Ubuntu's Unity shell for GNOME first saw general release as the Ubuntu Netbook Edition in the 10.10 release in October 2010. Two weeks later, Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth announced that the next release of Ubuntu would use Unity instead of the modified GNOME shell of previous releases.
The criticism began instantly, and, given new life by the alpha release of Ubuntu 11.04 and articles about what to expect in open source software in 2011, has hardly stopped since.
Listening to voices inside Ubuntu, you could be forgiven for wondering what the criticism is about. The blueprint for Unity describes it as a shell "that can match and exceed the OS X user interface in regards to visual effects" on desktop computers that can also be used with modifications on other hardware platforms such as netbooks. In other words, Unity is simply the continuation of Ubuntu's ongoing emphasis on usability and interface design.
Nor is Unity a complete departure from GNOME. As Ubuntu community manager Jono Bacon emphasizes, "Ubuntu is a GNOME distribution, we ship the GNOME stack, we will continue to ship GNOME apps, and we optimize Ubuntu for GNOME. The only difference is that Unity is a different shell for GNOME." If anything, Shuttleworth insists, Unity is part of the diversity that "makes GNOME stronger." Users will even be able to select another GNOME-based interface if they prefer.
So why the criticism? Since Unity is still in rapid development, little of the response has to do with its design or implementation. Instead, the criticism centers largely upon the fact that Ubuntu has opted to develop Unity outside of the mainstream GNOME community.
This choice matters both because it seems to run counter to the traditional cooperation between free and open source software projects and because it suggests that other innovations might meet an equally hostile reception. As GNOME developer Jeff Waugh tweeted, "so now 'Unity' becomes the most ironic product name in #floss history."
In announcing Unity's new role, Shuttleworth emphasized design differences. Referring to the GNOME Shell that is the basis of the upcoming GNOME 3, Shuttleworth is reported as saying:
We were part of the GNOME Shell design discussion, we put forward our views and they were not embraced by designers," Shuttleworth said during a press briefing. "We took a divergent view from the GNOME shell folks on key design issues, for example how application menus should appear on the system, how one should search to find applications, [and] how one's favorite applications should be presented.However, what Shuttleworth does not acknowledge here is that Unity was only the latest example of Ubuntu being either unable or unwilling to cooperate with the GNOME project.
For over a year now, Ubuntu has been shipping with a version of GNOME that is increasingly different from the standard one. Notifications, the arrangement of title bar buttons, custom apps for centralizing the control of social media and sound-based applications -- all these have been developed by Ubuntu outside of the usual GNOME channels in the name of making the free desktop competitive (and, no doubt, of making Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial aspect, profitable at last).
Nothing in free software licensing, of course, prohibits Ubuntu's decisions to develop independently. Nor is Ubuntu the first to choose independent development. As veteran GNOME developer Dave Neary observes, Novell, Nokia, OpenMoko, and Moblin have all developed their own shells for GNOME in the past.