Ubuntu Unity, Unnecassarily Ununified

Mobile is all the buzz in the world of technology. Microsoft brought their phone interface to Windows 8 while Apple continues to borrow ideas from iOS for the Mac desktop. Not to be outdone, Canonical, the makers of Ubuntu Linux, forked the Gnome Shell to bring mobile UI elements to the desktop. This interface, known as Unity, has received much bashing from the Linux faithful. Previously I had very minimal experience with Unity. I installed it, looked at it, and replaced it with Gnome Shell and then went back to KDE.
I’ve been a KDE fan for years. I loved KDE 3 and it was my favorite UI for years. When KDE 4 was released too early and incomplete I switched to Gnome and even Windows for a while. Eventually, with KDE 4.4, I went back to it and it regained its place at the top of my list. I would tell anyone who cared to listen that KDE was my favorite and it was followed by Windows. But I like to give others a chance.
When Windows 8 RC was released I used it for 3 months to see if it was as bad as everyone said (it wasn’t). However, I happily scurried back to KDE when my experiment was concluded.
I keep a spare computer under my desk to install new stuff on and to do stuff too dangerous to do on my regular desktop. The other day I was re-installing Windows on it and I decided to throw Ubuntu Quantal on there as well to see how it was progressing.
Unity breaks many desktop paradigms. Previously I had installed it but not for long enough to get used to it and to see if it was superior to other desktops or just different. So I made the decision to put it on my main desktop. My goal was a six week test, to attempt to use it without serious modifications for an extended period. In this way I thought I could get used to it, experience the Ubuntu way without my previous expectations having a major impact. My 6 week adventure had to be brought to an early termination after 3 days. I don’t think my problem was that it was just different, I think it is more that Unity is not yet ready for primetime.
This is not to say that Unity is not perfect for some users, it is only for my personal use that it is inadequate. On a netbook or a computer with low resolution it may be much more usable than it is on my desktop. Here I’ll only briefly touch on the deficiencies that I found while attempting to not trash the concepts involved.
My setup involves dual monitors of differing resolutions a 22 inch (1680×1050) and a 20 inch (1440×900) with the larger one being primary. With this much real estate the integrated menu bar makes no sense. When I am working in a small file explorer window in the bottom right of the monitor I do not want to move 2 feet diagonally across the monitor to change a setting. Add to that the fact that the menu bar is hidden until you get close to it with the pointer and you have serious usability problems. Gimp has lots of stuff in the menu, I would go up and to the left until the menu bar appeared and then have to go back right to find the correct dropdown to choose a command. A second here, a second there, and pretty soon we are talking about real time wastage. While it is nice that Ubuntu attempts to get the UI out of your way, I think this is too extreme.
Moving the close maximize buttons to the left seems arbitrary and capricious. Over 90% of computer users are used to them being to the right. If Shuttleworth thinks he can win Mac converts with this move, good luck, and I hope he is happy with the targeted 7%. This is a small thing and comes down to preference more than anything else.
On my setup I turned off the dock on my secondary monitor. Still system tray and menu bar stays on both of them. I like the concept except the status messages would appear on the right side of the right monitor while I was working on the left monitor–this is over 3 feet away from where I am focused. One might as well project them onto the moon for all the good that they do. When I hover my mouse over the volume icon and scroll to change the volume, the visual would pop up on the secondary monitor so I would be forced to look one place while working in another some distance away.
I could find no way to force video and music players to open on the secondary monitor. Well, I actually found a way but it was byzantine and involved typing commands into terminal and then copying the output into Compiz and was generally a PITA.
Unity provides no method to browse applications by category. You can browse them all, but there is no means of filtering by use. This is another design problem seemingly adopted from OS X. There is a very good reason that despite its mind share, OS X has never achieved much market share: It looks good in a demo, but in real world environments it sucks to use.
Since there are no categories to browse, search is the preferred method to find and launch applications. But when you do this, you get Amazon ads for Windows software. I don’t really know what to say about this…WTF?
Ubuntu uses an older version of Nautilus with fewer features. Other Gnome software is also deprecated. Not sure what the point of this is.
Buttons don’t act like buttons. Generally when you click on a button it gives the impression of depressing to give you feedback, but not the Unity dock. Click and a second later it will glow and a short while later the application will open. This is probably no slower than any other desktop, but the mixed feedback makes it seem longer. Once again, poor design concepts.
For all of these reasons, I ended my experiment much earlier than expected. I installed Gnome Shell and deleted all traces of Unity. I’ve decided to use Gnome for the 6 week experiment. Will it stick? Will I scurry back to KDE when the experiment is over or will I come to love Gnome the way I do KDE? Time will tell, stay posted as the experiment ends in mid-March. One thing I can say already, with the advent of Gnome 3.6 and Windows 8, Gnome has moved up to be my second favorite desktop environment. Leaving Unity and OS X to fight over last place.


