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Linux User’s Ubuntu Column #100 with Mark Shuttleworth

by Mark Shuttleworth

To help us celebrate the 100th issue of Linux User & Developer, Ubuntu founder, Mark Shuttleworth, agreed to take the reins from our regular Ubuntu columnist (Dave Walker) and take us through why he believes it was the right decision for Ubuntu to embrace the future with Unity…

Linux User's Ubuntu Column #100 with Mark ShuttleworthTwo years ago we set ourselves a goal: to make Ubuntu the slickest, most modern desktop environment around, and to make sure that all the pieces we used or built to achieve that were free software. This April we’re taking a major step towards that goal with the move to Unity as the default desktop environment in Ubuntu 11.04. It won’t be perfect, but it’s now better than all of our other options, and it’s ready for widespread use. Unity is a huge leap forward, and the timing couldn’t be better for free software or for end-users.

We are witnessing a profound shift in the way people think about personal computing. No longer is it all about work – computing is everywhere, all the time. It happens on your phone, on a tablet, on TVs and of course on your personal computer.

And for the first time, it doesn’t mainly need to happen on Windows. The internet has meant that connected computing can happen on any device at any time, and that means Ubuntu can make a real difference in the day to day computing of a much larger audience.

Touch and games are our inspiration. When we set about designing Unity, we drew inspiration from the world of consumer electronics. We wanted to produce something that felt more lightweight and easy to use than a traditional PC interface. We also wanted to take advantage of the incredible graphics technology that is found in every modern PC.

We studied game system interfaces, like the PlayStation and Xbox. We studied mobile products like the iPhone and looked for ways we could embrace ideas from those environments in the desktop. In particular, we took the view that touch-centric interfaces would come to the PC, and we made sure that key pieces of Unity are touch-friendly. That work will continue into the future, as Unity is an excellent basis for people who want to work on non-PC form factors, like tablets or television interfaces. While we won’t produce a tablet with 11.04, we know that many people are doing their own independent tablet work based on Ubuntu, and we are delighted to be a catalyst for all of that innovation.

Indicators and notifications
One of the first pieces of the Unity interface to be adopted in Ubuntu was work to provide a clean, immediate sense of the status of your computer. In particular, we noticed that the Windows taskbar and Mac OS panel tend to accumulate lots of little icons for independent applications, generating a large amount of clutter. When we tested people, they were often unable to tell what all of those icons were for.
So we designed a set of ‘category indicators’ for things like messaging and online services. Now, instead of having a number of icons for different applications, you can have a single icon that tells you if you have any important messages in any app, and clicking on it gives you a summary of new messages across all the applications which use the system.

Similarly, we have a category indicator for all the apps that you use to play music or which maintain an online/offline status. The effect is to clean up the panel substantially, and give people an immediate unconscious sense of being in control of their PC.

One comprehensive search
Today, people search for information. Rather than maintaining a list of sites for everything they might want to find on the internet, they go to their favourite search engine and find whatever they need right then. We’re bringing the same clean approach to the desktop, too. Instead of having lots of different ways to find applications or files or notes, there is just one great search interface. If we do our job correctly, you won’t ever miss all the old ways of finding stuff, because you’ll always get what you want in a fraction of the time, with a fraction of the effort.

The next version of Unity takes the first steps in that direction. You can find files or applications through the search interface. Members of the Ubuntu community have started developing all sorts of additional kinds of search, though, such as searches through YouTube or searches through Twitter. We call each kind of search a Lens, and we expect there will be hundreds of Lenses in a short time. So you’ll be able to do a lot of that initial searching straight from the desktop, and customise it for the sorts of things you need to find very often.

Beauty is a feature, too
Finally, we realised in 2008 that it wasn’t only about being great on the inside; the desktop of the future needs to be stylish and beautiful on the surface, too. So we’ve put a lot of work into the theming and styling of Unity to make it easy on the eye, as well as easy to spot the important pieces of information.

We chose to focus this work on removing a lot of the unnecessary clutter in the interface, to enable your content and your applications to hold your undivided attention.

