Ubuntu's Unity interface: What to expect

Starting with Ubuntu 11.04, Ubuntu is moving from it's old GNOME interface to its new Unity interface. Here's what it means to users.

Recently, Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu shocked the Ubuntu Linux world when he announced that the next release of the popular Linux, Ubuntu 11.04, would use Unity instead of GNOME as its default desktop interface.

Why move from pure GNOME to Unity? As Shuttleworth explained to the Ubuntu developers, "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."

[ See also: Image gallery: Ubuntu's Unity interface ]

That last part is important. Shuttleworth had told me that Dell, which he said had sold several million Ubuntu desktops, laptops, and netbooks, supports the project. In addition, Canonical has desktop deals in place with Lenovo and Acer. These arrangements may lead to these, and other, major PC OEMs finally releasing Ubuntu desktops in the U.S and European markets.

You see, Unity is Shuttleworth's (and Ubuntu's) attempt to capture not just a bigger share of the desktop market, but a lion's share of the netbook, desktop, tablet, and even smartphone market. Shuttleworth said that providing one interface for all user devices 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."

Unity and GNOME

Don't think for a second though that Ubuntu is abandoning GNOME. They're not. Unity is no GNOME fork. 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."

Stormy Peters, the then executive director for GNOME, agreed. She wrote about Unity: "It'll still be GNOME technologies underneath, GNOME applications will run on it and it's still optimized for GNOME, but it won't be the GNOME shell. Not the traditional GNOME shell that we all know and love nor the new GNOME Shell coming out in GNOME 3.0."

So why didn't Ubuntu work with GNOME on this? They tried to. In the end though the two groups of developers disagreed on what they wanted from the shell, the first interface that users will encounter. For example, GNOME's developers didn't want global menus, while Ubuntu really wanted them.

[ See also: Will Unity bring anything but for Canonical, GNOME relations? ]

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.

Unity and Wayland

In an even more radical shift, Ubuntu will be switching Ubuntu's base graphics system from the X Window System to Wayland. X Window has been the basis for almost all Unix and Linux graphical desktops since 1987. While there are exceptions, Android and Mac OS X are the two big ones, almost all other Unix and Linux systems have used X for their graphics.

That's changing now. Fedora, Red Hat's community Linux, is joining Ubuntu in switching its graphics stack. Others may soon follow.

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