Unite, but follow me

Yesterday I decided to install the new version of the Ubuntu Linux distribution on my main computer, after a disaster with another distro (or rather, with some new software they had tagged as “stable” when it was not) left it with intractable problems that could only be solved by re-installing the whole thing. I downloaded the “desktop CD”, which is a live version of the operating system that you can install to your hard drive while continuing to browse the web. The big new feature this time round is the “Unity” desktop environment, which is obviously inspired by Mac OS X with its Dock, rather than screen-edge panels with switchers, icons, a clock, menus and so on.

What I’ve installed is a Beta, but the most objectionable features seem to be “by design” rather than bugs. As a long-time Mac user (although I don’t use my Mac much now as it’s out of date, slow and expensive to replace), I’m more than familiar with the whole concept of a Dock, which has icons that can both start and control applications. The problem is that their launcher is pinned to the left hand side of the screen and can’t be transferred to the bottom, which is where it normally is on the Mac. The problem with that is that not everyone has wide, cinema-aspect screens; my screen is 1280x1024, which is still wider than it is high, but having a launcher fixed to the side is much less convenient than having it at the bottom. There seems to be no way of changing this.

It’s also impossible to customise how applications launch: if you prefer a bigger Terminal window than normal, there seems to be no way to change it to what you like, which you can do when launching an application from a normal panel icon. Unity insists on launching large applications maximised (i.e. covering the whole screen), rather than the size it was when you last closed it. This is also apparently a design decision, but it interferes with my right to decide how I use programs on my system. There also appears to be no way of correcting this.

Worst of all, they have basically broken the system tray — that’s the place where an application I’m developing puts an icon, from which you can use a menu to open a new document or a saved one. This is because it does not fit with their new design philosophy, among other reasons because it was originally intended for notifications, but was taken over by applications like mine that used it for menus, and so different programs use it differently, giving an inconsistent user experience. This is a valid argument, but not for changing something unilaterally and breaking a whole lot of the open source software in existence. It is possible to add an application to a “white list” (which presently includes Skype, the HP printer monitor and Java applications), or to set the white list to simply “all”, but even that does not let my app use it.

If they really wanted to offer a Mac-like experience, of course, they could allow my system tray menu to operate from the launcher, as you can do with one line of code on the Mac. But no, they actually want me to completely re-write my program so that it fits in with their design philosophy, which they have spelled out in one lengthy article after another in Linux Format but which is really unconvincing to the rest of us. My app works on every platform except Unity, which will account for only a small proportion of the desktops out there when the official launch happens this week. Canonical cannot tell the entire Linux-using public (such as it is!) to “unite but follow us”; they are more likely to kill the Linux desktop by doing this than make everyone use the most impoverished desktop environment available.

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