The science of visualisation, and of understanding what the eye perceives, was very important for us in choosing what we’ll strip away and what we’ll preserve for this new interface. We’ve taken some bold moves: for example, we’ve hidden menus in the top panel of the screen by default, so that they don’t distract from your attention unless you are specifically looking for them. Also, we designed a new kind of scrollbar, inspired by mobile operating systems but still comfortable to use on a desktop PC with a mouse, that takes up a lot less room and allows you to focus more on
your content.

There is still a long way to go. But this is the most exciting time I’ve ever known for open source software on the desktop. It’s a great time to try it and see what that excitement is all about. I’ve no doubt you’ll find it a liberating experience.

Linux User's Ubuntu Column #100 with Mark Shuttleworth
100th issue of Linux User is out now!
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    • Great work ! Ubuntu 11.04 will be remembered as the toughest decision made for a company to brake the well established desktop paradigm. The forthcoming generations are “touch and icon” lovers and Unity is in a the right path on bridging the desktop, tablets and netbook forms of computing.
      Keep up the good work I hope you will accomplish the 200.000.000 userbase in short time!

    • cvd

      Да наистина, Единство е нещо ново. То изисква усилия от потребителите, за които ще им се отблагодари.Дали не представлява интерес и дали не е сега моментът, да се реши и въпроса със алтернатива на Skype? Ако това стане, Убунту ще бъде велика операционна система.

    • m

      Unity = pure rubbish.

    • To start with Mac, sorry, Mark, I think the effort ur team has put for unity is commendable. Why, it is obvious from the passion with which u can go on and on with it. There have been likes and dislikes, features liked and disliked, UI loved and hated and so on… . I am not against anything which will take Free as in Freedom computing to the masses. What I am against, is re-inventing the wheel. G3 developers doing the same thing and the entire canonical paid developers doing the same thing. This is a step back for freedom software.

      Ur inspiration were all the propreitory interfaces around the world and not a single idea was borrowed from G3 or other freedom interfaces. That is again a step back.

      About the indicators etc.. The less I talk, the better. The whole public network is filled up with this stuff for and against u. I dont want to go on and start whole over. Btw, G3 implemented it better. So u better buckle up.

      I really love the way u talk about copyrights. “contributor agreements” is a fantastic way of talking about copyrights, without even hinting at it. I am pretty sure that there will be dual-licensing of all the software u are accumulating copyrights for in the guise of “contributor agreements”. Dont bark at me, now. Time will tell. Can u assign the copyright for all the software u have accumulated to the free software foundation and the licensing of course would be GPL v3 and above?

    • Ramon

      Unity was a bad choice. The idea of a single user interface to cover every device from a hand-held tablet to a multi-screen desktop computer means you aimed for the lowest common denominator, and came up with an environment that performs poorly on all platforms, rather than two interfaces that each only caters for one platform but does so well.

      Similarly, making it easy to use at the expense of functionality is a step backwards. One extremely popular thing that Linux users do is compare their personalised custom desktop, trying to impress their peers, which makes it incomprehensible that Ubuntu’s new motto is “Any colour as long as it’s black”. I don’t WANT my computer to think it’s a mobile phone.

      Of course Gnome3 shell is no better. KDE is fairly good. Now I’m checking out LXDE and a few others to see if any of them will take over the Gnome user base, as well as trying out some new distributions’ live cds.

      Ubuntu seems to have taken a new course, away from its user base and I’m not sure I want to be on board.

    • psypher246

      Ramon I think you are wrong. I have been using Unity for over 2 months now and I can’t go back to any other OS/window manager. Your form factor argument makes no sense, this desktop translates just as well from my netbook to my desktop. On my desktop i’m more productive than ever before and way less distracted. yes it’s rough, and Mark agrees, lost of polishing left to be done. It has an awesome future. If you can’t see that then you are not the target audience. And yes I am a power ubuntu user.

    • Paul

      I agree with Ramon. I don’t feel like Unity is designed for use on a laptop/desktop. Sadly, after 5 years of using Ubuntu exclusively, Unity has me looking for a new distribution.

    • The only bad thing is that now ubuntu isn’t for geeks nor nerds.

      I’m using 10.10, and I’m not upgrading to 11.04. I’m thinking in migrating to debian or other distro.

