Ubuntu changes its desktop from GNOME to Unity

Unity: The new Ubuntu desktop default interface

ORLANDO, FLA. -- Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu and the company behind it, Canonical, surprised the hundreds of Ubuntu programmers at the Ubuntu Developers Summit when he announced that the next release of the popular Linux operating system, Ubuntu 11.04, would use Unity as the default desktop interface because "users want Unity as their primary desktop."

 Unity is Ubuntu's new netbook interface that, while based on GNOME, is its own take on what an interface should look and act like. To make it work on the desktop instead of on the netbook, where one foreground activity at a time is the rule, Shuttleworth admitted that Ubuntu had "A lot of work to do around windows management." That said, "We are committing to the biggest change on the desktop. Unity will become the default, when we're sure that it will work."

Shuttleworth hopes -- expects, really -- that this switchover will be completed by the next release. "Lots of people are already committed to Unity -- the community, desktop users, developers, and platform and hardware vendors." In particular, he noted, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) favor Unity. They're happy to ship it.

In an interview after the presentation, Shuttleworth added that Dell, which he said had sold several million Ubuntu desktops, laptops, and netbooks, supports the project. In addition, Canonical has overarching deals in place with Lenovo and Acer. These arrangements may lead to these major PC OEMs releasing Ubuntu desktops as well.

One reason Shuttleworth cited for this switch is that that using one interface for both netbooks and desktops will improve quality assurance and make it easier for OEMs to integrate and support Ubuntu across their PC platforms. In short, "There will be no fault-line for OEMs between desktops."

For users, the new Ubuntu Unity will default to either a single window for a single foreground application on netbooks, or to multiple windows for a multi-foreground interface on a desktop or laptop. Of course, users can choose whichever of these environments they wish, or use the GNOME desktop or the closest thing GNOME has to Unity, the GNOME Shell.

During the announcement, Shuttleworth said that this "is a significant, risky step. It will throw people's confidence. I will preempt one important question: Unity is a shell for GNOME, even if it isn't GNOME Shell. We're committed to the principles and values of GNOME." Afterwards, Shuttleworth told me he would be speaking to Stormy Peters, executive director of GNOME, to further explain Ubuntu's position directly to the GNOME community.

Shuttleworth also said that touch, which was introduced to Ubuntu in the most recent version as Utouch, will be integrated into Unity and applications. "I think in the near future all laptops will have sophisticated multi-touch hardware. All the hardware vendors that are working on touch are talking to Ubuntu."

Not everyone is happy about Ubuntu's desktop shift. Some see this move as creating yet another division in Linux circles. Shuttleworth admitted that "There is a group that will take offense," but he thinks if Linux users and developers focus more on what they have in common rather than their differences, this move will be good for Linux, GNOME and Ubuntu.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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