Desktop Linux: Has Ubuntu's Unity Surpassed the Mac?

Tuesday Sep 18th 2012 by Bruce Byfield
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Shuttleworth claims to have made good on his challenge to provide a better desktop than OS X. Can his claim survive a close scrutiny?

At OSCON in 2008, Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu and Canonical, challenged the crowd, "The great task in front of us over the next two years is to lift the experience of the Linux desktop. Can we not only emulate, but can we blow right past Apple?"

The challenge was a defining moment for desktop Linux, coming near the start of an era in which KDE, GNOME, and Ubuntu would all attempt to rethink the desktop.

Four years later, speaking again at OSCON, Shuttleworth implied victory. "We've leapt ahead of some of the competition," he said, claiming that Ubuntu's Unity desktop was now the second easiest to use after Windows, and showing specific elements in which he felt Unity surpassed Mac OS X.

The announcement of victory was quieter than the challenge -- unsurprisingly, perhaps, considering that it came in four years, not the promised two. However, design considerations, their receptions within Ubuntu, and Ubuntu's interactions with other projects concerned with desktop Linux all forced delays that he could not have foreseen in setting the challenge.

Nor, originally, had Shuttleworth specified that the challenge was to develop an interface as equally suitable for a workstation as a mobile device, although a few months later, he was thinking in those terms.

Most of all, the challenge was addressed to free software in general -- or was widely interpreted that way. In the context of the times, the challenge appeared another of Shuttleworth's efforts to reform how projects cooperated.

However, the community proved largely unwilling to place itself under his direction, and in practice Shuttleworth and Ubuntu committed themselves to improving usability in isolation.

Still, even under these revised terms, the question remains: Is Shuttleworth's claim of victory plausible?

To find an answer, I compared the version of Unity in the current release of Ubuntu 12.04, with OS X 10.6.8 -- not the latest version, which came out shortly after Shuttleworth spoke, nor even the next to current version, but one that remains widely in use and therefore seems a fair basis of comparison.

The answer, I quickly found, was far less straightforward than I expected. For one thing, the major differences are confined to two main sets of feature -- the launcher or dash and the menu replacements. For another, how you answer is likely to depend strongly upon your assumptions about what a desktop should do.

Internal Logics

At first, Shuttleworth's claim seems unlikely. No doubt Ubuntu's design team can cite reasons for each of its decisions, but the only people who haven't observed Unity's similarity to OS X must be those who have never glimpsed a Mac.

It is not just that Ubuntu's default Ambiance theme uses a gradient wallpaper with a family resemblance to OS X's popular Aqua theme. Rather, the family resemblance extends across the desktop.

Functions are positioned according to slightly different logic, but the positioning of major features is similar in both OS X and Unity, down to the positioning of title bar buttons to the top left of the window.

This similarity is especially noticeable in the panel. In both Unity and OS X, the left side of the panel is reserved for the menus of the current application. Here, Unity's major claim to improvements is the fact that it conceals the menu until the mouse passes over it, producing a less cluttered look for someone looking at the desktop.

On the right are the traditional indicators for Internet connections, battery status, chat availability and the current account. Neither Unity nor OS X allows users to customize the panel with widgets as KDE or GNOME 2 do, but OS X uses indicators far more freely than Unity.

Unity, in comparison, can boast of having the ability to embed a particular application in an indicator for over a year – something that OS X only gained in the latest release.

This similarity with minor variation is an immediate challenge to Shuttleworth's claim. With so much similarity, how convincing can any claim to superiority possibly be? Even improvements are diminished by the fact that, without the original, the improvements would hardly be possible in the first place.

Launcher vs. Dash

One of the main places where strong differences appear is Unity's launcher and OS X's dash (not to be confused with Unity's menu replacement of the same name, although it almost certainly will be).

OS X's dash has far more in common with Linux's Avant Window Navigator than with Unity's launcher. The OS X dash is highly configurable, with its position on the screen and the size of its icons all adjustable. A right click opens a context menu of possible actions.

