Ubuntu Unity's next phase has been in the works for a long time. Originally announced in 2013, the next iteration of Unity has stalled out more times than not. Why? Two main reasons: Mir and Convergence. The Ubuntu developers have been hard at work for years to bring their sleek take on Convergence to the Linux desktop, with the help of a brand new X Windows server.
Users have been able to get a glimpse of this new technology for some time... and most often they come away surprised. Ubuntu Unity 8 is not Unity 7. In fact, there are things you might want to know about Unity 8 before it arrives. How many things? Let's start with 10.
1: Unity 8 vs. Unity Touch
If you've experienced the Ubuntu Phone interface (Ubuntu Touch), do not think that's what you'll be seeing with Unity 8. Yes, Canonical's goal is to pull off convergence, but that doesn't mean the interfaces will be the same. The code base will be similar, but the interfaces will be different—although they will share fundamental similarities, such as a Launcher and Scopes. This is actually a good thing, as Unity Touch would make for a rather disappointing desktop interface. What's important to know about Unity on the desktop and Unity on the phone is that when you plug your phone into a monitor, it will switch to "desktop mode" (a mode better suited to desktops). Beyond Convergence (and the phone), Unity 8 will actually look similiar to the Unity you've used for years.
2: Snappy Packages
These two words have been bandied about quite a bit. For developers this is simply a way to make updating packages easier. If you're an end user, you'll see little in the way of difference, outside of the fact that dependencies will be a thing of the past. That's an important (and massive) step for Ubuntu (and Linux in general). Snappy Packages should offer more ease of use and an even more secure platform.
3: The release
As I mentioned, Unity 8 began in 2013—and it has been teased almost yearly. As of this moment, the next iteration of Unity is to be released with 16.10. That, of course, is not set in stone. In fact, after viewing enough of the preview release, I can't see how Canonical could manage to get Unity 8/Mir ready for public consumption by October 2016. If I were to guess what would be a more realistic release candidate, I'd say Ubuntu 17.04 (which will release April 2017).
4: Notification area
Unity 8 will contain a notification area that will be instantly familiar. In fact, there is little difference between the Unity 7 and Unity 8 notification area. From this feature you'll be able to see notifications, control volume, connect to networks, interact with your calendar, and much more. The biggest difference will be in how you get to each setting within the Notification drop-down. Instead of visible icons for each, you'll "swipe" right or left to reach the different sections. It's a much more modern approach to notifications—yet with similar functionality that won't throw users for a loop.
5: Desktop effects
One of the things I've experienced first hand is that the desktop effects on Unity 8 work more flawlessly than on Unity—which is a feat, considering there are actually more effects in 8. Fading windows and tooltips, windows sliding in and out, moving/switching applications... everything is more elegant and seamless than it has ever been on Ubuntu Unity. This should mean that lesser-powered machines will run with a bit more pep than with Unity 7. What's really amazing is that the developers have managed to finally nail smooth window resizing—something that has plagued Linux desktops for a long time.
6: Touchscreen friendliness
Unity 8 has been designed to work well with both standard interfaces (mouse) and a touch interface, or a combination of the two. It has been clear for a long time that Canonical was gearing up for the onslaught of modern interfaces, and Unity 8 proves that. If you're a fan of touchscreens, Unity 8 might well be the ideal interface to meet your needs.
7: A decent app switcher
One small but significant touch to Unity is the new app switcher. Instead of cycling through all your windows, you'll be greeted by a more mobile-like app switcher. Hit the hotkey combination and an overlay will appear that allows you to select which window you want to bring back to focus. Hover your mouse over the various entries and a tooltip will appear telling you what the window is. It's a small addition, but it'll make switching applications more efficient as well as elegant.
8: Dash no more
This is one difference that might actually lose users. One big change from Unity 7 is that the Dash has been replaced by the Scopes app. When you click on what would have launched the Unity Dash, the Scopes window appears, where you can find what you need. Personally, I find this change to be less than ideal, as the Scopes app has yet to show any signs that it's an improvement over Dash. It works and works well. But it doesn't seem to fit with the clean and unified theme Unity 8 has going. Technically, it's still the Dash—it's just been separated from the Launcher and the Panel. One improvement, however, is that the Ubuntu Store is now part of the Scopes app, so you can install apps without having to launch a separate tool.
9: Command line
Never fear, the command line is still there. This isn't something Canonical would dare strip away from Ubuntu. Gaining access to the command line is as simple as ever. In fact, the terminal window for Unity 8 hasn't changed much at all from Unity 7. So worry not, command-line junkies, your Ubuntu terminal awaits!
I've alluded to this a few times here, but all the Ubuntu Unity 8 previews available clearly indicate that Unity 8/Mir is not ready for public consumption. Every daily build I've tried has been an exercise in frustration. Yes, I get where they are going with the next iteration of Unity (and it has incredible possibility). But what we've seen so far has been less than ready. What is interesting is that the desktop mode on the Ubuntu Phone is in better shape than Unity 8. But 8/Mir will eventually be ready for consumers. And when it is, I suspect it will impress.
Ubuntu fans have had their patience seriously tested with the teasing of Unity 8's release. My guess is it will happen within the next year—and I think we'll all agree it was worth the wait.
What do you think? Have you been impressed with Canonical's work on Unity 8 so far?
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 jackwallen.com.