want is in.

I'll bring this into perspective. Remember when you first adopted Microsoft Office 2010 and tried to navigate through the poorly designed Ribbon interface? With the HUD, all you have to do is know what you want to do. Let's say you're in LibreOffice, and you need to align text; highlight your text using a combination of the arrow and Shift keys, hit the Alt key, type align, use the arrow keys to move to the proper entry, and hit Enter (Figure C). You just aligned text without leaving the keyboard. That's efficient.

Figure C

unity_hud_072613.png

Tighter control

A problem businesses faced with previous Linux desktops was that the numerous customization options could lead to end users breaking the interface. Yes, the ability to tweak to your heart's desire was one reason the Linux die-hards enjoyed the platform, but for the vast majority of users, it was dangerous to have that much tinkering capability. That's where Unity has found a nice compromise.

Unity allows you to tweak just enough to make the desktop yours. If you want more options, you can install a tool like UnityTweak. But for the average business user, there's no more worry that you're going to accidentally configure something incorrectly and break the interface. Plus, Unity's configuration has become incredibly easy -- any user can launch the Settings tool and make changes to their environment without worrying they'll break the system.

This tighter control over customizations comes with a price -- it frustrates the die-hard Linux users. When examining this from a "greater good" perspective, I think it's a fair tradeoff. Linux has finally reached a point where it must pander more to the average user than the dyed-in-the-wool faithful. Unity offers one of the finest compromises in that regard.

Simplicity

There will always be users who do not like change -- one example is how the Linux faithful regard what Canonical has done with Ubuntu -- but the vast majority of users want technology to make their jobs easier. I don't think any desktop interface has done a better job of that than Unity.

If your small business is worrying about transitioning from Windows 7 to Windows 8, I recommend letting go of those fears and empowering your business and your users by choosing Ubuntu Unity.

About

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.

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