Nov 8, 2011

Thoughts on the Ubuntu and Unity

Finally I tried it.

I must start by saying that I did not like Unity in Ubuntu 11.04, but I did not spend much time in it, so I did not have the time to really understand the idea behind it. However I was curious on the project and I could see some reasons for it. It looked weird and buggy anyway, so I just applied a "wait and see" policy...

Now I am on Ubuntu 11.10.
The design and the usability are much improved. It looks nice, it works smoothly. I had no problems, so after some general comments on Ubuntu as an OS, I will focus on the Unity desktop, which is quite a hot topic at the moment, and give my thoughts on it.

My conclusions? Ubuntu is getting better and better, and Unity can become a great unique interface.

Ubuntu in general

As usual good chances are the you will have not problems at all with Ubuntu. For me it worked out of the box. Live cd and installation were super easy, although many people still have no clue about how to boot from cd and what other things are (and those are usually not the people you can expect to learn it themselves). I also tried the live usb (persistent!) version on a netbook and it went totally smooth.

Ubuntu asked me if I wanted to install proprietary drivers, but it seemed to work even without them. On the web, when I first tried to watch a video, I was asked to install Adobe Flash, which opened the Ubuntu Software Center (USC) and installed. Then I watched the video and the quality/smoothness was excellent even in HD. I would rather not use Adobe Flash, but as long user experience is concerned, it worked perfectly.

Ubuntu, the basic install, is Free/Open Source software. However it proposes you to install proprietary drivers and it distributes proprietary software through the USC; now even non-gratis software. Here there are two very different issues: First, distributing proprietary software. Second, selling software.
The Ubuntu Software center

Distributing proprietary software
This is clearly done for at least two reasons - I will be very optimistic here. (i) First, to improve user experience when there is no better Free alternative, as on the case of proprietary drivers, probably Adobe Flash, maybe Skype(?). (ii) Second, to become appetible for software companies which may see an opportunity and eventually decide to distribute of their software under the GPL, something that might attract new customers (instead of making them lose customers).

I understand that distributing proprietary software goes against the Free Software philosophy, however it allows the system to really become an alternative to Windows/Mac OS X for a normal person who just wants the job done. The good point is then that the Free OS becomes attractive in practice and not only for the philosophy behind it. Yet explaining the philosophy to the new users is a must, if we do not want to create just another proprietary trap. My hope is that more people will start using Ubuntu (or some other distro) because they see the immediate practical advantage of having a better user experience, but that approaching the Free/Open Source world will progressively make them aware of the philosophy, so that they will eventually prefer Free software and demand it as a matter of freedom, rights and competitive markets.
But maybe this is too optimistic and distributing proprietary software will more harm than good... I do not really know.

Selling software
I have no problem with selling software, although of course not having to pay is better. Selling is not a matter of proprietary vs Free/Open Source.
Why paying for Free software, that you can get from other people? Because you liked it and want to support the developers, because you trust more the developer, because they offer the original product, because they have a better support... Why paying for proprietary software? The same reasons, plus: having it from other people is illegal, you have no choice and you may be locked-in.

Notice that, other things equal, a free software must spread faster than a commercial software (since you can have it for free from other people), but once it is spread the developer will have a large audience of people who know and like his product. And those people may be willing to pay/donate for the original product/support or for additional characteristics (maybe not as much as they are obliged to pay to get proprietary software, whose price is high due to monopoly power legally granted). And the advertising may be willing to support a very spread product. Selling software need not to be the only way to make money, nor the best one, but it is ok.

Cloud and Ubuntu One
Having 5G of free space on-line and managing it from within your OS, and from any other device, is great and competitive with other services as Dropbox. You have an Ubuntu One folder where you can drop whatever file you want or you can choose to synchronize files and folders outside the Ubuntu One folder.

System Settings
Having a centralized control for system setting is good. I don't see it as big improvement, since it basically was there still before in the old Gnome menu, but now they have made it very narrow.

The Unity Environment

The environment is fine and polished. The default colors give Ubuntu a clear identity.
On small screens such those of netbooks Unity is great.

The top panel and the Global Menu
The top panel is visually quite the same old Gnome 2 panel plus the Global Menu and minor changes. I like the Global Menu and I have used it for a while already before it became default. I think it saves space and make things rather consistent while windows are more elegant. Some people complain that it requires extra mouse movement, which is true but I do not really see the problem. Moreover the mouse movement will be exactly that you already for maximized windows, which people I've seen, especially Windows users (Mac users could not really maximize their windows until Lion), tend to like and use very often. In sum I think Global Menu is an improvement, however I would appreciate some easy customizability and the possibility to turn it off.

There is another issue I have heard with Global Menu: someone does not like the fact that the menu is visible on mouseover. (And by the way the ALT button will show it with the other shortcuts as ALT+F for the File menu.)
Here I distinguish two cases, one in which I think not having the menu always visible is good and one in which it may be not. It depends on the type of work you are doing or the application you are using. When you are a content consumer or you are doing basic work you do not really need to see a menu, either you do not need it or a small toolbar would suffice. For instance if I watch a video, listen to music, browse the web, navigate my folders, write an email etc. I do not need the menu very often, so having it visible only when I need it is fine. However I ma not sure it is a good thing to have the menu not visible when I have to do a complex job as a content creator. As an example think of making a complex document in LibreOffice: In those cases toolbars may not suffice and I will probably use the menu, and search in it what I need, quite intensively. In those cases having the menu visible could be better.
Note that for the moment the LibreOffice menu is not integrated into the Global Menu, but it is kind of inconsistent with the environment.
The Global Menu

Windows buttons and fullscreen
Since windows buttons have been moved to the left there have been people complaining. I do not really understand why such a change created so many complaints. Mac users had them on the left for ages and no one has a problem with it, non even Windows users who switch to Mac. I just do not see the problem and I think it is something you get accustomed to in 3 days.
The fact that buttons are now on the left allows a clever integration in the top panel when the window is maximized. I find this a great idea. Now when you maximize a window you get a quasi-fullscreen thing which is amazing. You have windows controls exactly where they should be, the global menu is still there, but you also see the system indicators. Everything seems very consistent to me.
Maybe it will be even more consistent if the buttons remained visible even with no mouseover, just as for a normal window.

