Unity and the Community
I’ve said before that I love what Ubuntu is doing with design, but the recent announcement to ship Ubuntu 11.04 with Unity as the default desktop is going to make things a bit rocky for the next couple of years. The Unity interface, while beautiful, still has quite a few bugs to work out, which will make it rocky for Ubuntu developers. Adoption of Unity probably means that the GNOME Shell is not going to be used in Ubuntu, which makes relations between the GNOME and Ubuntu developers a little more rocky. Right in the middle of all this are Ubuntu’s users who might be left wondering what their place in all of this is.
As Susan wrote earlier, Mark Shuttleworth made the announcement of Unity’s promotion to the big time at the Ubuntu Developer Summit. Much of the early criticisms of this move are from developers who claim that Canonical is more interested in pushing the Ubuntu brand than working together with the community. Some believe that the task might be too big for Ubuntu. Dave Neary wrote on his blog, Safe as Milk:
“In such illustrious company, forgive me if I think that Canonical’s management has seriously underestimated the difficulty of the task in front of them.”
Neary cites several projects that have come before Unity that have attempted to rebuild a desktop environment, including projects by Novell, Nokia, and Intel. Each project has run into its troubles, in part because building a stable desktop is not an easy task. In an update to that post, Neary recommends that the GNOME shell and Unity be run head-to-head to determine a clear performance winner.
Canonical is busy building a brand, and they do want to differentiate Ubuntu from the hundreds of other Linux distributions available, but I think what we are seeing with the Unity interface is more than that. It’s the next logical step in the evolution of computing brought on by the iPad. Unity is meant to be smaller, faster, and simpler than the default GNOME UI. It doesn’t always accomplish this, and it’s not always graceful, but the core goal of the project seems to be simplicity.
I also see a bit more of the influence from Cupertino seeping into Ubuntu with this announcement. Last week Apple gave a preview of the next generation of OS X, dubbed “Lion”, and showed off a few features that have migrated into the desktop from the iPad. The similarities between OS X and the Unity interface are hard to miss; multitouch, a dock, and a unified toolbar to name a few. The visual resemblances are not the only thing similar between the systems. They share a common philosophy that computing should be easier. This is a good thing.
Making Ubuntu simpler and easier to use for those new to the platform gives Linux a wider distribution. We are in the beginnings of a major change in computing. You can’t have change without upsetting a few people, and you can’t push a project as big as the Linux desktop forward without change.
What are your thoughts on the new direction for Ubuntu? Am I right? Is this the new wave of computing, or just another shell? I'd love to hear your thoughts, drop me a line in the comments!