Unity is the best choice for the future of Ubuntu

Last night we kicked off the new season of our little Ubuntu Podcast with some new segments. We thought we’d have a little debate between the presenters, with live listeners able to tune in and give their opinion and feedback. The motion chosen was “Unity is the best choice for the future of Ubuntu”.

I was up for this idea and said I’d be happy to argue on either side of any debate, playing devils advocate if necessary. As it turned out Tony suggested we talk about Unity and Mark wanted to take the ‘against’ stance so that left me with the ‘pro’ stance. Works for me. So here’s the prepared text that I read out on the show. It’s a bit long but I managed to rattle it off in just under 4 minutes – the allotted time.

Edit: This does read a bit like a giant advert for Ubuntu, I appreciate that. I did originally have some content in here addressing some specific Unity issues, and comparisons with other desktops, but cut them due to the time constraints.

With well over 20 million users worldwide, Ubuntu is the most popular Linux desktop. In the 8 years since its first conception the number of Linux users has grown and Ubuntu has been at the head of that growth curve. All kinds of people use Ubuntu from artists, bee-keepers and clerics to dentists, engineers and farmers. People use Ubuntu for lots different reasons. For many it’s an alternative to tried and untrusted Windows, or the cheaper and more open option to Apple. People come for the experience and stay for the free software.

Ever since Ubuntu started, Canonical has been instrumental in shepherding the distribution through the creation of 16 releases of Ubuntu. Canonical has played a major part in the community, providing support, development resources, security updates, sponsorship and help to Ubuntu users and developers around the world.

20 Million users is great but it’s not a massive dent in the global desktop market. Most conservative estimates suggest Linux as a whole has no more than one percent of that segment, probably significantly less. Mark Shuttleworth has repeatedly articulated that he wants to take a chunk of that market, and wants to do it by having desireable products which are better than the competition, not just an also-ran or low-quality alternative-to the main players.

In the early days it was common to manually edit your xorg configuration in a console & you’d sometimes download and compile applications and their dependencies yourself, and even build your own kernel. And there was no way of knowing whether a PC or peripheral would work until you went out and bought one, or you knew someone in your Linux User Group who already had one.

Some people, people like us, enjoy all that, most people however don’t. Most “normal” people want to use a computer as a tool, and no matter how much geeks protest, and cajole them into learning more about the underlying infrastructure, they just won’t want or need to. These days they want to communicate, create, consume and be entertained.

Running “configure, make, make install” isn’t a feature for them, it’s a chore.

Over the years since Warty was released many of the problems associated with running a linux desktop have been removed or mitigated. We now have software which automatically gets network and video drivers for you and automatic codec detection and download, automated crash reporting, and a display system which bring up a GUI without asking you arcane questions about horizontal refresh rates first. We have automatic printer and scanner detection for a huge range of consumer devices, and support for installing all kinds of proprietary products people actually use. For the most part, for most people on most setups, Ubuntu “Just Works”. That’s a massive ‘win’ for everyone involved.

So it’s game over right, we won?

Well, no. We need Ubuntu to be on devices that people buy in bricks and mortar shops and online. We need to be pre-installed on any shape and size of device, right out of the factory, if we’re going to stand any chance of appealing to customers. And before we can appeal to customers, we need to appeal to the device manufacturers. They have to want to put our software on their hardware. They won’t want to sell a sub-standard, partly-working solution. They want it to work and to look great.

I believe Unity is the user interface to get us to that goal. Unity was designed with the user in mind and with consideration for mainstream hardware vendors. I believe that Unity can be pre-installed on millions of new computers and shipped to those ‘normal’ people where they can use it to do all the low-tech stuff they need it for, as well as the high performance creative and consumptive tasks that great swathes of users want too.

It’s beautiful, easy to use, expandable, and more importantly, it’s Free Software.

26 thoughts on “Unity is the best choice for the future of Ubuntu”

  1. Sounds good.

    But a few years of active development of Unity did not get rid of annoying bugs. And in some places it at all lost in functionality.

