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.
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.
As the Wayland FAQ states, "It's a minimal server that lets clients communicate GEM (Graphics Execution Manager) buffers and information about updates to those buffers to a compositor. To do this, it uses OpenGL, a high-performance, cross-language, cross-platform graphics applications programming interface (API)."
What about drivers? Again, we turn to the Wayland FAQ: "Where possible Wayland reuses existing drivers and infrastructure. One of the reasons this project is feasible at all, is that I'm reusing the DRI drivers, the kernel side GEM scheduler and kernel mode setting. Wayland doesn't have to compete with other projects for drivers and driver writers, it lives within the X.org, mesa and drm community and benefits from all the hardware enablement and driver development happening there."
You won't need to give up X-based applications though to use Wayland. Shuttleworth is "confident" that Ubuntu will "retain the ability to run X applications in a compatibility mode, so this is not a transition that needs to reset the world of desktop free software. Nor is it a transition everyone needs to make at the same time: for the same reason we'll keep investing in the 2D experience on Ubuntu despite also believing that Unity, with all its GL dependencies, is the best interface for the desktop. We'll help GNOME and KDE with the transition, there's no reason for them not to be there on day one either."
Unity on Wayland isn't going to come quickly though. Shuttleworth wrote, "I'm sure we could deliver *something* in six months, but I think a year is more realistic for the first images that will be widely useful in our community. I'd love to be proven conservative on that, but I suspect it's more likely to err the other way. It might take four or more years to really move the ecosystem. Progress on Wayland itself is sufficient for me to be confident that no other initiative could outrun it, especially if we deliver things like Unity and uTouch with it."
In other words, Wayland will be an option, and one that only people who don't mind having their desktops blow up on a regular basis should fool with, in Ubuntu 11.04. By Ubuntu 11.10, it will be workable, and come the spring release two years from now, Ubuntu 12.04, we should, if all goes well, see a stable Wayland-based Unity desktop.
Unity and users
Unity first came out as the default desktop for Ubuntu 10.10 Netbook Edition. 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."
For now though you can use the Netbook Edition to get an idea of Unity's look and feel. One thing you can't do, however, is use it in a VM (Virtual Machine). At this time, Unity won't work in VMs like Oracle's VirtualBox. You'll get a driver not found message and end up with the usual Ubuntu 10.10 Gnome desktop -- not that's there anything wrong with that!
To get to Unity, you'll need to run it on native hardware. If you don't have a spare PC around though you can still try Unity as it exists now without installing Ubuntu Netbook Edition by using a live USB stick.
For my tests, I did both. I installed it on a Dell Mini 9 with its Intel Atom 270 Diamondville CPU running at 1.6GHz. The one I used came with a gigabyte of RAM and an 8GB SSD (solid state drive). The display is not quite nine-inches -- 8.9-inches with the graphics pushed by the Diamondville's built-in 945GSE graphics. The default resolution is 1,024x600.
I also ran it from a USB drive on a Lenovo R61 ThinkPad. This older laptop uses a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor T7500 and has 2GBs of RAM. As you would expect, it ran faster (once it loaded) on the ThinkPad, but it was still usable on the Mini 9 netbook.
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. Users can choose whichever of these environments they wish.
Let me make this clear: Even after Canonical makes Unity its default desktop you can still switch over to an ordinary GNOME desktop.
You may not want to. The Unity interface is simple. Too simple perhaps for experienced Linux desktop power users. But, if all you want is straightforward, direct access to your applications, it works quite well.
The Unity display is also meant to use less screen real estate, while still conveying useful information to users. The effort to to make this happen is called Project Ayatana. According to Shuttleworth, there are two main aspects to this: Notifications, the sole purpose of which is to notify you of transient events, and Indicator Menus. These combine persistent awareness of a state with a set of options for modifying that state.
This is used primarily on Unity's left application bar. On this bar, you'll find icons for your desktop's default applications. There's also a full-window interface that gives you access to your programs by category.
When you have an application or a full window open, you'll still get a top menu bar that will look basically the same from one program. Indeed one of the reasons why Ubuntu went its own way from GNOME is that GNOME 3.0 won't support Ayantana's global menus.
The interface is also designed for 16:9-sized interfaces. While its still usable in the older 4:3 displays, it looks best on 16:9.
Shuttleworth also plans to support multi-touch, which was introduced to Ubuntu in the most recent version as Utouch. "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."
So, what will it all mean for you as a user? While I like Unity, it's too simple for me. But, then again, I'm not the audience for it either. It's meant for people who want to do things on their computer -- no matter whether that computer is a tablet or a full-sized PC -- and don't care about being able to get at the nuts and bolts.
Perhaps one way of looking at it is that today the Mac desktop is like a car with power-steering, power brakes, an automatic transmission and all the rest. The Windows desktop is also a manual transmission car with a bad habit of breaking down. And, the Linux desktop circa 2010 is a manual transmission truck -- you can do anything with it, but it helps to know what you're trying to do. Unity is trying to make Linux as automatic as a Mac, but at the same time it's also trying to make it possible to run any computing device with it as the interface.
Will it work? I'll be watching closely to find out.