Open Source

The science behind the ebb and flow of Ubuntu Unity's popularity

Jack Wallen addresses the current state of popularity of the Unity desktop and what might befall the default Ubuntu desktop when Unity 8 arrives.

Ubuntu Unity

OMG Ubuntu recently ran the results of a poll on the state of popularity of the various Linux desktops. This survey came on the heels of the 10th anniversary of Ubuntu. After 15,000+ responses, the results might surprise you. They did me.

I'll preface this (as I usually do) by saying that I'm a proud user of Ubuntu Unity. I've worked with it since its inception and have weathered the growing pains to watch Unity develop into one of the most efficient desktops on the market. However, over the years, when you gauge the temperature of user reactions to Unity, one would assume it to be the single most unpopular desktop in the Linux ecosystem.

Numbers, on the other hand, do not lie. According to the poll, 63% of the voters agreed that Unity is the best desktop (with an understanding that the poll was run on a Ubuntu-centric site).

This has surprised a lot of people, but I would argue that it shouldn't. Why? Unity has been around for a while now, and it's had plenty of time to evolve and get things right. The initial release was 2010, and the Unity we have now is not the Unity we had then. Users have had plenty of time to acclimate. The HUD, the Dash, Scopes — they all work in a harmony that most desktops can't replicate.

Even with the current state of popular that Unity is enjoying, I remember the reaction of the Linux community when the desktop first arrived — it seemed as if Ubuntu was on a collision course with disaster. Since I began using Linux in the late nineties, this has been (for me) one of the biggest surprises. Coming from a community that thrived on diversity, choice, and evolution, I couldn't believe I was seeing such a strong reaction against a desktop that actually set out to show how much Linux could innovate and evolve.

But time passed, and users eventually flowed over to the Unity bandwagon (63% of users, according to OMG Ubuntu).

That, of course, will soon change. When the Unity 8/Mir combination arrives, Ubuntu is going to endure yet another ebb. I've experienced the early releases of this desktop, and I have to say — if you're not using a touch screen, you're going to feel as if you've been left behind. To that end, I believe that it's crucial for Ubuntu to release two versions of Unity 8/Mir: one for touch screens and one for standard interfaces.

Why? All they need to do is examine the reactions to Windows 8 — a very touch screen-centric desktop that, for the most part, was an overwhelming failure.

It's fairly safe to say that people, especially computer users, are slow to evolve and hesitant to change. This was made perfectly clear when Unity (and Windows 8) arrived. An overwhelming majority of people wanted nothing to do with the changes. In some cases, the reticence is understandable. The standard desktop metaphor is deeply ingrained into users — the start button, the task bar, the panel. People depend on these elements to help make their work day efficient. Evolving those elements meant users would have to revamp their productivity and efficiency.

That means loss.

That affects bottom line.

You see where that leads.

The good news for Ubuntu is that many of the current crop of users know what's coming and can prepare for its eventuality. Well played on the part of Ubuntu. We've tested the Unity 8/Mir early releases and know how drastic the change will be. It's a very exciting change, one that I firmly believe (with the right hardware) can take Unity to levels of efficiency and user-friendliness no other desktop has managed. However, as I said, the right hardware is crucial, and this could easily be the next big change for Ubuntu that sets it back.

Hardware, that's the rub.

Everyone know the Ubuntu Phone is due out at some point. It might be by years end, it might be mid 2015 ... no one actually knows for sure. What is a bit ironic about the state of that release is the very inspiration for Unity 8/Mir was in the convergence of phone/tablet/desktop. One interface to rule them all. But so far, there have been no leads on a tablet, and the phone still has no release date. Because of this, Ubuntu seems to be in a slight holding pattern. The release of 14.10 just happened with as little fanfare as ever for a release. People proclaimed it the least hyped and anticipated Linux release to date. Those are powerful words in a world that expects big, shiny things at every corner.

Here's what I predict will occur when Unity finally lands at its 8th iteration. There will be a major backlash from those who do not use touch screens. Although the interface works with the standard mouse/keyboard combination, it's somewhat awkward. That 63% will take a massive hit, and users without touchscreen hardware will flock to other distributions. However, as touch screens continue to rise in popularity, and once (dare I say "if") the Ubuntu Phone and tablet arrive — that's when things will change and Unity will begin to quickly pick up major steam.

This ebb and flow will continue until a perfect storm collides with Ubuntu to create exactly what the users want, and that is critical. As long as Canonical and the Ubuntu developers are constantly striving to bring the best possible experience to the users — as well as promote innovation — Ubuntu and Unity will be fine. They will, however, continue to see an ebb and flow to their popularity.

What do you think? Are the numbers spot on? Do you believe Unity to be the most popular desktop for the Ubuntu ecosystem? If not, what would you change to help bring Unity back to the shores of fame? Share your opinion in the discussion thread below.

About Jack Wallen

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.

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