With the beta release, we can start to judge Unity as a mature product — and the verdict is decidedly mixed.
“Our goal with Unity is unprecedented ease of use, visual style and performance on the Linux desktop,” Canonical and Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth wrote in his blog last month.
That statement can also stand as a summary of the goals for Ubuntu 11.10 (better known as Oneiric Ocelot). Judging from the beta released last week, Ocelot promises to be a release that, so far as users are concerned, is less about innovation than about perfecting interfaces — mainly the Unity desktop, but also one or two other applications.
Not that other improvements aren’t part of the release. Users should notice a slightly improved boot time, and increased performance of 32 bit programs on AMD64 systems. The release also benefits from additional driver support and other features in the 3.0.0-9 kernel, and marks the replacement of Evolution with Thunderbird as Ubuntu’s default mail reader (although not the replacement of Firefox with Chromium for the web browser, as rumored several months ago).
However, the most notable features in the beta are interface changes. Both the Gwibber microblogging client and the Ubuntu Software Centre feature new, minimalist interface makeovers that bring them into line with the general look and feel of the Unity desktop — presumably on the grounds that these are two tools that will be heavily used.
Neither makeover is a complete success, in that they fix what wasn’t particularly broken in the first place. However, the new look for the Ubuntu Software Centre is particularly annoying because it opens on a display of What’s New and Top Rated, and an ad-like photo that takes to “Our Picks > Ubuntu’s Sweetest Applications — all of which assume that users are simply browsing instead of looking for specific software. In practice, though, I suspect that most users have a definite purpose when they open the Software Centre.
Another mark of interface-obsession in the beta is the inclusion of the 2-D version of the Unity desktop for those whose video drivers lack 3-D acceleration. Sharing much of the same code, the two versions are almost identical, the main difference being that the collapsed icons in the 2-D launcher aren’t as easy to read as those in the 3-D version.
For those who like GNOME but dislike Unity, the beta’s repositories also include gnome-shell (GNOME 3) and gnome-session-fallback (GNOME 2). As with 2-D Unity, you can choose these options once they are installed as you log in.
Unity’s Mixed Messages
However, the real focus in the Ocelot beta is on refinements of Unity itself. This is the third release of Unity, and the second since it became Ubuntu’s default desktop, so the beta might be considered the first glimpse of Unity as it approaches maturity.
But does it succeed in reaching all the goals that Shuttleworth outlines? The answer is decidedly mixed.
Unity’s best feature is its simplicity. This simplicity has not changed much since the last Ubuntu release: that is, it consists of a static panel, a dash button that opens a screen wide menu, and a launcher for favorite applications and open applications.
This arrangement is straightforward enough that even new users can be productive almost immediately, although they might have initial difficulties customizing or administering their installations. Experienced users, too, might wonder whether a menu that covers the entire desktop is the best use of space.
Since the last release, this design has been tweaked in minor ways. For example, the dash button has moved from the panel to the top of the launcher, on the reasonable grounds that users are most likely to look for applications on the launcher first. Similarly, you can now use Alt+Tab to cycle through open windows.
In addition, the list of Places links in the dash has been replaced by what Shuttleworth calls “Scopes and Lenses” — a scope, apparently being a source of data, and a lens (although he does not explain) presumably a filtered view of a scope. Despite the ungainly and obscure name, this change does allow the addition of a search filter for such content as music collections, although the advantage is limited because there is no apparent way to create your own permanent additions to the ones provided by default.
Unfortunately, these tweaks are not always successful. For some reason, the dash overlay of the desktop now creates what Ubuntu Community Manager Jono Bacon describes in his blog as an “active blur” — that is, it blurs the windows open behind the dash.
Perhaps this feature is intended as an aesthetic touch, but to me it defeats the purpose of having a transparent dash in the first place. After all, isn’t the point to let you easily see what is running on the desktop? Yet blurring the desktop behind the dash prevents you from identifying just what is running.
Even worse, when applications are maximized in the beta, their title bar buttons (and, in the case of GNOME apps, their menus) turn invisible, appearing on the left side of the panel only when the mouse moves to the title bar. Bacon defends this change on aesthetic grounds, and I agree that it is a visual improvement. But functionally, this change seems poorly thought out.
Unlike Bacon, I suspect that users are more likely to be bewildered when they discover this arrangement, rather than delighting in exploring and discovering in the middle of trying to get their work. Even when you know how to summon the buttons and menus, the arrangement is still inefficient, because you either have to touch the title bar blindly before making a selection, or else guess where the item you want is likely to be.
In such cases, Unity seems to fall short of the ease of use and performance that Shuttleworth identifies as a goal. In fact, touches like these make me think that visual style pre-dominates in Unity at the expense of other goals, to the point where the effort is self-defeating.
Reaching a Verdict
In the end, the beta leaves me wondering: has Unity been worth the year or more of concentrated effort lavished upon it?
The effort has by no means been a complete failure. As a desktop for everyday use, Unity seems adequate. Certainly in my experience, more people prefer Unity to GNOME 3.
Yet, if Unity doesn’t inspire widespread revulsion, it doesn’t provoke any widespread loyalty or excitement, either. Like GNOME 3, it tends to restrict users to a work flow that the designers think they should use, and is particularly limiting to experienced users who might want to do a variety of tasks that go beyond productivity.
To make matters worse, Ubuntu’s decision makers continue to seem drunk on their discovery of design issues, focusing on the visual appeal at the expense of functionality, and spending time on minute issues that average users are likely either to miss or stumble upon by accident.
For these reasons, I have to question whether the development of Unity has been worth the effort spent upon it. What would have happened, I wonder, if Ubuntu had managed to keep working with GNOME? Or continued working with its own GNOME 2 series to provide incremental improvements?
We’ll never know, of course. Yet I can’t help thinking that, in either case, Ubuntu would be further ahead than it is today. So far as the end user is concerned, Ocelot, with its emphasis on buffing and polishing Unity, seems to be shaping up to be one of the least significant Ubuntu releases ever.