Ubuntu 11.10: Looks Kind of Cool But Who Is It For?

I decided to try out Ubuntu 11.10 on my Thinkpad T43. It was actually my first time using Unity, although I had used the Ubuntu Netbook Edition on a netbook, and I knew the two had similar UIs. This isn’t going to be a huge, in-depth thing because I don’t see how anyone is going to touch the Ars Technica review of 11.10 (DarkDuck’s Unity vs. GNOME3 review is also quite good).

I was very curious to spend some time with Unity. I know it’s controversial, but I’ve been intrigued by the idea that Canonical is trying to give Ubuntu an experience beyond what’s provided by existing desktop managers. It seemed like an interesting direction to take.

While the Unity interface is interesting, the code behind it still doesn’t seem to be there yet.

For instance, to make any kind of change to Unity, you need to download and install the CompizConfig Settings Manager and then edit the Unity plugin. There’s a shortcut to do this, using about:config from the Unity launcher. However, after updating my system and installing CCSM, I lost the Unity interface. After messing around and even re-installing Ubuntu, I figured out that the Unity plugin was being deactivated by some kind of conflict. I reactivated the plugin in 2D mode and Unity was back. But I had never even changed anything in CCSM to cause a conflict. It seemed to be something in the update process that caused it.

The side panel thing is kind of strange. I would guess most users would want to be able to easily customize it. I’m not a big menu person, so it didn’t bother me. The application launcher is nice, but I was never able to figure out a key combination to summon the launcher. I would have loved to be able to use something like Ctrl-space to pop it up and open files and applications. Having to click a menu key just isn’t as cool.

The side panel menu also seemed to get stuck sometimes, where it wouldn’t recede after I had opened a program.

And I don’t get moving the window control buttons to the opposite side of the screen. That just seemed mean. Or else, Canonical is trying to re-train our muscles.

I think some of my problems with the Unity plugin might have been related to using older hardware (my T43 is over five years old). But in my experience, most people run Linux on older machines. In fact, that’s how lots of people get into Linux. So why not optimize Unity for older hardware? Unity has the 2D option, but it’s not as eye-catching as the 3D version. And part of the appeal of Unity (I imagine) is that it has so much visual bling.

The UI is an adjustment, but it seems designed for newer users who don’t want to tweak their systems. But how many new Linux users are going to feel comfortable in a system where they can’t change any settings to make the experience more familiar? Or one where they have to download a program and navigate a wall of settings to make simple changes?

And the technical issues I encountered were shocking. Ubuntu installations have always been flawless and drama-free. That’s a huge selling point of the distro. Everything usually just works. And whatever doesn’t work usually doesn’t prevent you from getting up and running enough to fix the rest of your system. But my Unity issues were pretty rough and required some command line work to poke around and launch programs. I’m not sure a new user could have known how to even begin to get Unity back.

Unity looks cool. It’s simple. It’s not about giving users choice. It’s about crafting a very specific experience for them. I’m OK with that. I think the global application menu is weird, but I get that Canonical wants the screen to look seamless.

But I keep coming back to who Unity is for. It seems to be for new users who aren’t invested in an existing desktop environment. But it would seem to be designed newer Linux users who are willing to install Ubuntu on relatively new hardware. How big a market segment is that? Plus, the technical issues are going to be a huge turn-off for new users. The previous Ubuntu versions are much, much, much more new user friendly. You install and you’re ready to go in less than an hour. Unity took me longer to get going than my last installs of Ubuntu, Lubuntu and Xubuntu combined.

I know Canonical is looking to crack the enterprise market, but is enterprise ready for a totally new desktop concept? Windows 8 is already taking hits for being too different a desktop. Enterprise thrives on the familiar, not necessarily on the innovative.

I understand Unity isn’t for me and I think it’s a very interesting experiment. But it still feels like a work in progress. I’m not sure why Ubuntu didn’t hang with GNOME a little longer, even if they avoided GNOME 3, instead developing Unity as an option for early adopters. If there were Unity packages users could play with, without having it forced upon them as a default, I think more users might have been more open to the Unity concept. It wouldn’t have been as heavily tested, but changing a desktop paradigm takes time. It’s not something you can do in two or three releases.

Canonical has been rushing to get Unity up and running and it shows.

Change is good, but it needs to be handled well. Unity feels like change that’s still a little bit broken.