    I can not add third-party applications to the launcher, I can not change the icons, I can not change fonts, HUD conflict with the keyboard layout switch key. I have forced to configure Compiz, that would improve the responsiveness of Unity. But the switching of applications is still working with disastrous micro-delays. I can’t use mouse in application switcher (like in windows/osx). And numbers of annoying bugs will not let me use Unity with pleasure.

    There was a stable feeling that the developers do not use Unity for everyday work. How many more years should be that Unity would truly become Plug and Play?

    Although pictures of Unity on the site are beautiful. There’s no doubt about it.

  2. Greatest respect for a good pro-Ubuntu speech but only the tiny end portion is about Unity which could be abbreviated to “LOOKS GUD, Y U MAD?!”. As arguments go, it does nothing to pre-empt new or counter existing criticisms about Unity.

    To be the devil here, consider existing complaints:

    – Compiz become progressively less competitive with other compositors for performance (it’s slow!) on all levels of hardware, especially the low-end.
    – It’s a completely alien desktop metaphor for most computer users.
    – It’s nigh on useless for dual+ screen setups because your open apps are tied to the left-most screen (opposed to a bar on each screen).
    – It’s helping to fracture the relationship between Ubuntu and other desktop distributions.
    – It’s harder for people to discover things already installed (filters are possible but they’re hidden by default).
    – It’s woefully inflexible for people who want it their way.
    – “Mystery meat” application selection on the taskbar. Users need to know what an icon is for before they can easily use it.
    – Decisions about Unity seem completely out of the community’s hands. Canonical makes all the design decisions. Canonical makes all the functionality decisions. Often without public consultation, often without notice.

      More from author
      1. Is it possible to expand on the speech that was made as there is no longer a time constraint. I think a lot of the arguments seem valid and it would be interesting to hear your views/replies on this

    1. Oli,
      If the OEMs and ODMs are the target audience for the deliverable…
      and those OEMs and ODMs have absolutely no interest in leveraging community input into their hardware design cycles…
      then why would you expect to see community involvement in the decision making?

      There is a very large cultural divide between how OEM and ODM expect to make decisions with corporate business partners and how community centric open projects expect decisions to be made with some reasonable transparency. There are in many ways polar opposites in terms of cultural norms.

      Canonical is very much stuck in the position to work within both competing cultural norms to make their business strategy work without alieanating their passionate community of externals..all of it inside the bounds of a single project definition and namespace. It’s a very tough thing to do. And I really don’t think most people appreciate how demanding and how private those OEM and ODM business relationships are contractually. I really don’t get the sense that Canonical internals want to keep people under informed..but the business reality might demand it of them.

      I fear this isn’t going to get any better unless Canonical decides to untangle business and product offerings more cleanly from community project R&D. Standing up Unity as a neutral upstream and targetting Unity at Debian packaging that Ubuntu pulls in via the standard merge process from Debian would be an excellent first step to better normalize things a bit.


  3. Unity has major issues with dicoverability. Where do apps I install end up? Where do I get infos about what app does what etc?

    Are you really testing with normal people? I can’t believe you do.

    1. I too wonder whether you are testing Ubuntu with normal people. Try as I will, I find Unity cumbersome and annoying. Shuttleworth leads the parade though and there will be n turning back. Lubuntu is working just fine for me.

  4. I just can’t understand why there is this fixation with Unity. It must be one of the worst windows envirnoments around, and yet everyone lauds it.
    For example, you have to Alt-Tab to get from one program or application to another, and that is a very bad habit to use because it leads to RSI.

  5. Configuration challenges have nothing to do with the look, feel, and flow of a desktop UI. While it is true that, historically, configuration has been a barrier to desktop GNU/Linux, those configuration issues could have been resolved without the need to radically overhaul how people interact with their DE.

    Unity is a tablet/phone/appliance interface. It holds the hand of a user in a single-task oriented environment. Unity is not as conducive to multitasking and using a computer as a tool instead of a consumer entertainment appliance as was GNOME 2 and its panels.

