Why Is Ubuntu's Unity Squeezing out GNOME 3?

Monday Apr 25th 2011 by Matt Hartley

Given that Unity might be the Windows Vista of the Linux world, shouldn’t GNOME get more focus?

Not too long ago, I wrote about Ubuntu's embrace of the Unity desktop and what that would mean for Ubuntu users who might prefer a traditional GNOME shell.

At the time, I was called out by some readers regarding my belief that Ubuntu was limiting itself with its choice in relying on Unity. Now as we approach Ubuntu 11.04, it looks as if I might have been right all along.

While users can certainly select the older GNOME shell, the move to the Unity desktop has clearly not been greeted with unanimous applause.

Unity is not GNOME 3

One fact that ought to be made clear from the start is that in the name of Ubuntu seeking to make Unity their default desktop experience, the development team has indeed locked some users into a singular desktop experience. "But Matt, that's nonsense! Users can install any desktop they choose! Besides, if they want GNOME 3 instead, users can just add the PPA repository for it!"

The above statement is what I feel makes this entire thing surrounding Unity so amusing. In the Ubuntu development team's desire to make Ubuntu more "accessible," they're actually assuming new users even realize other desktop environments are possible.

Newsflash – most of the newer users I encounter have no idea that another desktop is even an option.

This means when a less informed Ubuntu user sees the GNOME 3 provided shell on distributions such as Fedora, they may find themselves making the switch away from Ubuntu. While this matters little to the community at first glance, longer term this only adds more fragmentation to the community at large.

”Unity,” indeed.

Is Unity even worth it?

I know of many people who feel strongly that Unity is the next logical step for Ubuntu. And it's entirely possible that the Unity desktop could be well received by most people. That's something we'll have to wait and see how it turns out.

From my perspective, however, I think it's not only going to be a massive disaster for the existing user base, but I'm skeptical as to the value Unity will deliver in the first place. Then again, the same could be said about the default shell provided by GNOME 3 on other Linux distros.

Xfce is looking great these days

Speaking for myself, I'll almost certainly be selecting the Xfce desktop, as I've had enough of GNOME and Canonical. The dumbing down of the Linux desktop environment is bordering on insane.

Half of me finds this entire process amusing, while the other half is getting tired of Ubuntu making the Linux community look foolish with heavy-handed motives. Unity is to Linux what the Windows XP UI was to Windows users. It feels like some dumbed down, "Fisher Price" experience gone terribly wrong.

Some may disagree with me on this, but I stand by my opinion. Given more time, Unity could actually become something very useful for netbooks and tablets. But in its current incarnation, it just stinks.

I don't hate Ubuntu

I have no problem with Ubuntu per se. Much of what their developers have done has been nothing short of amazing. They've taken the magic that is Debian and created a powerful community around it. This is commendable.

As for the Unity desktop, it has the potential to become a mature alternative to what most of us are accustomed to. And yet I still argue that it's nowhere near ready for prime time, either in stability or in general layout, but that is up to each individual.

At its very best, I see Unity as a being a great option for netbooks and later on for tablets. But on the mainstream desktop PC for casual Linux users? No way, it's never going to work.

If I do use Ubuntu on any of my desktop machines, I'll be using the distro with another non-GNOME desktop. Between GNOME 3's shell leaving out the minimize option, to the lack of customizability from Canonical's Unity desktop, I just can't take it anymore. The entire GNOME 3 shell vs. Unity debate has me spinning in circles.

Work-a-rounds vs real user choice

As previously mentioned, I explained how one could add a PPA repository to basically allow for the removal of the Unity desktop and replace it with the traditional GNOME 3 shell.

Some users might even feel good about calling this a solution to the whole Unity alternative issue. Wrong.

What's actually possible is for users to either default back to an older GNOME experience or remove Unity in its entirety instead. Using the PPA solution is a hack, nothing more.

Some of you might be quick to point out that, to a degree, the Linux desktop is basically a series of hacks. This may be true, but this isn't the position that Canonical's taking with their push to offer Unity. Unity alternatives shouldn't require people to hack past the default Ubuntu desktop.

Opportunity and compromise

To prevent this piece from becoming nothing more than a spotlight on a problem with Ubuntu, allow me to suggest a compromise.

When I visit Ubuntu.com, I'm instantly bombarded with the feeling that it's a "Unity experience" only. Why not make a greater effort in highlighting some of the Ubuntu derivatives?

The derivatives page provides some great GNOME desktop alternatives. Yet what I find annoying is that the derivatives webpage link is at the bottom of the homepage footer in the smallest text possible. No one is ever going to think to look there for an alternative to the Unity desktop.

This is a real shame, considering many might otherwise like the Ubuntu core but wish to try a different approach to the desktop environment.

Canonical feels strongly about using GNOME 2.x with their Unity desktop shell. Yet many existing users will find themselves less than impressed with the limits placed within the Unity experience. Why not provide plenty of detail about the desktop environment alternatives out there?

I don't mean buried in the existing website, but during the installation. Why not mention that if the Unity thing isn't working out, users can indeed try some of the great derivatives using the Ubuntu core? I simply don't see this as being such a big deal that derivatives can't be given more of the spotlight.

After all, if Unity goes over as badly as I think it might, wouldn't it be a good idea to have some alternative desktop environments at the ready?

Desktop split testing

Another possibility is that in addition to more outward support for Ubuntu derivatives, Canonical might have been wise to try some desktop split testing. Wouldn't it have made sense to have done testing with both Unity and GNOME 3's shell? Surely if GNOME 3 is so devoid of what the users want, testing both options would only serve to shore up Canonical's views?

Final thoughts

I want to reiterate something that will likely come up later. First, I enjoy using Linux on my desktop and have been an Ubuntu user for many years. I'm thrilled to see the Ubuntu developers take a stab at something new, even if I find it to be painful to use. Where I have a gripe is in the fact that the developers based their desktop on a very singular view. Others will disagree and that's perfectly fine with me.

Lastly, if split testing is something that just doesn't make any sense as it requires too many resources, why not at least give the Ubuntu derivatives some extra emphasis? What better way to absorb any potential PR fallout pointing to alternative desktop options using the Ubuntu core?

At the end of the day, nothing covered here is the end of the world. If Unity is a smashing success, I will be thrilled for all those involved. But if I'm right and this becomes the Windows Vista of the Ubuntu experience, I fear that not utilizing at least some of my suggestions above will yield some nasty blow-back for everyone involved.

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