Ubuntu's Unity Desktop: Reality vs. Rationales: Page 2

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The third miss is the change in the orientation of the screen. As Shuttleworth observes in his blog, "Notebooks in general are moving to wide screen formats. So vertical space is more precious than horizontal space." In keeping with this dictum, Unity eliminates the bottom panel that Ubuntu has always added to GNOME in favor of one on the left -- a simple and obvious move.

Yet, by the same logic, why keep the top panel? While Shuttleworth does talk in passing about a dashboard "which presents files and applications as an overlay," he does not say whether it is intended as a replacement for the top panel.

My guess is that it is not, since elsewhere in his blog he talks about making the top panel "smarter" by adding a global menu and having window titles appear in it. In this respect, as with "finger friendliness" and boot speed, the present version of Unity shows only tentative movements away from earlier versions of Ubuntu.

The success

According to Shuttleworth's blog, work on Unity began with the assumption that the target installations computers have "no need of heavy local file management." Instead, users would be largely interested in online services, which they could use to keep their Ubuntu and Windows installations on the machine in sync with each other.

Nor would the target machines be "environments where people would naturally expect to use a wide range of applications." The exceptions would be "media playback, messaging, games, and the ability to connect to local devices like printers and cameras and pluggable media."

This logic is already visible in Unity. The left panel is reduced to eight icons. From top to bottom, they are: Ubuntu Software Center, Help, Firefox, Applications, Rhythmbox, Empathy, Evolution, and File Manager.

In this version, Applications is not a menu, but a file manager view of /usr/share/applications, a piece of inelegance that emphasizes better than anything else could the assumptions that Shuttleworth and his team make about how Unity will be used.

The layout could be criticized for its lack of priorities -- for example, placing the Ubuntu Help Center on the top seems to contradict the contention that users will not want many applications. Yet the order of application launchers is not stressed by Shuttleworth as a goal, so Shuttleworth and his team can still be said "to preserve that sense of having a few favorite applications that are instantly accessible."

The reality check

Shuttleworth's blog shows that new features are already being considered for Unity. In particular, although Shuttleworth states that, typically, "instant-on environments are locked down," plans do seem afoot to put customization options on the desktop, rather than burying them several clicks beneath the Applications launcher.

Still, for now, comparing Unity to Shuttleworth's comments, what becomes obvious is that we are not seeing anything like a finished delivery of development concepts. Instead, we are seeing the playground on which those principles are being actively worked out.

Given this state, the next question is: Are Shuttleworth's assumptions valid ones?

Although Shuttleworth talks of studying "a couple of hundred different desktop configurations from the current Ubuntu," possibly not.

When Ubuntu already has one of the fastest boots of any distribution, are users really that concerned about reducing the boot time by another few seconds? In the past, the main concerns about boot time have been in comparison to proprietary operating systems, and the latest Ubuntu's boot already compares favorably to Windows' or OS X's. Perhaps Ubuntu has already done enough work on this goal for now.

Other questions also arise. Do most users further divide the relatively small hard drives of netbooks by installing multiple desktops? Are web-centered computers really going to major players, or is that a hope for the increased use of Ubuntu One's online storage?

So far, web-centered distributions like Chromium and Jolicloud seem more novelties than solutions to which significant numbers of users are migrating.

Most important of all, are people really interested in only light, web-based computing on netbooks? I have watched coders, writers, and even graphic designers work on netbooks in airports, so I have my doubts. Shuttleworth's team (and many others) seem to be designing for the first generation of netbooks when the second generation, with more RAM and larger hard drives are already here.

Unity still has a long development ahead. It may change in all sorts of ways, including in its assumptions. I can only hope so.

Because, you see, as fascinating as watching how assumptions play out, there is a serious problem with them. Even if you follow your own logic faithfully in your design, you still may not get to anywhere you want to go -- not if your assumptions are flawed from the start

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Tags: Linux, Ubuntu, Linux desktop, Gnome, netbook

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