The face of the Linux desktop is drastically evolving. While the Linux communities struggle to bring more business and home users to the Linux desktop, existing users face choices about adopting redesigned desktop shells or finding suitable replacements. The fallout might well be the start of a Great New Linux Schism.
The Linux desktop has always been rife with choices. The big two in the ongoing contest for desktop environment users is GNOME and KDE. Both recently underwent massive redesigns. GNOME 2 morphed into version 3.0 with a radically different look and feel. KDE 4 is also graphically much different from the KDE 3 lineage. KDE 4’s Plasma Desktop Shell brings considerable new eye candy and performance hikes.
But the XFCE desktop environment is a popular alternative. Plus, LXDE and more bare-bones systems such as FVWM and IceWM add to the growing options list confronting Linux users.
Not to be outdone, Ubuntu Linux operating system developer Canonical recently released version 11.04, known as “Natty Narwhal.” This latest version marked the official roll-out of the redesigned Unity scheme as the default desktop. First designed as the preferred interface in its Netbook Remix version 10.04 release, an expanded Unity scheme is now Ubuntu’s default desktop shell.
Perhaps the latest release of the widely used Fedora 15 distro will start a rush of users to the radically new GNOME desktop design. Canonical’s developers have yet to integrate a new GNOME option in Ubuntu. This might force Ubuntu fans unhappy with Unity to defect to Fedora or other mainstream distros sporting the new GNOME 3.0 shell.
Or will the fledgling Unity shell cross distro lines and become a mainstream desktop alternative? Ultimately, the adoption of GNOME 3 over Unity may depend on ease-of-use perceptions and end-user hardware.
“I use GNOME on both old hardware and new, physical and virtual, and find that its performance scales well. I am somewhat daunted by the stated hardware requirements of Unity,” Bill Weinberg, embedded and open source analyst and senior executive for LinuxPundit.com, told LinuxInsider.
Window Treatment Changes
Experienced Linux users accustomed to the window dressing and glitz that the Compiz compositing manager brings to their desktop graphics will lose their eye candy regardless of their move to GNOME 3 or Unity. GNOME 3 uses the Mutter Window Manager to provide a new style of eye-popping animation effects. Unity keeps Compiz, but the spinning pyramid along with the related Compiz features and workspace switching tricks are gone.
Compiz is a compositing manager that can also be a window manager. It improves user interaction by adding fancy effects to the desktop windows. Those effects, which are available in GNOME 2.x, are non-functioning in the new GNOME.
Unity is actually a reasonably good fit for many netbooks and presumably smaller-screen laptops. Its vertical launcher for wide screens works well. Plus, Unity has high-contrast visual traits and general newbie appeal, noted Weinberg. He also likes the application indicators, which are apparently accessible to application developers of all stripes.
A few key technical factors define the differences between GNOME3 and Unity as shells on the desktop, explained Rick Spencer, Director of Engineering for Ubuntu at Canonical. But their structure is also a big differentiator.
“GNOME 3 is a lot more than just the shell, whereas Unity is a shell for GNOME,” Spencer told LinuxInsider. So using Unity is not the same as not using GNOME 3.
For example, the GNOME shell uses the Mutter window manager, whereas Unity uses Compiz as the window manager. The Launcher and the Dash use their own GUI (Graphical User Interface) toolkit for doing 3D rendering. Unity has a Qt version that supports machines that lack hardware video acceleration, he explained.
However, from a user experience viewpoint, more similarities than differences probably exist, according to Spencer. Still, he thinks that the GNOME shell went a little further in terms of creating whole new modes for interacting with the desktop.
“Unity was a bit more incremental, preserving more of the metaphors and concepts from GNOME2.x desktops. I’m thinking of things like Unity preserving the ability to use icons on the desktop, for example,” he explained.
Much of the technical differences between GNOME and Unity center on their designated use, noted Jay Lyman, senior analyst for enterprise software at the 451 Group. For example, GNOME is more comprehensive in the applications and functions it presents to the user. Unity is lighter weight and more focused on a forward path to touchscreen use.
