Thoughts on Unity

Unity is going to replace the GNOME shell in Ubuntu 11.04, "Natty Narwhal". This recent development gives me very mixed feelings. I've never been a huge fan of Unity, even going far enough to recommend against it when people ask me about it. A few unfortunate aspects of Unity caused me a great deal of unease when I heard about this change.
  1. Unity requires hardware acceleration.
    I have always loved Ubuntu for its ability to operate on older hardware. I run MDU on laptops with hardware older than some people I know. I tried to boot into Ubuntu 10.10 Netbook Edition in VirtualBox and was greeted with a nice, fat error message:
    No required driver detected for unity.
    As it turns out, Unity literally cannot run without hardware acceleration thanks to its grounds in Mutter, immediately turning off potential users. ("Why can't I just boot to my desktop? What does this mean?") Unless Unity somehow stops requiring hardware acceleration, I see this as being a potential roadblock to Ubuntu's success. At the keynote, Mark Shuttleworth stated that the new Unity will use Compiz instead... here's hoping it does.
  2. Unity takes control away from the user.
    The Unity interface is clean. Very clean. It has a nice Applications menu in the top-left (sporting the Ubuntu Circle of Friends logo) with an application-switcher panel on the left edge of the screen. Along the top is a typical-looking GNOME panel... one that is not customizable. As far as I'm aware, Unity itself cannot be themed (please correct me if I'm wrong) and the top panel cannot be changed without logging out, then logging into a standard desktop GNOME session. This defeats the entire purpose of Unity -- simplicity.
  3. Unity just isn't for everyone.
    I do not like Unity. I could even go far enough to say that I simply cannot work in Unity. It feels like I've turned "baby mode" on... it feels less like I'm running an operating system on my machine, and more like I'm playing with a toy. I know this feeling is not shared by everyone, but I also know more than a few people for whom this applies. I simply like GNOME 2.x better. At this point, it's a KDE/GNOME discussion, but isn't that the entire reason Kubuntu exists in the first place? The ability to choose is what gives Ubuntu (and the MDU project) its strength. By forcing Unity on everyone (by default), we lose that ability to choose.
These (rather outstanding) problems with Unity will seriously cripple any potential Ubuntu release. As a side note, I've already begun experimenting with other Linux versions1 -- not because I have a problem with Ubuntu, mind you! Simply because I disagree with the decisions that Canonical is making in regards to Ubuntu's direction.

Don't worry, though! MDU will continue to release on-time as long as I can manage to do it, and I will most definitely enable the user to choose if they wish to have Unity installed on their system or not.

Amendment 04/13/2011: GNOME 3 isn't much better, either. It has most of the flaws of Unity. My ideal DE is something like what GNOME 2.32 is now. I seriously hope someone forks it and continues development.

1Fedora is a strong contender in this race. It is the distribution that Red Hat is based on (therefore uses yum instead of apt and installs from *.rpm files instead of *.deb files). Look into it if you're feeling ready to take on a slightly more advanced GNU/Linux distribution.


landroni said...

You could always attempt to fallback to Xfce, a genuine alternative to both Gnome and KDE.

aveilleux said...

Fantastic idea, landroni. I'm surprised I totally forgot about Xfce.