It’s Time for Canonical to Stop Protecting Unity

GNOME vs Unity screenshots

I recently installed Ubuntu 12.04 on my T43, just to take it for a test spin, and because I had heard a lot of really nice things about the release. I’m still totally in love with OpenSUSE 12.1, which is my day-to-day home OS, but the vast Ubuntu repositories are always a selling point for me. I was curious if Unity was workable for me down the line.

The T43 is a great machine but its lack of a super/Windows key is always a bit of a challenge since more and more desktop environments map cool functionality to that key. With Unity, I had a tough time mapping a new shortcut to the Dash. However, I was eventually able to remap a shortcut to the launcher, because I try and avoid using the mouse as much as possible.

I’m still shocked by how complicated Unity is. Like how is the Unity plugin not its own application? And how is it not installed by default? Is this poor usability or is Canonical trying to dissuade users from making changes? I think it’s the latter given the warning from the CompizConfig Settings Manager, but all that warning does is make me wonder why making changes is so potentially dangerous.

Once I got the Unity shortcuts working, I felt like I was using GNOME 3, so I decided to install it, just to see how different it is in Ubuntu. GNOME 3 was also shockingly challenging to make function without a super key. But what I had working in my favor was understanding the GNOME 3 concept, and knowing what the different parts were called. I was eventually able to remap the super key, which calls up the search/application launching area, using dconf and changing the keybindings in org > gnome > desktop > wm > keybindings.

In general, the experience made me realize what a huge fan of GNOME 3 I’ve become. It works effortlessly for me. I use it fairly stock and don’t feel the need to make many changes, although I did install the shutdown button extension. Once I had the super button remapped, it felt just like home. I don’t think of it as a desktop environment so much as I think of it as the launcher I’ve always wanted.

Unity is fine to work with, but it still feels very similar to GNOME 3. I’m not sure why Canonical has spent so much time and effort making an environment that feels subtlely different from an existing one, but I appreciate that they seem to have resolved a lot of the technical issues I saw in 11.10. The lenses are an interesting concept, but I prefer to browse content through a web browser, rather than an application launcher.

Unity has the new HUD feature, allowing users to access application menus via typing. It’s an interesting concept, but because there’s no formal application nomenclature, users need to remember things like which programs Close to shut down versus which ones Quit. As much as I try to avoid the mouse, it’s usually pretty quick to just user the X button to close out of applications.

I was thinking a lot about the point of Unity when I had some interesting usability experiences over the past few weeks.

The first was using my friend’s MacBook to test some apps for work. I didn’t get the Finder area and had trouble identifying some programs along the dock. I made a comment along the lines of “This isn’t very intuitive, is it?” and my friend immediately disagreed and said he finds it effortless to work with.

Just a few days later, Linus Torvalds let loose with his now infamous rant against GNOME 3, which made me immediately realize that GNOME 3 is not working for everyone.

It seems painfully obvious to write this, but it bears repeating: not everyone uses computers in the same way. Any time anyone proposes there’s a magical, singular desktop experience that should work for everyone, we should all brace ourselves for failure.

And that’s really where I take exception to Unity. It’s not that it’s inherently bad — it’s that Canonical pushes it so hard on its users. They make it tough to customize Unity. They eliminate desktop competition. If a desktop environment isn’t customizable, there should be a variety of desktop environment options for users. In other words, if users can’t easily tweak an environment, it should be easy for them to choose a different one.

I can see how someone trying to tweak GNOME 3 might be frustrated by it. And for people who like using menus, it must be especially frustrating. But as someone who hates to touch the mouse, the GNOME 3 experience is fantastic. I feel no need to customize it because I only interact with it for the brief moment it takes to type the name of the program I need. Then, it disappears.

Windows 7 is actually shockingly receptive to this kind of workflow, with an amazing file search algorithm that seems to rate frequently used files above others. In that workflow, I hit the super key, type a file name, and Windows 7 shows me what matches. Right now a lot of my files begin with something like spring12, but Windows puts the ones I work with the most at the top of the list, making it easy to select and open, all from the Start menu. It’s a real time-saver, and is one of the few things I do in Windows that I wish I could do in GNOME 3 (GNOME 3 remembers recently-used files, but the search is not as comprehensive as Windows.’ Unity has a very nice search, though). Alas, it seems like this Windows 7 infatuation has an expiration date.

It’s important for distros to not only support different desktop environments, but also to curate them. Although OpenSUSE is known as a KDE-centric distribution, its GNOME implementation is fantastic. People seem to love Voyager, which is actually based on Xubuntu. Sabayon supports a number of desktop environments, too. That’s the way Linux distributions used to behave, before the emphasis on getting everything to fit on a single CD. It’s a tradition distributions should return to, making it very easy for users to choose and experiment with different environments.

GNOME 3 runs just fine on Ubuntu 12.04, but it’s a stock implementation. It’s great that Canonical believes in Unity, but it would also be nice if they threw some resources behind other desktop environments, too. Improving other desktops can only help improve Unity. Choice continues to be a core value in the Linux world. Canonical doesn’t inhibit choice with Ubuntu, but they could probably do more to promote it. As leaders within the Linux community (whether Canonical or the community likes it or not), promoting choice, even at the perceived expense of Unity, is very important.

It’s fine that Canonical has a vision for Unity that doesn’t allow easy user customization. But in the absence of customization, they should at least curate other environments so users have choice. The community-driven variants are great, but they’re not the same as a Canonical-supported environment.

If Canonical really believes in Unity, they shouldn’t be scared to put it up against KDE and GNOME and let their users pick which they prefer. Competition will only make Unity stronger, and in the end, that’s what everyone wants.