      Mark, you lost the apport that many geeks and I could give you to make ubuntu arrive to the mass. Now you must find other ways, because I’m not going to tell a friend to install ubuntu, nor I’m going to install it to him, because I’m not using it any more.

    • Dale

      Transitioning from the Gnome interface to Unity is maddening!!! I don’t like having to click through a myriad of icons to find what I’m looking for when a simple menu choice would suffice. This may be a better choice for mobile devices, but it definitely is not my choice for my desktop. Back to Gnome.

    • Ultimately Harmless

      “We wanted to produce something that felt more lightweight”
      You got that right!

      Serious users will go elsewhere.

      Never mind, it will all sort itself out in the end, the beauty of Open Source means that whoever produces the most useful distros for different types of users will reap the rewards of popularity.

      Ubuntu can have fun being king of the heap for dumbed down PC use – other distros will cater for productive people.

    • syncdram

      I do NOT want nor need my blackberry and iphone app on my stinking home computer! Unity broken down: U-utter N-nonsense I-I T-tell Y-you! Your not shoving this garbage down my throat, I’m DONE with Shuttleworth’s Ubuntu! LinuxMint Debian XFCE is now on all 4 home pc’s and ubuntu has been deleted and zero’d out with the new release of Mint Debian XFCE. For All those who have been potty trained including myself by ubuntu since release 6 You cannot complain about the New Mint Debian XFCE release, They have fixed all your prior complaints and if ubuntu has not taught you anything since you were potty trained by ubuntu you deserve what your being feed today! The only voices that are being heard over this mess are those that have NO Choice BUT to support shuttleworths decisions, this is because your potty training is either 1. not completed yet, or 2. You haven’t figured out yet that your now being dictated to and your voice has been stripped from the matter. Period.

    • cmcanulty

      I agree Unity is a step back especially for power users. I sure would hate to go to another distro but I may be forced to.

    • Miles Beck

      I absolutely cannot stand Unity and am among the people looking at another distribution as well. It’s really too bad, I really LIKE Ubuntu, but I cannot use Unity.

    • salparadise

      Ubuntu was a fantastic place for new users to start.
      But now it sends the wrong message about FOSS. It says FOSS is locked down, is not there for you to tweak and learn, it’s for idiot level users to be mindlessly happy with.

      Not good.

      But if, as someone above pointed out, you’ve been suitably potty trained, then it’s time to move on to other distros – that are not locked down and are all about tweaking it to your hearts content. I would recommend Debian – if you can cope with Ubuntu (prior to the Unity nightmare), you can cope with Debian. For the more adventurous – Slackware is where the rubber hits the road, as the saying goes.

      Mr Shuttleworth – I used every release of Ubuntu from the very first beta (within hours of its release). I left a while ago for slackware where I am in control and much happier (I used to keep a spare partition for “testing” new distros on. It won’t be used for Ubuntu again).
      What you and the Gnome Devs have done to Gnome is shameful. You have taken computing back about 15 years.
      The world has enough idiot Corporations who don’t listen to their customers, who railroad everyone into “my way or the highway” – we don’t needed another!

      So long and thanks for all the fish.

    • klompen

      I’ve found Unity to be a virtually impossible impediment to productivity. In general, I don’t like interfaces like the Launcher. It’s one of the reasons for not being interested in a Mac, it’s one of the reasons why the Windows 7 interface is a failure, and when my new Dell came with a similar “feature” it got uninstalled immediately.

      Despite that, I could probably learn to live with this, but not other changes:
      1. Menus that are only shown when I hover over them. If a menu is available, then it is most helpful by being displayed. Hiding it from view does not reduce clutter, but makes me work harder.
      2. Menus that are only shown on the top bar, instead of on individual windows. My focus when I’m working is on the window where I’m working. Forcing me to move away from the window for a menu makes me work harder and lose focus on my work.
      3. Scroll bars that disappear until I hover over them. This is just like #1 for menus. Even worse is that scroll bars are so narrow that they are virtually invisible and difficult to work with.

      For now, I’m staying with 10.10. Why isn’t 11.04 with Gnome acceptable? Because of #2 and because the next version won’t even offer this option.

