On Ubuntu ditching Unity

An older version of the Ubuntu logoYesterday Canonical, the company which develops the Linux distribution Ubuntu, for a long time the most popular distribution (or ‘distro’) and the basis for Linux Mint, possibly the most popular distro at the moment, announced that it was to cease development of Unity, its main desktop shell, in favour of GNOME, which was its default until 2011 but became impracticable because of major changes in the way it operated and a major decline in its reliability. 2011 was when I started to go off Linux in a big way and switched back to Macs towards the end of that year. I have mixed feelings about the end of Unity’s development: it was developed out of absolute necessity and kept Ubuntu usable when GNOME was not and provided an elegant desktop with some Mac-derived features. However, the whole purpose of Unity was to provide a common interface between desktops, tablets and phones, and Ubuntu remained glued to the desktop; the platform never became popular on mobile devices.

I was a regular Ubuntu user until 2011; I had two PCs (a Dell desktop and a laptop) and I always had Ubuntu running on one and another, usually SUSE, running on the other (I never found Fedora reliable enough after it stopped being Red Hat Linux, and the new installer for version 18 ruined it completely for me). I did most of my everyday activities, including blogging, web surfing, emailing, photo management and even some word-processing, on it. Its main desktop was GNOME 2 which by then had become quite stable and elegant, and Ubuntu applied its own theme which is still in use on Unity. Linux desktop themes back then used a structure of widgets including menu bars, actual menus, system trays, clocks and so on, and the user could easily reposition them as they saw fit. Although it did support 3D effects (the sort that had been standard on the Mac since the early OS X days), it didn’t rely on them. While I’m sure there were some hardware items that did not work, it detected most of my hardware, such as the wifi, without any intervention from me.

GNOME 3 basically ripped up the rule book. It looked totally different from GNOME 2 and heavily relied on 3D effects, and even if you had the right hardware, it sometimes refused to start, telling you “something has gone wrong”. I found the new look harder on the eye, although the default colours and background could be changed, but customising everything was more complicated in early GNOME 3 than in GNOME 2, and some of it could not be done through the usual “options” app (people had to develop additional options apps) and some required altering scripts manually. It was so dreadful that there were three separate desktop projects spawned at that time: MATE (a continuation of the old GNOME 2 desktop, with all the old apps renamed), Cinnamon (a more conventional desktop based on the same toolkit, which was used by Mint although available on other distros) and Unity, which ensured some continuity from the old environment for Ubuntu users in terms of look and feel, while adding its own dock (GNOME 3 also has a dock) and a menu bar at the top of the screen which carries the current application’s menu, similar to how it works on a Mac, though the dock was rather less versatile (adding options to the dock menu had to be done with scripts; on a Mac, it can be done within the program itself). Unity also ditched menus for finding applications, requiring the user to search (the so-called “heads-up display”); this was often quicker, requiring two or three keypresses to find what you wanted, as long as the app was in the database and had the right tags and so on. And while the “Unity” of the name referred to the ‘convergence’ of the desktop and mobile platforms, it also provided a common look and feel for Linux desktop apps which used different toolkits which came with their own themes.

The result of all the changes was that the desktop that had been a well-regarded standard on Linux up until 2011 came to be used by only a minority after that. The new desktops were intended to bridge the gap between desktops and smaller-format devices, such as “netbooks” (basically small laptops, which were briefly popular in the late 2000s), tablets and even phones, which were being hailed as the computing devices of the future and perhaps a place where Linux could thrive, which it had not done on the desktop. The only problem was that iOS and Android were already well-established by 2011 and its competitors were failing: Blackberry, Meego, even Windows Phone. The idea that minority open-source desktops that lacked serious applications could even gain a significant foothold on the tablet or phone environment, much less compete with Android or iOS, seemed far-fetched even in 2011. The changes were greeted with anger by long-term users in the Linux community press; one letter I read in Linux User and Developer demanded “who are the ‘they’ that keep coming up with these stupid ideas?” and the magazine itself criticised the “developer knows best” attitude that had taken root. Meanwhile, the Mac offered a Unix-based platform with more and better applications than Linux had, with a bloated but free software development suite and access to all the Unix tools. I can’t have been the only Linux user who could afford to, and wasn’t bothered by the fact that it wasn’t all ‘free’ or open source, who moved to the Mac at that time.

Currently, I use OS X almost exclusively on my laptop and desktop (I also have an iPad and and Android phone), and occasionally I use OpenSUSE Linux (which runs KDE Plasma 5, not GNOME or Unity) on my Mac desktop, almost always for programming and a bit of web browsing, emailing etc on the side. I haven’t used GNOME 3 in ages, and when I ran Mint briefly on this machine, the Cinnamon desktop kept crashing. It’s tempting not to care about the end of Unity, but there is a place for an operating system which is entirely open-source, not just based-on as is the case with Mac OS, and Unity was not perfect but its concepts were interesting, it was fairly stable, it was familiar for long-time users and fairly easy to learn for the newcomers. It will be interesting to see how Ubuntu maintains its look and feel after it adopts GNOME 3. Perhaps GNOME 3 has come on in leaps and bounds since 2011; it ought to have done, and to be fair, GNOME 2 was slow when first released, but improved greatly by version 2.4 (the second maintenance release, of which there were many). If it hasn’t, making it Ubuntu’s main desktop and abandoning Unity will be suicide for Ubuntu’s desktop release. It should have been expected that not all the GNOME 3 spin-offs would survive, but I neither expected nor hoped that this would be the first one to fall.

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