Was Unity a calculated snub of the GNOME project, since it was being used in place of GNOME 3? Could the relatively small Ubuntu community deliver something as complex as a new desktop in less than a year? These were just the most basic questions people were debating about Unity. And, as early versions started to emerge, as many people seemed to welcome Unity as complained about Ubuntu's high-handedness at foisting a new interface on its users -- at least among the vocal.
With the release of Natty, we can now see that many of the apprehensions surrounding it were groundless. True, not even a release candidate of GNOME 3 is available in Natty, despite the fact that the timing of the releases could easily have made one possible. However, for those whose video drivers lack the hardware acceleration needed for Natty, a fallback version of GNOME 2.32 is available. Those who prefer the GNOME 2 series can also choose Ubuntu Classic when they log in.
Just as importantly, while Unity requires experienced users to make some adjustments, it is not difficult to learn. The main difference is the de-emphasis of the panel (including the lack of applets), and the replacement of the main menu with the launcher and dash button.
The dash is basically the menu placed on the desktop. It has the advantage of making the icons for items easier to see while having the disadvantage of making using the menu a greater disruption to your current activities. However, you can minimize your use of the dash by loading apps onto the launcher, or by creating desktop icons.
Unity has some omissions, notably a lack of configuration options for the launcher and dash. It also has some rough spots, such as requiring you to start an application before adding it to the launcher. Nor is it particularly fast for a desktop that was originally intended for netbooks; the suggested minimum RAM for Natty is 384 megabytes, as opposed to 256 for the previous Ubuntu release.
All the same, approach Unity with an open mind, and it is an acceptable addition to the list of free desktops. Experienced users might find it preferable to GNOME 3, and new users should have no more trouble learning it than any other desktop.
Still, while it is easy to see why Ubuntu's and Canonical's developers and executives prefer a code base that they dominate and that transfers easily to different hardware platforms, the advantages of Unity for users sometimes remains harder to see. Much of the time, Unity is not so much an improvement on GNOME as simply different.
Natty is an ambitious release. That ambition deserves a degree of respect. Ubuntu appears to be following a clear vision of where the free desktop is heading. You may disagree with vision (so far as it has been revealed), but it contrasts favorably with the timidity that most other distros have been showing in the last couple of years. Even when the efforts to fulfill that ambition have mixed results, as they do in Natty, they can still be useful in starting a dialog.
At times, though, the feeling is overwhelming that the tenets of usability are being implemented uncritically, and without enough regard for context. Using Natty, you have to wonder sometimes whether anyone has stopped to check if innovations provide a solution to an existing need, or whether more attention is being paid to following design principles down to the smallest element than to the question of whether the time spent working on some of the new features is worth the benefits that the features give to users.
A case in point: just as earlier Ubuntu releases left a gap on window title bars by shifting the control buttons to the left, so Unity left a similar gap on the desktop panel by removing or eliminating time-honored components.
Both these gaps may one day be filled. But, for now, they -- and maybe even Unity itself -- feels more like a student exercise in usability than anything that anyone was actually clamoring after.