      Right now I’m downloading LinuxMint 11 and that’s probably what I’ll end up running from now on. Unity is a MASSIVE FAIL. Instead of making Linux easier to use by fixing things like a GUI for configuring membership in a Windows network, you’ve “solved” problems that don’t exist.

    • Earl

      As long as Ubuntu works with fvwm, I really don’t care about Unity or GNOME or whatever.

    • JLD

      I’m a software engineer and a power user and I love Unity. Specifically Unity 2D. The only thing missing are panel applets, so I just add gnome-panel to Startup Applications and configure it how I want. Works great.

    • MightyMoo

      I’m really trying to give Unity a chance but I absolutely don’t like it on my test machine. Hello Xubuntu next LTS.

    • wca

      We are witnessing a profound shift in the way you think about personal computing not the rest of us. No matter how many reams of nonsense you produce gushing about Unity it remains a phone app that you hope to force on people by giving them no choice and no control–how can you think that people will gleefully leap from an interface (all of ’em isn’t it?) famed for the level of control users have over the look and function of their desktop into a rigid ui where everything is dictated to them?

      And Gnome 3 Shell is just as bad. Between you much harm may be done to Linux as time and energy gets wasted on this silly name calling that you think will drive people into your fold. We aren’t afraid of change or something new–we just don’t like your program.

      As salparadise said “So long and thanks for all the fish.”

    • vik

      I don’t know if Mark Shuttleworth will read this or not, but I have a question: did you evaluate KDE 4.6 before going in the direction of Unity? With the customization and branding options available, what was lacking with KDE?

    • sensei2.6.39


      First off, everyone ranting and raving at (or trying eloquently to convince) M. Shuttleworth may as well pack it in, turn off the computer, go outside, take a deep breath, enjoy a little nature.

      “Ubuntu can have fun being king of the heap for dumbed down PC use – other distros will cater for productive people.”

      I think I read pretty much EXACTLY that comment made by another user, in another forum, a little over 6 years ago…

      The joke, of course, being that you people making this complaint today are the people my peers 6 years ago were complaining about! (The real joke being it’s basically paraphrasing Ubuntu’s mission statement…)

      At the time, I thought this was a tremendously short-sighted viewpoint. The fact that you people, dumbed down PC users by the standard of my peers see fit to lay the same charge tells me the real failure of Ubuntu, educating you, weaning you off the dumbed-down model and preparing you to select a distribution like a sophisticated user.

      But, in reality, the problem isn’t all Ubuntu, is it? I don’t use it, but I suspect it does a pretty good job of getting the hurd to water, at that point it’s up to the individual horses to drink, isn’t it? Ultimately if you aren’t willing to take responsibility for your own computing experience than no distro is going to make you happy.

    • brad

      I absolutely love unity. Every time I come back from windows, or even 10.10, I realise how fantastic it is. Its slick, modern and easy to use- I cant wait to see where this ends up. This is the first time I feel confident to recommend linux to my non technical friends. Every one I show it to is blown away, for the first time ever windows users are stopping for a second look… Well Done

    • René

      I came to like Unity a lot. Took some time get used to it but now when I am behind a Gnome2 desktop I find it quite horrible.

      And yes, I do consider myself a power user.

    • LS

      I like Unity alot.
      Saves me time
      Quite configurable.
      CLI is still available.
      Long-time Linux user here.

    • Ashes_786

      I have to say I am a fan of Unity, it saves me installing third-party docks or search based launchers. I definitely needs refinement but the concept itself is good, I’ve tried Gnome 2 since using Unity and the fact that I can’t search for what I’m after is a hindrance. Hopefully the panel applets will b replaced with Launcher and Indicator applets and more work will go into the Launcher the the Dash. Look forward to what Unity becomes in future releases, this is the first Ubuntu release that will attract users merely by its default look not 3 weeks of customising with crazy Compiz effects or Emerald themes.

    • “It won’t be perfect” is a very interesting statement choice to make in the first paragraph of an article where your trying to sell your product to the public. If any associate, let alone the CEO, from Microsoft or Apple started out with that statement in their pitch they would be hung out to dry faster than your grans pants.

