Curating Linux Distributions

I’ve been following the conversations around Unity, the new front-end for Ubuntu 11.04.

It’s been very interesting, because opinions are so mixed. I’ve read some nice things and some not so nice things.

Ubuntu is really trying to rethink the desktop concept, with an eye toward keyboard-free computing. It’s a bold step, so it’s bound to alienate some people.

I haven’t played with Unity yet, but I have to admit that I am curious. I love Xfce but it’s very much rooted in the “traditional” desktop paradigm. What I like about it, is that it’s very much menu driven, so I can do a lot of selecting, without a lot of clicking and mouse work. It’s almost more of a very powerful file manager than a desktop.

From what I can tell, Unity takes that model a step further. In a lot of ways, it seems like Canonical has crafted an iOS experience for the desktop.

But it’s made me appreciative of the thought Canonical puts into their products. Obviously, not everyone likes the direction they’re going in with GNOME and Unity, but in general, Canonical makes decisions based on what they think is best for the user.

Less and less users grew up with traditional desktops as their only means of computing. There are people who only use desktops for very specific purposes, like typing a paper. Or even just printing one. I actually once witnessed a student come into a computer lab, open up a word processor, and transcribe a paper off of her phone. I’m not sure why she didn’t email it to herself, but I was fascinated that she would compose a paper on a phone before moving to a desktop/laptop.

Canonical seems to be making an effort to make an OS that makes sense to those types of users.

But at the same time, Canonical seems very respectful of the users using the Canonical variants. I’ve been playing with Debian Testing and Mint Xfce and while both are good, neither feels as composed as Xubuntu. Xubuntu does more than just work. It creates a curated Xfce experience, with a lot of thought put into software selection. Debian is a little too hands-off in its software selection for Xfce, allowing the user to choose everthing himself. Mint is basically trying to cram GNOME into Xfce. Both OSs can be fixed by the user, but I like that Xubuntu doesn’t really need to be.

When we talk about Linux distros, we talk about stability and reliability and hardware integration. And those are all important things. But as those factors improve across distributions, user experience becomes more important. I can run any number of Xfce-based distributions and have similar reliability, but I’ll probably stick with Xubuntu because of their software selection. The maintainers think about how Xubuntu users might use the desktop manager and select programs to create a cohesive experience. Obviously, I could choose another distro and simply mimic the Xubuntu defaults, but why add in an extra step if it’s not necessary?

It’s safe to say that Linux now works easily in most (your mileage may vary) situations. So now, the next battle is creating distributions that create a certain kind of user experience. Unity is an attempt to do that. It’ll be interesting to see how non-Linux-inclined people respond to it.