It’s argued that “desktop Linux” just isn’t going to happen, but a fair amount of credit has to go to Ubuntu for pushing that prospect quite a bit ahead. Other consumer-oriented distros have existed for quite a while, such as SuSE, but Ubuntu has a couple of things going for it. It’s had a good financial backing, a clear direction, and excellent execution. Since the first version came out in late 2004, Ubuntu has become one of the most popular choices around, even becoming the base of other distros.
Over the years, Ubuntu’s developers have tried many different things in order to give people the best desktop experience possible, and for the most part, I can’t recall major complaints from anything done. But, that might not last much longer, as a change planned for 11.04 is in all extents, a major one.
For the entire life of Ubuntu up to now, it’s used the GNOME desktop environment as its front-end, as it’s easy-to-use and for the most part, feature-rich. Plus, it has an active development team, and compared to KDE, it doesn’t look so much like Windows (I actually have no idea why Ubuntu chose GNOME from the get-go… perhaps the developers were easier to work with).
With the newly-released 10.10 edition, Canonical brought a new desktop environment to its “Netbook Edition”, called Unity. The goal of that environment is to allow people to maximize the little amount of space their netbook or small notebook avail them. As it is, I haven’t given Unity a fair go, but judging from quick use and screenshots, it does look like it has potential.
Well, it must have more than just a little bit of potential, because Canonical has decided to pull GNOME back in 11.04 and replace it with Unity. Yes, not only on the netbook version, but the desktop variant as well. Being that Unity was designed for simple netbooks, it’s clear that the developers plan to expand it and, well, deliver a better environment than GNOME.
Make no mistake, this is a huge, and very risky move. Anyone using Ubuntu is familiar with GNOME, so to change the entire environment is not a small thing. It’ll require people to relearn the OS to some degree, and hopefully end up preferring it over GNOME. Since GNOME has been around for ages, Unity is going to really have to be impressive in order to not start a war. With 11.04, Ubuntu will become one of the few distros to ever exist that haven’t relied on an already-developed environment, like GNOME, KDE, Xfce and so forth.
Things are going to get interesting, that’s for sure. I can’t wait to see how things fare closer to launch, because this is surely one of the more ambitious things Canonical has ever attempted.
“Desktop Unity” will be installed as the default desktop for users whose hardware support it. Improved work on the hardware front will ensure as many uses are able to benefit from the unified interface as possible. Further work on improving window management and performance along with better accessibility will be key aims for Unity development during the Natty cycle.