What's really going on with Ubuntu Unity

ORLANDO, FLA.--As Debian is to Ubuntu, so GNOME is to Unity. What do I mean by that? Well, once upon a time there was an operating system called Debian. It was, and is, a powerful version of Linux. Outside of the Linux community, though, almost no one had ever heard of it. Then Ubuntu came along, built its own easy-to-use distribution on top of Debian, and now it's arguably the most popular Linux in the world.

Yesterday, Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, announced at the Ubuntu Developer Summit that Ubuntu was switching its default desktop from GNOME to Unity, a GNOME-based shell interface. Guess what he hopes will happen?

If you answered, create a desktop interface that will bring millions more desktop users to Ubuntu, congratulations, you win a prize. Unity is not just a desktop interface though. It's also Ubuntu's one master interface for desktops, netbooks, and someday, tablets.

While a tablet version of Ubuntu isn't in Canonical's immediate plans, Jono Bacon, the Ubuntu Community Manager, told me that "all the pieces are in place to create an Ubuntu tablet."

He's right. Later that same day, Canonical multi-touch and kernel developer Chase Douglas showed me the first baby steps of multi-touch Unity on a 22-inch 3M Multi-touch Display M2256PW. I was impressed.

I've seen lots of touch systems. Most of them have left me unmoved. This, though, was the first PC touch system I could actually see taking off in the mass market. What's more important than what I think, though, is that the software toolkit developers and vendors are interested in it too. That means that multi-touch applications may be ready in time for the Unity-based Ubuntu launch in April.

I shouldn't have been surprised. If you take a look at Unity, you'll see a desktop interface that clearly meant for touch.

Ubuntu Unity Browser
Ubuntu Unity Gwibber

After you look at those images, I think you can also dismiss the silly idea that Unity is some kind of fork from GNOME. It's not. As Shuttleworth said, "Unity is a shell for GNOME, even if it isn't GNOME Shell. We're committed to the principles and values of GNOME."

The next question people ask is: "Why didn't Ubuntu work with GNOME on this?" The answer is that these two group of developers have fundamentally different views of what they wanted from the shell, the first interface that users will encounter. For example, GNOME's didn't want global menus, while Ubuntu really wanted them.

Under the hood, there were also technical differences. Ubuntu's developers greatly preferred using Compiz for the windows manager over GNOME's Mutter windows manager. Ubuntu developers also like Zeitgeist, a framework that tracks and correlates relationships between the user's activities so that it can supply applications with contextually relevant data.

Although many Unity users like it even now, Unity still has a long way to go. Penelope Stowe, co-leader of the Ubuntu accessibility team, said she was concerned that there was "very little time to do some very important work on making sure that Unity is accessible to all users." That's an excellent point.

I'm seeing great potential here. Now, we need to see the reality, and that will be at least six months away.

Still, while Unity has a long way to go, I see Unity as becoming very popular with users who might never have considered Linux before. Even in this early form, it's simple to use. Unlike any other operating system interface, it can also be used from desktops to netbooks to tablets. I think many users are going to find a system that will look and act the same no matter what device they're using to be very attractive.

Don't like it? Don't worry about it. Ubuntu will have the full GNOME desktop a click or two away. Don't be surprised, though, if many users, especially ones who are new to Linux, find Unity to be just the desktop they've been looking for.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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