Will Unity win the battle of the Linux desktop?

In terms of consumer adoption, quite possible

A lot of people, including me, have hassled Canonical over the design choices made in Unity. But recently I have come to the conclusion that Unity may actually represent the best chance for a commercially successful Linux desktop.

Actually, in all fairness, I should clarify that this is a reaffirmation: I have made this point before, albeit from a different direction. When I wrote that article back in May 2011, I was building on a point that Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth made in an interview with Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols:

"Is Unity too simple for power users? Yes, it is. But, as Shuttleworth tells us that's by design. If you don't like simple, consumer-oriented desktops, you'll want to look at another Linux distribution because that's exactly where Ubuntu is now and will continue to go."

In that article, I conceded that Unity had the potential to go far as a commercial offering, but that it would not be able to completely abandon the upstream work and input of developers and power users, and Canonical should take care not to alienate that community.

Now, nine months later, I may have come to a different conclusion: Unity may indeed be able to succeed all Canonical desires, because the desktop interface community is not the same anymore.

This though first crystallized for me last month when I was putting together a Linux for Beginners presentation for SCALE. In it, I touched on the desktop interface layer and made a little grand tour of all of the different desktops one can get on Linux. While highlighting the GNOME and KDE environments, it hit me full in the face: there really isn't a single GNOME or KDE interface anymore.

I mean, really, everyone gives Canonical grief about Unity, but there's also MATE and Cinnamon wrangling for eyeballs (as well the main GNOME 3 desktop), and the Qt desktop group now has KDE 4, KDE Netbook, Razor, and Trinity as its offerings.

Others have noticed this, too. Christopher Tozzi wrote up a great roundup today of this situation over on The VAR Guy. In that article, Tozzi makes an excellent point about the compartmentalization of the desktops in Linux, using the GNOME "family" as an example:

"But with different distributions now clinging to their own individual desktop environments, which in some cases are being developed in-house rather than upstream, cross-distribution compatibility no longer may be such a sure thing. With Unity, GNOME Shell, Cinnamon and MATE diverging in such different directions, there may come a day when an application designed to run in one of those environments won't work in any of the others."

And when I looked at that list again this morning, it occurred to me: only one of those interfaces as a single commercial sponsor: Unity.

This is not me getting on kind of soapbox arguing that just because something is commercially driven, it will automatically be better than a non-commercial project. But the face that Canonical is providing a driven and--yes, I'll say it--unified plan on Unity development, it has an advantage on the rest of the Linux desktops that cannot be ignored.

In fact, it's the very fragmentation that Tozzi points out that could create the obstacle for all the other desktops. Canonical, more than any other Linux vendor, has remained focused on the desktop. Yes, Red Hat and SUSE are active in GNOME, KDE, and general Linux desktop development, but neither company has more than a cursory interest in desktop sales, unless they are in the context of enterprise deployments. Canonical wants Linux desktop sales in the enterprise, too, and wherever else they can get those sales. Canonical is so driven on this interface-as-product idea, they're showing off Unity on other platforms, like mobile devices and televisions.

Canonical is also the vendor that is following the best practices for user experience (UX) development. As I was pulling this article together, I happened to see a brilliant presentation from last week's MonkiGras conference by UX consultant Leisa Reichelt entitled "Why most UX is shite."

In her talk, Reichelt highlighted four areas of UX design that companies get wrong:

  1. "You're not making decisions (so you force the people who use your product to make them instead)...
  2. "You think your opinion counts (unless you're the end user, it probably doesn't)...
  3. "You don't measure it (you've probably not even defined metrics for 'good experience' let alone tried to gather data for it)...
  4. "You don't really care (companies who really care shape their organisations, their accounting systems, their culture around their customers)

When I read these point and the explanations that went behind them, I was struck by the face that I know that Canonical is practicing these strategies all of the time. They user-test the heck out of their interfaces and are constantly tweaking development of their interface based on those practices.

In fact, when I contacted Reichelt to confirm the notion that her ideas could indeed apply to the desktop as a whole, she added her own opinion on Canonical's work.

"Yes I think these principles apply to anything to do with user/customer experience--web, desktop or device," Reichelt wrote. "I know quite a bit firsthand about the work that Canonical are doing in UX--they've built a great team and have really committed to understanding through research and carefully designing for their end users, which is not easy nor common in open source land--I think they deserve every success that comes their way."

With all of this independent elements coming together, the picture I see is one that pushes Unity into the commercial markets farther than the other desktop interfaces have ever gone. Will they be the ultimate winner? Hard to say, but I believe they're going to pull ahead for the short term at least.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Zettatag and Open for Discussion blogs and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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