    The Ubuntu team can impose Unity as a way forward, and they might even claim success picking up market share on tablets/phones/appliances, but at what cost?

    For years, Ubuntu has been a great choice for desktops due to the dedication and hard work of the Ubuntu team in ironing out problems so users don’t have to. While the Linux community generally knows enough to solve their own problems, it sure is convenient if I don’t have to budget an afternoon towards getting a new installation to behave right.

    That good work goes down the drain for those who can’t tolerate Unity. Unity is such a vile abomination of an interface that I would sooner go back to Windows XP, solely out of usability concerns. That is how terrible it is.

    Of course, I’m never going back to Windows (though it would be preferable to Unity). Here on out, I’ll be installing GNOME 2 (or maybe one of the Mint spinoffs) on Ubuntu as long as Ubuntu plays nice with G2. Once it doesn’t, I’ll move on to another distro.

    The Ubuntu planners forgot about their core demographic: people who have to get stuff done. Unity is not an interface for people who need to get stuff done. While, in a way, it would be positive for Ubuntu to become another alternative for the media-consuming masses, as Ubuntu is FOSS, that shouldn’t be done at the expense of the core demographic who needs the GNU/Linux desktop as a tool, not a gadget.

    While it’s great if ordinary users can make use of a FOSS environment to run their web browser and video player, that isn’t nearly as essential as people who need an open environment to get things done while protecting their privacy and security against the SaaS-led corporate encroachment of our systems.

    The market has enough consumer gadgets already. What it needs is another powerful tool for people who have real work to do.

    The dirty little secret not being spoken on high at Canonical is that most of the userbase is putting up with Unity to one degree or another. It has become the unpleasant vegetable most of us don’t want to eat. Some refuse to touch a bite, and will defect to another distro, a few enthusiastically eat it up, but most are putting up with it because it is already there. User patience only lasts so long. Eventually people will get tired of being told to eat their vegetables and will find another distro which they try out and decide to stick with.

  6. I think your probably right and unity probably is the right direction for ubuntu in terms of style, design and workflow.

    The only thing i find discoraging is that unity wasn’t created using either the gnome-shell extensions ( ala Mint’s Cinnamon ) or alternatively using the KDE plasma and kwin technologies. Both of which have proven flexible enough to create the unity environment and both of which are now very mature (particularly with the latest Gnome release ).

    In it’s current state, due to packaging clashes and difficulties it seems unlikely to make it into any other distributions, and as far as I can tell only Canonical is really doing any major development on the platform. This also means that the features / differences in notifications etc.. aren’t really catered for by the application developers in the same way that they are for Gnome/KDE/XFCE.

    From a management perspective, I am unsure if I feel comfortable deploying a unity based environment to end users. It causes some degree of lock in for us (if we switch distributions we have to retrain), and we have to be careful which applications we deploy because they may / may not work correctly with unity. Not necessarily a unity problem, but it’s a consideration none the less. It also means we can only purchase support from canonical for the desktop.

    I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on these concerns.


  7. Most “normal” people want to use a computer as a tool, and no matter how much geeks protest, and cajole them into learning more about the underlying infrastructure, they just won’t want or need to. These days they want to communicate, create, consume and be entertained.

    I was listening to this in the podcast, thinking about Rasperry Pi and smiling how ironic live is.

  8. “With well over 20 million users worldwide”

    did you pull that figure out of your own, or someone else’s ass?

  9. Ubuntu needs to make a decision whether they want to remain part of the Linux community, profiting from the contributions of said community or leave the community and become a proprietary some-sort-of-linux-based distribution, Media-Center, Android add-on or whatever.

    That is what Unity is all about. This is the rub. Unity will never be an upstreamable, supportable component and is has been deliberately built that way.

    It’s up to Ubuntu and eventually that one guy with the deep pockets running the show to make that decision. Probably he has made that decision already.

    So be it.