      Although I do agree with you, it’s not perfect. I have tried, I really have, but I find Unity to be un-intuitive, restrictive and so far removed from most desktop UI’s im amazed you have made this choice. Ultimatley it is your choice, and good luck to you, but I will not be staying for the ride and have already began the move to another Distro.

      All the best to you.

    • YR

      Using 11.04 since day-0. Ok, I found quite a few papercuts and annoying bugs… hope they get fixed soon, way before 11.10.

      But I congratulate Mark and the Ubuntu team for their hard work and their out-of-the-box way of thinking. I just wish that they do not forget to let the door of freedom and customization always open. They did a half job on that with Unity… is quite locked up and non-customizable. Again, hope that this is addressed soon.

      And as a major landmark, I wholeheartedly loved your decision to dump X in favor of Wayland. That’s a truly bold decision, and a most needed one, way more than Unity! I can barely wait for it.

    • I discovered Ubuntu Linux with 8.04 and have been using Ubuntu until 11.04. Having tested 25 distros over the last two years and enjoying the freedom to design my own desktop, I just cannot stand Unity or Gnome 3. I am sure it is nice for a phone or maybe my laptop, but for my desktop – no way!

      I thought I would be with Ubuntu from now on but what a shame. As many have stated, it Mint or Debian, or Xfce for me from now on. (Fedora and Gnome 3 is bad too).

      Thanks for weaning me away from being a slave to Windows, but you have taught me that I cannot follow without complete freedom.

      PS Man those huge icons and side bar that will not hide is ugly!

    • isleif

      My first Linux experience was Ubuntu, 9.04 and the ease of installation and the functionality was outstanding.

      But the user interface, in colours and in stability were not good. Then I went to install some distros, like openSuSE and Linux Mint. But one thing that I like about Ubuntu is that works with the hardware I use – mainly laptops/netbooks. The only problem is the non proprietary NVIDIA drivers.

      But out of curiosity I installed Ubuntu 11.04 after seeing some negative thoughts about Unity. I just installed it and except for the NVIDIA cards all my stuff worked nicely. I liked Unity because it behaved better that Gnome in some respects and less prone to break settings but a bit heavy on resources.

      Later I discovered reading that it is quite configurable after you install Compiz Config Settings Manager. It allowed me to autohide the icon bar and change the icon bar size.

      As well as Mark said is a project in development and what I experienced was good, I wish him well. After all you still have Gnome option at login to those who do not like Unity.

      Ubuntu for me is still my best distro so far, and the success of Ubuntu will benefit all the Linux community at large. Is not perfect but I am eager to acept change for the aim of Linux to be successful. I am convinced.

    • Piet

      I think unity still needs a lot of work, but its a good start. For me it is usable, but I would not recommend it to new users yet. There are still quite some bugs, and the lack of configuration options is something that annoys a lot of people.

      To those who think the unity menu is bad: Use the windows key. I don’t even use the unity menu, I just hit and type the first few letters of the program I want, hit enter and I have it. For me this saves a lot of time, both relative to gnome2 and unity’s own menu

    • Holger

      I started using Ubuntu with 8.04 and was excited how easy it was to install and to configure. I found it easier to switch from WinXP to Ubuntu/Gnome than from WinXP to Win7.
      What I liked best about Ubuntu with Gnome was its unobtrusive design and the clear menu structure. Perfect. Actually, design was one of the major reasons to move away from Windows. I hated Win7 at first sight. Everything was in a different place – took me 10 minutes to find the shut down button in the start menu and I could not adjust it to my likings.

      Even better – when I switched to 10.04 I did not need to buy new hardware. It still runs on the computer I bought mid 2006!!! If I had stayed in my windows environment, I would have been forced to buy new hardware by now.

      I tried Gnome3 and Unity on Live-CDs and they both will never make it on my desktop as default UI.
      However, I will stay with Ubuntu but I’m going to switch to XFCE. I already had a look at it and it comes far closer to what I need than this nursery school design of Gnome3 or Unity.

    • Chris Meissen

      Ramon and klompen seem to have accurately assessed the kluge that is Nasty Narwal. I installed 11.04 a week ago and I’ve been frustrated fighting that “new and improved” desktop and interface ever since.