The Launcher
The launcher is nothing new, it is just a dock for launching applications and managing opened windows. The design is fine. The intelligent autohide is fine. The Ubuntu button is clearly where the Menu (the Dash) is. The trash is at the bottom where one could expect it to be. Easy.

The dash is by default on the left. I think it is a good place. Many Mac users I have seen use their dock on the left. It maximizes vertical space on widescreen displays. The left position is also consistent with windows buttons, menus etc.: basically the idea is that controls are on the left, while second order things, as indicators and scrolling bars, are on the right. Fine for me.

Opened windows are indicated by a triangle on the left of its icon, which becomes empty is the windows is not in the current workspace; selected window is indicated by a triangle on the right of the icon. Very clear, but maybe not as visible as the standard buttons in Gnome 2 or Win. The last icon shows workspaces, whose design has been improved.

You add applications to the launcher quite easily by taking the app-icon from the dash to the launcher. Alternatively you open the app, right-clic on its icon on the launcher and select "keep on launcher". You deselect "keep on launcher" in order to remove it from the launcher. When you install an app from the USC it directly gives you the option to show it in the launcher. Finally you can reorder icons just by drag and drop. No problem. One thing that is missing is some right-click menu to add apps or manage the launcher.

The launcher aggregates windows from the same app by default (showing up to 3 triangles on the left), which makes sense since only the icon is shown. When you have multiple windows from the same app and you click on the launcher icon, it shows all the windows from the app (the scale compiz effect). I would also like to have small windows preview on mouseover.
The Launcher

The only thing of the launcher that I do not like is that clicking on the icon of a selected windows does not minimize it as I would expect; it just does not do anything. To minimize you have only one choice: click the window button. I see that when there are multiple windows this could be an issue, but as long I have only one windows, I'd expect it to be minimized by a click on the launcher icon.

Another cool thing of the launcher is how easy it makes to use shortcuts. Again there nothing really new here, but the way things are presented make them more intuitive. Super (Windows) button shows the Launcher and the Dash, if you keep it pressed only the launcher is showed but shortcuts are showed on the icons so that you can easily call them.
Something that I find useful: Super+w activates the scale effect on all windows.
Workspaces (Launcher icon or Super+s)
Scale Effect on windows from the same program (Launcher icon)
Scale Effect on all windows (Super+w)

The Dash
The Dash is essentially the Ubuntu Menu plus a search tool. Here I do have some criticism.
I like the design and the fact that it is big. The Dash gives a lot of importance to searching things by entering words. This is good and can be very useful. However the mouse way to search things has to be improved.
When you open the Dash the first thing you see are 4 lenses, 3 for searching apps and 1 for files. Do I need 3 lenses for apps? Below the lenses there are for shortcuts to applications: Firefox, Shotwell, Thunderbird and Banshee. I do not understand the utility of those shortcuts (I would add app to the launcher if I needed) and I do not understand why they are fixed.
Searching for apps is not as good as in the Gnome 2 cascade menu, where you had a clear structure with small icons and you could do mouseover to have a look at things. Now icons are huge, yes they are nice, but you get lost. It is true that you still have a structure by categories, but it is not as easy as for the Gnome 2 menu (and I am not sure that it is just a matter of how many clicks it takes). I understand that this kind of menu is more keen to touch screen displays, so I see the point, but it should be possible to choose how to see icons. I have in my mind something where you can easily switch from big icons or to a list of medium/small icons or to some other visualizations. I think this could improve usability.
The Dash

One frequent complaint is the lack of customizability in Unity. I do think that it should be customizable and I think it is going to be in the future. However I have read many critiques on this point and sincerely I do not see the point. We are in the Free Software world and Ubuntu is given away gratis. Canonical is free to do whatever they want and people are free to modify it, use it or not. I expect that Canonical as a company will try to do their best to make a success out of Ubuntu, and therefore to give people what they want and to deliver a good product. Hence I am quite sure it will be customizable up to a certain point. But otherwise it is up to the community to create additional things if they like Ubuntu. And I am looking forward to see some of these things as applets for the top panel, things for the launcher, dash mockups etc. We are free to do whatever we want.
What is important for the project is that people feel Unity is their project, that they are enthusiasts on it, or no one will work on it except Canonical. And it will be a failure.
By the way you can install "compizconfig settings manager" and easily customize some things in unity. UbuntuTweak also allows to customize things and is a great program. Another easy tool is MyUnity.
CompizConfig Settings Manager - Unity plugin

Why Unity
I just do not know, but I think it was time for something new and the trend is to build a single OS good for desktop, notebook, netbook and mobile devices. Gnome 2 was good. I tried Unity and I did feel comfortable. But I did not try Gnome 3 Shell, which I think brings many new concepts but seems a bit radical. So I can't really tell if Unity makes sense, if it is better of not than Gnome Shell. For sure it gives the Ubuntu project a clear identity even on the UI.

Let's see what happens...

Next possible non-economics post: My ideas for improving Unity! Stay tuned...

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