Is Unity the right interface for desktop Ubuntu?

By abandoning its longtime GNOME shell, the popular Linux distribution is making a bold move to strike out on its own.

Future versions of Ubuntu will ship with the Unity interface

Future versions of Ubuntu will ship with the Unity interface

Canonical shook the Linux world yesterday when it announced that the next version of Ubuntu -- "Natty Narwhal," or version 11.04 -- will no longer use the GNOME interface by default. Instead, Natty will feature Unity, the multitouch and 3D-enabled interface that made its debut earlier this month in the distribution's netbook edition of Maverick Meerkat, or Ubuntu 10.10.

According to a blueprint proposed earlier this month and approved by Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth for discussion at this week's Ubuntu Developer Summit, the new, highly simplified desktop interface will feature a floating Unity Dash that can be moved to all edges of the screen; floating, overlapping windows with their title bars and controls on them rather than on the top panel; and a home screen that's consolidated into a simple pop-down menu extending down from the top left of the screen.

It will, in other words, "basically turn Unity into a UI that can match and exceed the OS X user interface in regards to visual effects," blueprint author Kenny Strawn wrote.

A 'Risky Step'

Design issues have been a source of increasing tension between the Ubuntu and GNOME projects, but this new decision is a bigger one than many had expected. Shuttleworth himself acknowledged yesterday that the move is "the most significant change ever" for Ubuntu, as well as a "risky step."

Reviews of the Unity interface currently used in the Ubuntu 10.10 Netbook Edition also suggest that there is much to be done before it's ready for broader desktop use. Ubuntu-exclusive hardware manufacturer System76, in fact, recently made the decision not to ship Unity in its Starling netbook series because it feels the interface can be "slow" and "confusing" for users.

Similarly, "I think that Canonical's management has seriously underestimated the difficulty of the task in front of them," Dave Neary wrote yesterday on a GNOME community blog.

A video on shows the current Unity netbook interface in action.

Of course, Shuttleworth did say that the transition for users of current Ubuntu releases should not present any problem, and GNOME elements other than the shell will continue to be used. All GNOME-based applications should continue to run without modification, he added; it will even be possible for users to put back the GNOME interface themselves using the Ubuntu Software Center, if they so desire.

Like GNOME, Unity is a fully open source project. Over the development cycle for Natty Narwhal, which is due in April, much of the focus will apparently be put on improving window management and performance; the interface will use the Compiz compositing window manager rather than GNOME's Mutter, for example. File management will also undergo considerable refinement to fix elements in the current approach, which Shuttleworth has called "broken."

Good or Bad for Users?

It's clear that switching to Unity is the next step in Ubuntu's effort to differentiate itself with a distinctive user experience, and that could be a good thing for the distribution, which has increasingly been viewed as the top Linux-based contender for desktop market share. Indeed, Ubuntu's success so far has earned it the right to a little confidence on the part of its users, one could argue.

But there are many outstanding questions at this point. Will a change in direction alienate the legions of users Ubuntu has won over so far? Will it attract or dissuade new users? On the business side, will Unity's simplified, three-dimensional and multitouch focus be valuable for enterprise users, or will it be seen as getting in the way? If Unity is more like Mac OS X than Windows, will that be viewed positively or negatively by the majority of businesses?

Follow Katherine Noyes on Twitter: @Noyesk.

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