The new Linux Desktop: Ubuntu's Unity

Ubuntu Unity User Interface

The Linux desktop has been around for more than a decade now. Despite its best efforts, and Microsoft's dumbest missteps -- I'm looking at you, Vista -- it's never owned more than a fraction of the market. Canonical, Ubuntu's parent company, plans on changing that with its Unity desktop.

The more I look at Unity, the more I see Ubuntu taking a radical new approach to the Linux desktop. As my friend Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier observed, "Look at the site and you'll notice -- there's nary a mention of Linux or GNOME on the front page or on several of the 'About' pages. The company and project are pursuing branding that doesn't even mention the Linux heritage of the project. That might be a good strategy, considering the perception of Linux for many users [as] 'something just for geeks, not for me.' But at the same time, some of the rest of the community are a bit -- dare I say -- jealous of Ubuntu's success and wishing the project were more effusive with its acknowledgment of its heritage."

That's no accident. Yes, Ubuntu is based on Linux, and the Unity desktop is built on GNOME, but at this point I think Canonical has decided that everyone who's ever going to use a "Linux" desktop is already there. Therefore, to broaden the Ubuntu Linux desktop base, they needed to reach users who know nothing about Linux.

Ubuntu has always been about making it easy for new users to use Linux. Now, I think they've decided to go recreate the Linux desktop in order to make "Linux" easier for still more users. For starters, that means dropping a graphical desktop that's reminiscent of Windows and Mac OS X. Say what you will about Unity, it doesn't look much like any other desktop interface. Indeed, Unity is an interface that will work for desktops, netbooks, tablets, or even smartphones. That's quite deliberate. Unity is meant to be a universal interface.

This isn't just skin deep. While it won't show up in Ubuntu 11.04, Canonical plans on making Wayland, the OpenGL-based display management system, in place of the X Window System, the foundation for its GUI. While developers for years have gotten sick and tired of the Byzantine complexities of X Window, no one had the guts to say enough was enough and dump it from their desktop plans until the Ubuntu developers did it.

I've also noticed that Ubuntu is making unusual application choices for its next desktop. These include the Mono-based Banshee for its music-player and LibreOffice, the OpenOffice fork, for its office suite. In other words, Canonical is going its own way with applications, too.

So what are they up to? You put it all together and I see Ubuntu striving to create a new kind of Linux desktop. It's one that will run on every device with a user interface and will use whatever Canonical believes will deliver the best possible user experience. If that means it won't look or work much like everyone else's desktop Linux, so be it.

Can they do it? I think they have a shot. I do know that the traditional Linux desktop, much as I may love it, has reached about as broad an audience as it ever will. That said, the Ubuntu programmers have a lot of coding to do to make this happen. Then, we'll see if Ubuntu has found a new way to popularize the "Linux" desktop, or if they've gone up a blind alley.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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