Can Unity create first consumer-class Linux distro?

Ubuntu with Unity will attract consumer users; will it drive power users away?

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Linux, from the start, was never about being a consumer desktop.

It was an UNIX-based server operating system that could run on some college kid's PC. Which later could then run a graphical environment. And sound (sort of).

That did not stop people from trying to get it to become a consumer desktop. Caldera OpenLinux--my very first distro--was an early attempt to present ease-of-use to those users who were "less than power." Corel Linux was a better attempt, in that it brought WordPerfect and the rest of Corel Office to the table.

There were others, of course, as Linux got more mature, hardware issues settled down, and apps were created. But nothing seemed to take hold of the desktop market and be more than an IT lover's novelty OS. This was certainly not the case on the server side, which sees stunning success stories every day. But you should see that kind of server success, because that's where Linux excels.

Then there was Ubuntu.

Ubuntu, the Debian GNU/Linux-based distro that eschewed "Linux" from the start, set out to be the world's first commercially successful Linux desktop. That has been the goal of its commercial vendor, Canonical Ltd., from the beginning.

To reach that goal, Canonical has made some decisions that have led us to where we are today: Ubuntu 11.04, also known as Natty Narwhal. Also known as the 1.0 launch of the Unity desktop interface, a new GNOME-based shell that maximizes the amount of content viewing space by shoving toolbars and launch menus out of the way. With an eggplant color scheme.

Yesterday, I read Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols' discussion with Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth on the merits of Unity, and saw an interesting point that Vaughan-Nichols raised, but did not follow as far as I would have gone. Citing another blog lamenting GNOME 3.0, the "official" new GNOME shell that's out and about, as "Defective by Design," Vaughan-Nichols states:

"GNOME 3.0, like too many Linux/Unix interfaces, was designed by software developers for software developers.."

Unity, on the other hand, was built with Canonical's usability testing and performance goals in mind. Which is why, we have heard Canonical reps explain ad nauseum, Canonical chose to take a different path with Unity rather than stick with a pure GNOME 3.0 environment for Ubuntu.

Yes, the irony in that last sentence is not too subtle.

It is not clear if Vaughan-Nichols' next passage is paraphrasing something Shuttleworth actually said, or if Shuttleworth just built his statement off of a point Vaughan-Nichols made in their conversation:

"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."

And that point got my attention. Do we really want power users to go off and find another distro? Again, it's not clear who actually came up with that notion in the Vaughan-Nichols article, which is why the headline for this article isn't "Shuttleworth tells power users to step off Ubuntu." But no matter where the idea came from, I can't say it's something with which I agree.

Linux has never had a clear separation between "regular" users and "developer" users. The line has always been a bit blurry, which has had the effect of sharpening the learning curve for incoming Linux users. Because Linux was designed by developers for their own use, new Linux users always had to put a little more effort into learning how to use the operating system. And, because Linux was sometimes built without the goals of independent software vendors in mind, it made Linux a challenge for ISVs to jump into as well.

This situation would tend to make one think that having a "pure" consumer distro, then, would be a good thing. After all, lower the barriers of entry and more consumers will come. More consumers, and ISVs will start to want to get their apps in front of new Linux users. More apps, and more consumers--well, you get the idea.

But, despite the success and good works of commercial Linux vendors like Canonical, Red Hat, and Novell/Attachmate, Linux has never been a vendor-only system. The communities around every part of Linux are those power users and developers who like to spend their time ripping the guts out of their systems and tweaking code for the pure pleasure of it. There are such users of Windows and OS X, too--but the difference is Microsoft and Apple don't need them.

Linux distros need their power user/developer set.

In some ways, I think the Linux design decisions made in the past catered too much to this power class of user, which did hold back the success of the Linux desktop.

But Linux vendors like Canonical cannot move too far in the opposite direction just to make only consumers happy. To do so would cut out a significant resource for future development. That balance is the price to pay for being an open source project.

Let's see if Unity can live up to its name for all levels of users.

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