Ubuntu 10.10 Alpha: Slouching Toward Ubuntu GNOME

Wednesday Aug 25th 2010 by Bruce Byfield

The upcoming changes in Ubuntu GNOME inspire mixed feelings in many Linux users.

Ubuntu 10.10, codenamed Maverick Meerkat, is still two months from its final release. However, if the first alpha and the forecasts about it are an accurate indication, the release is already taking on a character all its own.

Specifically, Maverick may be the release in which the Ubuntu version of GNOME differs from generic GNOME to the point where it should be recognized as a separate desktop -- call it Ubuntu GNOME.

Of course, at this point, the character of the release could change. If you look at the blueprints for the release, you will notice that many features are incomplete, or still to be implemented at all. Still, the fact that many of the visible desktop changes are among the first implemented may suggest the emphasis that Ubuntu places upon them (although the ease of implementation or the enthusiasm of the developers may be factors, as well.) At any rate, this is a change that has been coming for at least a year, and in Maverick it is starting to become noticeable. Although all the changes in Maverick do not contribute to this impression, many do.

Those who want to explore Maverick for themselves can download one of the daily build Live CDs. Alternatively, you can see some of the new features in Maverick through the collection of MaverickMovies, a selection of videos about major features. Many of the videos are matched with inappropriate music, but if you turn the sound off, you can at least see some of the upcoming features. You can also try installing from the Live CD to a hard drive, although, if you do, the usual warnings about doing serious work on unstable software apply.

The New Installer

Not all the changes in Maverick contribute to the sense that Ubuntu is developing its own sub-version of GNOME. Of these neutral changes, the most obvious is the installation program.

The installer also features a simpler, starker look. What is most obvious, though, are the adjustments in functionality.

Over the years, Ubuntu has done its best to keep its installer simple. In the 10.10 release, simplicity obviously remains the goal, and some steps, such as the placement of the startup options in the installer, rather than a separate menu and reducing them to two -- Try Ubuntu and Install Ubuntu -- continue the move toward simplicity. So does the simplified partitioner, in which the options are reduced to automatically using the whole disk and manual partitioning.

However, at the same time, experience has apparently taught Ubuntu developers that more complexity is needed. Before you can start making any choices, the installer suggests that "for best results" you need 2.7 gigabytes of hard drive space, a system plugged into a power source (and not, apparently, one running from a battery), and an Ethernet connection (rather than a wireless one).

The installer also offers an option to install proprietary software -- mostly music codecs -- "if it is needed for a better experience" and another to choose the hard drive. Only then does the 10.10 installer settle into the choices of previous versions, such as the time zone, keyboard, and user account, or encrypting the drive.

Steps Toward Ubuntu GNOME

Many of the other features of the Maverick alpha are simple version changes of standard features and applications, such as the GNOME and KDE desktops, or the Linux kernel. Still others are changes in default applications, such as the replacement of F-Spot with Shotwell. For the most part, though, such changes have minimal effects on the Ubuntu menus' content or order. If you know earlier versions of Ubuntu, you are unlikely to have much trouble navigating the Maverick menus.

Yet the most noticeable changes are those that are starting to make the experience of working in GNOME different in Ubuntu than in any other distribution.

So far, there is no implementation of the so-called "windicators" -- the equivalent in windows of the panel's notification tray on the desktop, and elements that may supercede the window's bottom status bar. Those who are curious about whether the benefits of windicators can justify having the title bar buttons on the left side of the window will have to wait to see.

Meanwhile, though, they will have to adjust to yet another change in the title bar buttons. Where in the previous 10.04 release, the buttons from left to right were minimize, maximize and close, in 10.10, the order is now close, minimize, and maximize -- a change that will be responsible for many mis-clicks, I suspect, while users adjust.

Another still-to-be-implemented feature (at least in the nightly build that I am currently investigating) is Multitouch, which adds touch-screen capacities to the desktop.

According to Mark Shuttleworth's blog,"The design team has lead the way, developing ‘touch language which goes beyond the work that we’ve seen elsewhere. Rather than single, magic gestures, we’re making it possible for basic gestures to be chained, or composed, into more sophisticated ‘sentences’. The basic gestures, or primitives, are like individual verbs, and stringing them together allows for richer interactions. It’s not quite the difference between banging rocks together and conducting a symphony orchestra, but it feels like a good step in the right direction."

In Maverick, Shuttleworth goes on to say, a few Gtk-build applications such as the Evince document reader will have limited Multitouch capacity. So will the Unity netbook desktop.

Still another step toward Ubuntu GNOME is the introduction of the sound menu. Ubuntu already has the so-called me-menu and broadcast indicators applets in the panel to centralize the use of social networks and chat. Now, in Meerkat, the sound indicator is being introduced to centralize controls for sound in the same way.

Shuttleworth blogs that "You can have multiple players represented there, and control them directly from the menu, without needing a custom AppIndicator or windows open for the player(s). The integration with Rhythmbox and, via the MPRIS dbus API, several other players is coming along steadily."

Shuttleworth calls such features "Category Indicators," but, so far as I can see, opinions about them are divided. On the one hand, they do have the advantage of placing controls for widely used features where they are easily available. But, on the other hand, what is wrong with the controls that already exist, especially those that are added to the system tray? Also, while many people have multiple social networks open at the same time, does anyone really want multiple music players open at the same time?

I suspect that user consensus about Category Indicators in general and the Sound Indicator in particular will take some time to emerge. No matter what the final verdict, some users will no doubt simply ignore them.

From all indications, future releases -- perhaps even upcoming releases of Maverick -- will only add more of these changes. At some point in the next few years, Ubuntu's version of GNOME seems destined to have enough of these changes that it can no longer be considered mainstream GNOME. But for now, with the Maverick alpha, all we can see are indicators of this general trend.

What Rough Beast

These changes in Ubuntu GNOME inspire mixed feelings in many. Some think that Ubuntu should be praised for making innovations in the desktop, and probably some, such as Multitouch, will eventually find their way into mainstream GNOME and other desktops.

Still others note that Ubuntu is introducing these changes unilaterally, rather through the GNOME project, and -- even though the changes are available under free licenses – the company is not being a good community citizen by acting in this way.

Historically, it seems that Shuttleworth and other leaders of the Ubuntu team, having been unsuccessful in urging projects to coordinate their releases and to cooperate more closely, has decided to go their own way, developing for their own purposes rather considering the needs of the community as a whole.

Personally, I think that both these views are true simultaneously. I also wonder at times, especially when Shuttleworth blogs about complicated color-coding in Ubuntu documents or about the virtues of indicators, whether the Ubuntu designers are not occasionally in danger of falling prey to the curse of interface designers and obsessing over minutiae that nobody else cares about.

However, the verdict on Ubuntu's innovations is still to be reached. Probably, nobody will be able to judge accurately until all the changes are complete. For now, we can only look at indicators of the directions Ubuntu is taking, like the Maverick alpha, and see the dim outlines of the future slouching toward us with increasing rapidness.

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