“Both have their pros and cons depending on user tastes. While different, I think both will continue to find use and traction, particularly as both continue to innovate and enhance the user experience,” Lyman told LinuxInsider.
Both GNOME 3 and Unity may find happy homes on specific types of devices, he believes. For instance, GNOME3 could have more significance on desktop and notebook PCs as well as for developers using those PCs. At the same time, we may see a preference for Unity on smaller devices, such as netbooks and particularly tablets, given the touchscreen positioning and capabilities that are part of Unity, according to Lyman.
“Similarly, given what we’ve seen in the past with Linux interfaces GNOME and KDE, we are likely to see support for all of them going forward, which is good considering the competition should drive more choice and innovation,” he concluded.
Spencer’s team did not create Unity, but it did integrate Unity into Ubuntu. His team was responsible for deciding whether Unity would be the default desktop experience. That gives him a unique vantage point to assess how the shell has been received so far. He sees three user camps, each with a different view of Unity’s usefulness.
One camp is totally delighted with Unity. This includes many long-time users, casual and power users as well as OEMs. Feedback credits Unity as being a clean and powerful operating environment, he said. These users find Unity easy to control with a rich set of keyboard shortcuts.
“We also get a lot of very positive feedback about the look and feel and also the snappiness and responsiveness of Unity. Many application developers are enjoying the user experiences that they can deliver with the Unity APIs, for example, by integrating with indicators and the launcher,” he said.
Another camp sees little change in Unity over GNOME, according to Spencer. For example, Unity has a launcher on the side instead of a panel at the bottom, and you click and type to launch apps rather then click through a menu.
A smaller but quite vocal camp of users complain about what they must give up to adopt Unity. Much of this is in the form of having to do things differently and feeling that they must relearn things such as how to launch apps, manage windows, track notifications and such, noted Spencer.
“Some of these issues I hope to see ameliorated via tweaks and enhancements in Unity over time. Also, some users have difficult-to-support video cards and experience some stability issues with the 3D window manager,” he concluded.
Those issues Spencer hopes to resolve fully for 11.10 and especially the planned LTS (Long Term Support release) in 12.04, he said.
Unity Vs. GNOME 3
Weinberg switched from KDE while working on the Desktop Linux Initiative at OSDL (Open Source Development Labs) in 2004. As a consortium, its members favored GNOME back then because it was more open and GTK was freely licensable for commercial use. Qt, which drives KDE, is a dual-licensed product of Trolltech, was not.
He has looked at Unity extensively with an open-minded view, he said. Despite some technical issue with it, Weinberg found using Unity on netbooks to be a breeze.
“It takes a lot of lessons from other UIs and takes pains to emphasize ease-of-use, at least on the surface. I found, however, when I wanted to do a somewhat deeper configuration of both Unity itself and of Linux in general, it was actually harder to use than my familiar GNOME desktop,” he explained.
Choice or Great Schism?
It may be too early in the process to accurately guess the impact of Unity joining the mix with GNOME 3.0 on the linux desktop. But Ubuntu’s Spencer is hedging his bet that Unity will fit right in. The goal is not to take over. Meanwhile, Weinberg is not yet convinced that the Linux world needs yet another standard to push. That is what Canonical’s Unity APIs are creating.
“Having two sets of developers focusing on design, interacting, collaborating and competing is going to lead Linux down a very interesting path. One which will attract a huge number of new users and introduce those users to software freedom and participatory communities,” predicted Spencer.
He sees Unity as a means to taking Linux onto a new range of consumer devices with Linux preinstalled. That will attract OEMs to the value that Unity can bring to Canonical’s customers. Differing desktops will continue to peacefully coexist, at least within the Ubuntu community, asserted Spencer.
“As for developing new apps using the recently minted Unity APIs, I am reluctant to speculate about whether developers really need yet another graphical/application framework, however slick, what with GNOME/GTK, KDE/Qt, Enlightenment and now Android and new bits of MeeGo to contend with as well,” he said.