  10. Some people, people like us, enjoy all that, most people however don’t. Most “normal” people want to use a computer as a tool, and no matter how much geeks protest, and cajole them into learning more about the underlying infrastructure, they just won’t want or need to. These days they want to communicate, create, consume and be entertained.


    Oh please, give me a break!!
    Unity users are NO different than Window, Mac, KDE or Gnome users.

    Ive switched almost two dozen people to Linux in the past 3 years because I got sick and tired of doing free tech support for Windows issues that were always the same. Half of those people were seniors, the kind of retards we claim use computers (not my words) and the other half like my brother inlaws and best friends NEVER installed a program or even knew where the settings are to change things.
    Users dont usually do that. THATS why Best Buy will charge you 125$ for the smallest little thing.

    That claim above is absolute garbage. Sure, you might have an idiot who thinks taht CLI is necessary but you have to know your target audience.

    Never saw once at a Lugfest anyone tell someone to do more than they want or can.

    As for the best, thats another thing that annoys me more and more with some groups. There is NO BETTER desktop, its a question of taste. Just like vanilla is NOT better than chocolate ice cream.
    Is the left sided buttons better than the old paradigm that 95% of the planet uses? No.

    Shuttleworth claimed a few years ago that the choice of desktops is one of the greatest benefits of free software and I still think that is the key to getting someone to switch over: give them a choice.
    Offer them to look at three different desktops and find one they feel confortable with… THATS how you get people to be confortable with their desktop.
    YOU might like top bar but maybe Bob prefers the bottom panels or disappearing side panels like I do, its for HIM to decide.

    The real choice isnt the distro, its the desktop.

    >Running “configure, make, make install” isn’t a feature for them, it’s a chore.

    Please stop that idiotic meme.
    NO ONE is suggesting that new Linux users do this. Its just using the absurd to prove your point.
    Most users that I have switched or others I know have either using a rolling distro
    or have the updates done automatically so the user doesnt even notice it (my dad likes clicking on the updates because he doesnt understand it but likes the idea that his desktop is always evolving).

    As for treating people like morons:
    >shipped to those ‘normal’ people where they can use it to do all the low-tech stuff >they need it for,

    Thats bull. Its patronizing and its bull.

    Unity is no easier to learn than other desktops. I have 4 75yr olds using KDE4 and 3 of them using XCFE. They can surf the net, email, skype, listen to dvd, burn cds, IM and carry their pictures to Walmart to get printed on a USB stick.

    There IS NOTHING in Unity that makes any of this easier.

    Its just a choice. Which is good, Choice is always a good thing.
    But its not THE thing. Thats just sales and marketing BS.
    We all have different tastes…

  11. Wow, what a number of bugs you guys have over there… The only bug I’m actually aware of, is that transparency of the top panel isn’t in real time, I mean, sometimes the image or the window in the background leaves a trace in the panel and stays in there.

    César Bastidas from Venezuela, sorry, english is not my main language

  12. So i got this nice netbook. Installed Oneiric on it. Thought I’d give Unity a try. Created a new user with the “Users & Groups” System Setting. Didin’t show. Didn’t appear in the greeter. Googling aroung found this:

    – the Users & Groups Thing in Oneiric/Unity is broken. It will do very nasty things to your system if you try to use it.
    – i could install gnome-system-tools. Try finding that with your fabulous Dash searching for “Users” or “Groups”. Good luck.
    – Or i could use the terminal (at least your fabulous Dash finds the Terminal if i type “Terminal”)

    Are you kidding me ? This is the future of Ubuntu ?

  13. I run a home-built system and do most everything with it, from writing code to writing books. Learning 10% of GNOME-2 has taken me three (3) years. I’m comfortable with its use .. and stay busy on my projects.

    Why do **I** want to change is single command pr view in GNOME? Anser … I don’t, but am being “thrown under the bus” by Shuttlesworth who has grandious hopes for UBUNTU if only he can make it “look better”. Oh ,, please ….

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