Gotta love Ubuntu..

Well, I actually use Linux Mint…an Ubuntu derivative.

This morning there were 5 updates/patches. I glanced through them and there was an update for Amarok (the world’s best music manager/player). As this was downloading I surfed over to Digg where the new release had just made the front page. Way to be on the ball Ubuntu.

Why is the GUI turning into a clownish experience?

I do my best to not care much about the underlying OS. I run my computer in order to run applications in order to achieve goals. I prefer to forget about the OS and concentrate at completing tasks.

However, the major GUI’s seem to be heading toward making their respective OS’s look very clowinish…some would say outright garrish.

Window’s XP’s system notification balloons constantly intrude into my work. Not that I am opposed to system notifications…MS needs to implement an easy means to set up filters on these. XP’s giant rounded start button looks like it belongs inside a child’s game, not left as a constant eyesore on my desktop. Basically the XP default GUI with its rounded bright blue in-your-face appeal, seems as if it were designed for a clown to use during a skit about how goofy computing has become. And Vista…don’t even get me started…the best thing I can say about it is that Gates and Co. still have time for a complete overhaul of the UI. Let me illustrate my point with a single example; in the Beta 2 when you click on the clown looking button with windows logo on it, then hover over the right column, the picture at the top of the column changes. When you are hovering near it, it is somewhat useful. But when you are further away from it, near the bottom, it just becomes distractful flickering at the visual periphery. Clownish! Because we can! Not because it might be useful.
On the Linux front, Gnome seems much more clownish than KDE, with Fedora Core 5 seeming to be the most clownish of the major distros. At least with Linux you get more tweaking options, you can turn the most clownish distro into a sedate desktop with just a little work.

OS X’s (Tiger) default install with the giant dock and things bouncing for your attention is pretty clownish too. With the recent announcement of Core Animation this is only going to get worse, just as XGL (or whatever eventually catches on) is going to make things worse on the Linux desktop. I am not here claiming these technologies are bad, I am simply stating that they will be mis-used. Apple’s own use of animation in the OS is outlandish enough, let’s not bring this power to every two-bit shareware developer.

I think clownish sells. It looks good in the adverts. It looks good at the demos. As computers become “good enough” it becomes increasingly difficult to sell an OS upgrade, so they duct tape eye candy nonsense on top to make it seem new and innovative. Enough already.

In my computing experience, Windows 2000 was the first OS to become good enough on the desktop. In my mind OS X 10.3x is good enough, also. Has anything been released or announced for these products which make them more usable? Only search, and that is rather trivial.
But this is not to argue against refinement of the GUI experience, I only argue that this refinement (or even complete overhaul) of the experience should be based on usability. Usability and….well, pretty much nothing else.

Where is the innovation on the desktop? Ubuntu gets credit for using a brown theme in defiance of the blue grey/silver/undefined light-color which predominates the desktop. MS gets credit for the next Office update. Anybody else?

All I ask is for a useful platform to run my programs without making it seem as if they reside within a child’s game. Is that too much to ask?