      I have only one question: is there way to return to the “classic” Ubuntu desktop short of uninstalling 11.04? If it takes completely removing Nasty Narwal that’s what I’ll do but it would be nice to keep the updated drivers, kernel, etc. and just return to a desktop that is functional and works like that of 10.10,

    • Piet

      @Chri Meissen,

      Yes there is, in fact genome2 is the default fallback option in 11.04. You can choose the ‘classic desktop’ in the login screen. When you have entered your account name you will be able to choose a different session type at the bottom of the screen.

    • KKell

      As a relatively new user of Ubuntu, I’ve found that integration with Compiz against the new Unity interface is a bit lacking. Some things that work fine with the Ubuntu Classic UI don’t see to work quite right with Unity.

      I hope that they are addressing these things.

    • Chris

      I can’t believe how quickly so called enthusiasts will turn on their own with some self-righteous, self-appointed kind of ‘Nerd Law’, and in such a childish, narrow minded “No you’ve upset me now so I’m not going to speak to you anymore, and I’m taking my friends with me!” manner.

      I’ve just read the comments to this post in the letters section of issue 102 and was utterly gobsmacked. I’ll say this now I am not a linux ‘power user’ – which I expect will make a lot of you instantly switch off from me, but why?! – I’ve only used a handful of distro’s in my years as a ‘nerd’ starting with an OpenSUSE release some 5 years or more ago to more recently Ubuntu 10.10 and now some brief experience of Unity with 11.04. — I’m a web developer so having some basic Linux skills is essential!

      What gets me is that as soon as a development such as Unity comes along – something intended to make Linux easier and more ‘user friendly’ for non-techie, non-command liners (i.e. most computer users) – you all scoff and shoot it down. I’d have thought anything that can get more people using Linux based OS’s instead of “the big blue” would be a good thing.

      We need Linux to become more widely accessible to ‘the average’ computer user if it’s really going to grow it’s market share. But instead of being the open-minded and encouraging enthusiasts who’d be glad of anything to get more people interested in their passion and to share their love for it, I find a snobbish, ‘members only’ club for the elite, which I find appalling.

      I can understand people disliking change if they feel that their loosing something that they love or need, but at least try to see the bigger picture. Besides if you really are a ‘power user’ and a fully paid up member of the Linux elite then finding a new distro to meet your needs, or building the tools to allow you to add or bring back things to the distro you love after it’s changed, should be a relatively trivial matter. But don’t shoot down such a big contributor to the cause as Canonical for trying to broaden Linux’s horizons and bring more sheep in to the fold.

      I for one have always liked the clean desktop approach, hating clutter and annoying, endless toolbars and widgets, so i like Unity! Yes it’ll take some getting used to, but for a relative ‘newbie’ such as myself I’m hoping that it will make it easier to transition more of my daily computing across to the Linux platform without having to scale the steep and rocky cliffs of the command line whilst digesting a few thousand pages of books, users guides, help topics and endless Q&A’s on forum threads.

    • HerrLehmann

      Ubuntu which I’ve been using since 6.04 was great to me, as it was close to new developments due to its 6 months rhythm and it was committed to the user as it left the choice to them. Now, Mark decided to start revolution instead of continuing with evolution.
      And the development of the ubuntu software centre makes the impression of targeting a business model.
      The user seems to shift out of focus and if you don’t like what we offer then you are not the target audience any more as mentioned above!?!
      The reason for supporting KDE and Gnome then, was to give the choice to the user. So that’s at least a u-turn in canonical’s view on the users.
      Once I came to Ubuntu because I was sick of being told what I’ve got to want to do that day. Spoken from the community view (not the corporate) your in the wrong lane!
      So that was politics,
      now taste:
      Its not that unity is bad in all aspects. I worked with unity and with gnome3 for some weeks now. Mark stated that unity is not finished yet. The direction unity would have to develop to is very close on what gnome 3 already is. So why don’t you support gnome3 development instead of something proprietary? Ok, again: business model…!

      As other users stated as well: I started exploring other distributions, even so I don’t really want to leave the Ubuntu universe. For now I hope for Gobuntu…