Is Ubuntu Driving Users Away?

Monday Sep 12th 2011 by Matt Hartley
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A Linux pundit realizes his resentments about the Ubuntu desktop are shared by a good number of Ubuntu users.

Recently I've given a lot of thought to my first experiences with Ubuntu, back when Ubuntu 6.06 was popular. Previously I'd been reliant on non-Ubuntu KDE-based distributions and had only played with Ubuntu 5.10 before. But it was Ubuntu's "Dapper Drake" release that really caught my attention.

Previous to this, my experiences with Gnome were fairly limited. So when I began playing with Ubuntu 6.06 a bit more, I found myself appreciating some of the time-saving compatibility fixes I had missed elsewhere. From that point on, Ubuntu was a large part of my distribution list for my home office. I had fallen in love with it.

Flash forward to now, Linux users are presented with two Gnome-type solutions that both fail to offer the kind of experience I once enjoyed. At first I had thought this was a simple matter of me not wanting to change. Then I realized not too long back I opted to use an application called Gnome-Do over the "old menuing system" I had previously relied on.

Realizing this, it seems that "change" wasn't the obstacle here. The fact is, I've changed and tweaked my Ubuntu desktop countless times, often in some fairly dramatic ways.

Then after digging a little deeper, I came to the conclusion that my dislike for using Unity on Ubuntu was a simple matter of a distaste for the UI design. It simply wasn't the desktop experience for me.

Even more interesting than my own insights is the growing resentment among existing Ubuntu users feeling exactly the same way. Any random search engine query will yield ample examples of people wanting their old default experience back. Some feel so strongly they've decided to move on.

Users jumping ship?

Like myself, many users rely on Ubuntu not only for its ease of use, but also because it offers a huge community of support. This support translates into countless new software options, extended access to skilled users in forums, plus a rapid development pace. So the idea of jumping ship to another distribution wouldn’t be my first option.

Even though I also run Fedora and Debian here in my home office, my "daily use" workstation remains an Ubuntu powered PC. It just works without hours of tweaking. Therefore if I were to make the leap to another distribution, I might be tempted to take this into consideration. I might also be more inclined to switch desktop environments vs switching to another full-time distribution.

So based on everything above, I believe we'll see a split of users taking different paths. Some users will take a deep gulp and tolerate the Unity experience. Others users will consider using alternative desktop environments for their Ubuntu installations.

The last group may begin looking elsewhere for Ubuntu alternatives. Generally these are users who "distro hop" anyway. Therefore, the number of users leaving would have likely been the same regardless of what Ubuntu planned on offering for its desktop options.

Users who like Unity

Regardless of what I think about Unity, there are those people who really like it. Based on my research, I've found this group to be a mix of existing and new users who use Ubuntu because it's constantly evolving.

This is great news for Ubuntu developers who also think that the Unity desktop is the next logical step for Ubuntu as it works to gain a greater market share.

The real question however, is this: is Unity the best place to invest man-hours with extended development right now?

Think about it, will there be enough people who want to use the Unity desktop over alternative desktop environments? Anyone claiming to have a definite answer to this would be guessing. Truth is, it's still too early to determine who is going to stay and who will leave for other desktop environments once the Gnome classic option has been removed.

Unity 2D to replace Gnome classic

It's widely believed that the only alternative for Unity desktop users is to fall back to Unity 2D. Out of the box, there's some truth to this.

Using Unity 2D is the default alternative to the 3D effects used by traditional Unity. What should also be noted, however, is that you can install a Gnome classic fall back option. This provides users with the ability to enjoy a classic Gnome experience.

It's unfortunate, however, that I had to do multiple search engine queries just to find out if this was even a possibility. Despite the time spent searching, the fact is that it's possible. Thanks to the Ubuntu team pushing Unity adoption, I'm 99% positive you'll never hear about this option through official Ubuntu channels. And that's just sad.

So the good news for Gnome classic users is that we'll have a non-Unity option in future releases of Ubuntu should we want it. It's fascinating, though, that it's such a well-kept secret. But at least the option to side-step Unity 2D exists.

Exploring new desktop environments

At this point, the obvious question is: why should Ubuntu have to cater to my wants or desires? Couldn't I just use an alternative desktop environment instead of complaining about Unity?

Yes, I could do this. However, it's worth noting that others might not wish to do so or even realize that it's possible.

On the other side of the coin, most new Ubuntu users from 11.04 on will be selecting Ubuntu because they accept the Unity desktop as the default. And existing users will be facing the choice of trying another desktop environment or throwing their hands up and dumping the distro completely. It's a choice that quite frankly, could hurt the Ubuntu project in the long term if it isn't done with great care.

Ubuntu trying to emulate Apple

Anyone claiming Ubuntu isn't trying to emulate Apple needs to pay closer attention. This is exactly what they're trying to do, and they're doing a really terrible job with it.

Rather than attacking issues that I've listed so many times before in previous articles, the Ubuntu team is trying to reinvent the wheel with a new UI. I'd rather see work with the following:

-Branded dongles for wifi – no interest there.

-Avoiding really obvious regressions with key software included in the distro – again, not happening.

-Re-thinking their bug reporting system into something new users don't feel completely dismissed with – this isn't happening either.

But hey, at least Ubuntu was interested in spending lots of time rebuilding an interface that wasn't broken in the first place.

I realize that Gnome 3 isn't the direction that Ubuntu wanted to go in, but I honestly fail to see how Unity is any better. It's clunky, locked down and frankly needs a lot more time in the proverbial oven before it's ready for the mainstream.

However if Ubuntu felt the need to try something new so badly, why not spend some time addressing the issues I listed above? There's so much more to the Linux desktop than simply trying to make it pretty. Stability and functionality can also attract new users, you know.

I’m not trying to bash Ubuntu or the choices the developers are making in desktop environments. It's their distribution to do with as they see fit – my opinions be damned. And Ubuntu will likely remain my desktop distribution of choice thanks to the well hidden Gnome Classic alternative in Ubuntu 11.10.

Despite my choice to stick with it, I believe Ubuntu will lose some valuable users in exchange for appeasing new users who'll likely bounce back to Windows anyway.

But it doesn't really matter what I think. The greater volume of Ubuntu users have spoken. Ignoring its shortcomings, this progressive distribution has what appears to be an unstoppable user following. And it's this feature that will serve as Ubuntu's saving grace.

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