Why Distros Are (or Aren't) Using Ubuntu's Unity

Tuesday Feb 28th 2012 by Bruce Byfield
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Why do distributions decide to use or not use Unity? The answers aren't what you'd expect.

Referring to Ubuntu's emphasis on usability, Mark Shuttleworth described making Unity the default desktop environment as "the biggest leap forward in that mission that Ubuntu has ever taken . . . . We brought something new to the very core of the user experience."

That was ten months ago. Since then, many distributions have shown an unmistakable lack of enthusiasm for adding Unity to their repositories.

For instance, a small group of Debian developers is packaging Unity, but their work remains incomplete, with the preparation of one package blocked by a dependency problem. Moreover, to judge from seventeen months of light traffic on the mailing list, the project seems a low priority.

In fact, the enthusiasm for Unity is decidedly subdued in many quarters. On the LinuxQuestions' Members Choice Awards for 2011, Ubuntu remains the favorite desktop distribution, but less than five percent of voters were using Unity.

Similarly, a search on Distrowatch shows that, apart from Ubuntu, only two other distributions ship with Unity as the default desktop.

No similar search is available for comparison because Distrowatch does not distinguish between GNOME 2 and GNOME 3 in its search. However, major distributions such as Fedora and openSUSE now ship with GNOME 3, even though GNOME 3 is criticized almost as much as Unity.

So why are a couple of distributions using Unity while others seem in no hurry to support it? What follows are the comments of developers, mostly in their own words.

The Distros that Do

The distributions that ship with Unity have at least three things in common. Both are small, and have histories of close associations with Ubuntu. In both cases, too, using Unity is the result of a lead developer's enthusiasm.

For example, Dream Studio is a distribution aimed at musicians and graphic artists. Its home page explains that, in the interests of simplicity, "we aim to stay as close to stock Ubuntu as possible."

This explanation by itself is enough to explain Dream Studio's use of Unity. However, when asked, lead developer Dick MacInnis expresses strong support for Unity:

"Most artsy people I know prefer Apple products for their simplicity. When I began developing Dream Studio, I had always intended to move eventually to a UI with a global menu and a dock like OSX. When Ubuntu moved to Unity by default and Unity-2D development began, I immediately fell in love."

MacInnis adds that Unity is an improvement over the classical menus that spill across the desktop, and that "the integration of maximized window controls in the panel makes efficient use of screen real estate" and that the recent addition of HUD, a context-driven replacement for menus "has taken usability for the tech-unsavvy to [new] heights."

He approves, too, of an interface that can run on workstations as well as tablets, and finds the plans to make Unity voice-activated the fulfillment of his dreams.

"I challenge anyone to name a desktop environment," he says, "that works as well and as consistently across different system specs and form factors, all the while being innovative and keeping sane defaults for new users and configuration options for power users alike."

Aleksandar Ciric of Leeenux Linux, a distribution designed for netbooks, has similar opinions, but a few more reservations.

"Even before Unity, I was setting my desktop to be something like it: GNOME Do, Avant Window Navigator launcher on the left [and] Windows7-like snap to grid," says Ciric, "but Unity is more than that. However, I do consider that Unity's features are more useful on a small or touch device than on large widescreen displays."

Ciric also voices at least one reservation. "If it was a bit faster, it would be the perfect netbook environment. I could recommend Ubuntu only for netbooks with dual-core Atoms [processors] and more than 1GB of RAM." Perhaps for that reason, Leenux also plans to ship with GNOME 2 as an alternative desktop environment.

The Distros That Don't

Considering the wide-ranging discussions about Unity, you might expect the reasons for not shipping with it to be diverse. However, that is far from the case. Most developers who were contacted say they have no particular objection to adding Unity to their repositories, and almost all make clear that they see no urgency.

For some, the reason is simply lack of demand. A query to PCLinuxOS received an answer from a developer with the nickname Old Pollack, who replied, "We do not have the Unity interface in our repositories, nor do we intend to add it in the future. There is no demand for it, and all comments about it from those who have experienced it on a Ubuntu test installation have been negative in the extreme."

Much the same sentiments were offered by Clement Lefebvre, Linux Mint's lead developer. At first, Lefebvre found the whole idea "a really strange question," adding "I can't think of a single reason why this would even be considered."

Given Linux Mint's efforts to fork GNOME 2 with MATE or else to re-create it on top of GNOME 3 with Cinnamon, this response is hardly surprising -- Linux Mint has chosen to focus its efforts elsewhere, and its priorities are proving so popular that, for several months, Linux Mint has received more page views on Distrowatch than Ubuntu. To many, Linux Mint is now Ubuntu's chief competitor.

However, Lefebvre later expanded:

"I'm not sure there's much to say about it. It's not useful to use . . .just [like] Enlightenment and Fluxbox. These desktops have a small following, and they're popular [within] niche audiences. If there's enough of a demand, we consider supporting them in a dedicated edition (we did so for Fluxbox). So far there's been no demand for Unity."

Interestingly enough, on Linux User and Developer Lefebvre has mentioned a personal dislike, saying "I don't like Mac OS, and that's probably the main reason I have no interest in Unity," although he also says his personal reaction does not affect Linux Mint's policy towards Unity.

Jos Poortvliet, community manager for openSUSE, gave a more detailed answer. According to Poortvliet, openSUSE did have one community member named Nelson Marques working on porting Unity. Marques abandoned working with the default version of Unity a year ago, but did manage to get Unity 2-D in reasonable order before refocusing his attention Mate.

Currently, three other developers are committing patches to Unity in openSUSE, but whether the next release will include it is still undecided. The code is listed on openSUSE's build service as failing to compile "because currently compiz isn't on the repo with the necessary changes."

By comparison, Razor-Qt, a much newer and lesser-known desktop than Unity, has two developers, and is an official project rather than a private project like Unity.

In the end, though, Poortvliet concludes that there is no reason that Unity won't be added to openSUSE so long as people are interested in doing the work and produce quality work:

"Our policy is that our name is OPENsuse [his emphasis], and if people want to do something and come up with quality stuff (which isn't illegal or anything like that), they can do it. Barriers to contribution in openSUSE exist -- sometimes it is hard to figure out how to do things; our documentation can be rather shallow, and we have some German directness which can be off-putting. But we don't put up artificial barriers or bureaucracies, committees, steering groups or (benevolent or not) dictators."

Other developers in other distributions could be quoted, but their remarks would just be more of the same. There would be occasional expressions of dislike, but mostly a sense that packaging Unity is something they mean to get around to some day, but not today.

How the Mighty Have Fallen

Unity remains central to Ubuntu's plans. However, if these reactions show anything, it's that Unity has managed to capture the imagination of only a minority in the free and open source software community. While a handful appreciate its innovations, and some express a dislike -- possibly based on Ubuntu's previous interactions with the greater community -- the majority see nothing in Unity that is compelling or worth making it a priority for their distributions.

To that extent, Ubuntu might be called a failure. But, considering Ubuntu's efforts to get a toehold on every hardware platform available, that may not matter: Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial arm, seems more interested in attracting new users than in enticing community support. And, perhaps, Ubuntu's popularity is great enough that this strategy will make Canonical profitable at last.

Still, the lack of strong support is a sad reversal of a few years ago, when Ubuntu's priorities, such as usability, influenced the entire community. The reaction to Unity suggests that today Ubuntu is increasingly insular, its developments of interest primarily within its own circles. If so, then I can't help thinking that both Ubuntu and the greater community are the worse for the situation.

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