By contrast, without plugins, Unity's launcher remains fixed on the left side of the screen. The size of its icons is also fixed, and its context menu tends to have only the most common options available.

However, unlike OS X's dash, Unity's launcher does double duty, displaying open applications as well. It does this with an elegant economy, indicating open apps with a left arrow, and the current app with the right arrow.

Both the launcher and the dash struggle with space limitations. The problem is especially acute with Unity's launcher, which is scrollable and uses semi-collapsed icons on the bottom to save space.

But, unfortunately, the ingenuity of this widget is marred by the fact that identifying the collapsed icons is difficult. On the whole, the widget is far less successful than the spinner on the OS X dash. Creating a wheel of half a dozen enlarged icons anywhere along the length of the dash, a spinner is far easier to read than Unity's collapsed icons.

Despite some innovations, in the end, Unity's launcher is a simplification of OS X's dash. The simplification makes Unity far less intimidating than OS X's dash, and probably quicker to learn. However, experienced users, I suspect, will find OS X's dash more flexible and adaptable to their individual needs.

Ubuntu Dash vs. OS X Finder / Spotlight

The divergence of menu replacements is the second area where Unity and OS X converge. This is a problem that many desktops struggle with, and Unity and OS X are no exception.

If you can't find an application on the launcher or the dash, both Unity and OS X provide alternate tools. In the simplest case on OS X, users enter the application name in the Spotlight field on the top panel. If that fails, they can open the Finder, a combination of file manager, menu, and system bookmarks with a variety of views. The Finder looks like it could have been designed a decade ago, but is a powerful and centralized tool.

By contrast, Unity relies on its dash, a screen-wide replacement for the menu. By default, the Unity dash displays Recent Apps and Recent Files. However, results can be limited by lenses – predefined filters -- or by entering text in the top search field, with auto-completion suggestions changing as you type. The Unity dash has no system bookmarks, although immediately below it on the launcher is the file manager.

Functionally, OS X's Spotlight and Finder and Unity's dash are approximately equivalent. Unity's dash is more visually sophisticated, but, against its power and ease and use is the fact that it occupies the entire screen. Despite a transparency effect, opening the dash means interrupting what you are doing in a way that using the Spotlight and Finder do not.

The dash would probably be effective on a mobile device, where such interruptions are the standard. However, despite their lack of polish, the Spotlight and the Finder are less of a distraction when you are trying to concentrate, simply because they don't remove you from the screen.

In his 2012 keynote, Shuttleworth also mentioned the Head-Up Display (HUD), which replaces traditional menus with field completions as you type. However, whether HUD should be taken as an example of Unity surpassing OS X at this point remains doubtful.

HUD is a work in progress, and, to take it too much into account at this point seems, unfair. But, in its present state, it is an even more annoying interrupter of productivity than the dash because it is much slower to use, and has no means other than trial and error to search for a particular item.

Evaluating Success

Chronology alone makes Shuttleworth's claims for Unity hard to accept. When OS X is eleven years old, and Unity less than two, how likely does it seem that Ubuntu could have developed into something better? Compare the relative resources of Apple and Canonical, and the idea seems even more implausible.

Something, too, seems ungracious about claims to have surpassed software that you have modeled your own so closely upon.

All the same, Shuttleworth's claims are harder to dismiss than skeptics might expect. Although many of Unity's design innovations are mostly minor and some are controversial, Unity does have more original features than many admit.

However, what you think of Unity's innovations is apt to depend on your ideas of what a modern desktop should be. On the one hand, if you think a modern interface should be aimed at new users, and equally at home on a variety of software platforms, then probably you will regard Unity as every bit the success that Shuttleworth claims justified -- perhaps not resoundingly so, but legitimately all the same.

On the other hand, if you value an interface for its configuration options, and its ability to meet the needs of users with varying degrees of experience, then you are more likely to conclude that Unity still has a ways to go before it can match, much less overtake OS X.

Choose your assumption, and the conclusion soon follows.

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