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?

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.