Raving Ringtail: The Mixed Motives of Ubuntu 13.04

The latest version of Unity mirrors the increasing conflicts within Canonical and Ubuntu.
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In October 2012, Ubuntu's founder Mark Shuttleworth, blogged that Ubuntu 13.04 would be developed in private, so that the release would be a "magician's reveal."

However, judging from the betas, you have to wonder why he bothered. Short of a last second surprise during the official release later this week, little in the 13.04 (codenamed Raring Ringtail) justifies this approach. Like the last few Ubuntu releases, this one is largely about tweaking the Unity GUI. There are a few cosmetic changes to the launcher, a handful of minor enhancements to dash searches and not a whole lot more besides that's visible.

Don't get me wrong—Unity users will find Ubuntu's latest version easier to use in dozens of minor ways, even if they don't notice most of the individual changes. But they might also find a confused inconsistency as well.

The Peculiar Case of the Launcher

Embedded on the left side of the screen, the launcher is Unity's answer to the traditional panel, menu and taskbar. In keeping with the idea that design is "the central Ubuntu experience," the launcher has undergone another round of minor tweaks in the 13.04 release.

To start, they tweaked a few icons. The dash icon is enhanced with a swirl that suggests either a spiral galaxy or a flushing toilet. Similarly, the transparent recycling bin has been replaced by an equally transparent cylinder.

However, the exact reason for these changes remains obscure, since none of them make the feature behind the icon any clearer. The change of the mouse-over help from "Dash Home" to "Search your computer and online sources" seems a more practical change.

Another change is the removal of the virtual workspace control from the default launcher. Presumably, this is an attempt to address the crowding created by the determination of Canonical, Ubuntu's corporate avatar, to promote commercial services in the hopes of turning a profit.

If you want, you can still turn on virtual workspaces by selecting System Settings -> Appearance -> Behavior -> Enable Workspaces. If you do, you will find that the workspace icon now indicates which workspace you are currently on.

These features suggest that Canonical's Design Team is suffering from a serious case of mixed motives. The default crowding wouldn't exist if Canonical was less intent on thrusting largely unwanted services on users. Yet instead of eliminating the icons for some of these services, Ubuntu has chosen to remove a widely used feature, burying the remedy so obscurely that casual users are likely to conclude that it has been removed.

It's bad enough that Unity reduces users' choice to turning four virtual workspaces on or off instead of setting the number for themselves. Now, users have to search for a basic desktop feature.

Equally strange is the fact that, from the same location where workspaces can be toggled on or off, you can choose to add a Show Desktop icon. This is a useful feature in a traditional desktop, in which several windows can quickly hide the desktop. But since Unity opens most windows just short of maximum size, a choice that discourages opening more than one window at a time, you might conclude that the vision behind Unity might need some corrective lenses (and I don't mean the filters used in the dash, either).

Strange Doings at the Dash

The controversy over the inclusion of Amazon online search results in the dash, Unity's combination menu and file manager marred Ubuntu's 12.10 release. Users were understandably puzzled about why they should be exposed commercial come-ons while searching their hard drives, and both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Richard Stallman criticized Ubuntu for violation of users' privacy.

To be fair, in response to criticism, Ubuntu did add a legal statement and the ability—assuming you're in a trusting mood—to turn off online search results and opt out of being tracked. However, 12.10 continued to include online searches at the dash by default, a choice the 13.04 release perpetuates and enhances.

Of all the changes at the dash, the typing completion feature is probably the most welcome. Just as you can press the Tab key to complete a command entered at the BASH command line, so you can now pause in your typing at the Unity dash to see if the interface has managed to second-guess you.

Or, at least, that is the theory. And in practice, it sometimes shows a handy sense of context. For instance, type "work" (for workspace), and LibreOffice's major applications display. Since office apps are where many people's work is done on a computer, the choice makes sense.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Ubuntu, desktop, Canonical, Mark Shuttleworth

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