Coming Soon to Linux Desktops

What's in store when the GNOME Project finally releases GNOME 3, and what will Canonical choose for the new Ubuntu?

It would seem ideal for Ubuntu's April 2011 release to include GNOME 3. However, Mark Shuttleworth has announced that Canonical will be taking a different direction and the next release of Ubuntu will feature Unity as the desktop.

According to Shuttleworth, the Canonical folks spent quite a bit of time analyzing screenshots of a couple hundred desktop configurations from the current Ubuntu and Kubuntu user base to see what people used most. They also wanted to identify things that were not needed in a lightweight environment.

They found that most users have between three and ten application launchers on the panel for quick access to their most-used programs. The new interface would follow that example and make a few applications instantly accessible, while still making it easy to get to everything else.

They also focused on getting the best use out of screen real estate. Unity initially was designed for Netbooks, where the screens were usually wide but not very tall. Now laptop and desktop monitors are moving to more of a wide-screen format. They realized they needed to be very conservative in using the vertical space.

Finally, they wanted the interface to be finger-friendly. Touchscreens are becoming more common, and Canonical wants Ubuntu to be ready.

This research and these decisions were the basis of Unity in Ubuntu Netbook Edition 10.10. And, according to Shuttleworth's announcement, Unity will be the default desktop for future editions of Ubuntu.

Rather than the traditional panels at the top and bottom of the screen, Unity conserves vertical real estate by moving the bottom panel to the left side of the screen. This panel also is widened to make it more touch-friendly. It will show a few icons for instant access to selected applications, and it also will display icons for all applications currently running. Programs currently running are shown with a small indicator on the left side of the icon. The application that has the focus has an additional indicator on the right side. A single touch or click is all that is needed to launch a favorite application or switch to another program that's already running.

The three-menu design of traditional GNOME has been replaced with a single global menu that you invoke by clicking a button on the left panel. The titlebar, including the Close/Minimize/Maximize buttons of the currently selected application, is rendered in the top panel.

When you open the global menu, the top panel displays a search field and the following application categories: All Applications, Accessories, Games, Internet, Media, Office and System. Initially, the All Applications choice is selected, and the screen is a mess with the icons for all installed applications on the display.

You can narrow it down by choosing one of the categories, so that only a few icons are displayed. Or, you can click the search field and type part of the application's name or description. This displays not only installed applications that match the search text, but also any matching applications available in the repository. Click the icon of the available program to launch Software Center with that application already selected. If you want the app, just click the Install button.

The result of all this is a display that has saved a significant amount of space and is optimized to use one application at a time. This is how most people work; you may have other applications running at the same time, but normally you interact with one application at a time.

Figure 2. The Unity Desktop with Firefox Maximized

Unity is available now, in Ubuntu Netbook Edition and as a PPA you can install in the Desktop Edition. (See sidebar for install instructions.) Shuttleworth said, “I'd very much like to get feedback from people trying it out on a Netbook, or even a laptop with a wide screen.”

Not all of these features described here are fully implemented, but they should be by the time Ubuntu 11.04 is released. Other things seem unfinished too. I couldn't find a way to make any changes, for example, to customize the launchers on the left panel. Presumably, this will be corrected by the time it's released.

And, if you don't like Unity? Don't worry; you still can install standard GNOME or one of the other desktops from the repository.


Both GNOME Shell and Unity are quite usable today in their current forms. We're not going to see the kind of problems and uproar that occurred when KDE 4 was released. The changes going into the creation of GNOME Shell and even Unity are far less ambitious than the changes that created KDE 4.

Unity also is a shell for GNOME, although it's completely separate from GNOME Shell. Unity and Gnome Shell essentially are opposite ends of the spectrum. Unity is designed for a simple environment where people tend to do one thing at a time, and Gnome Shell is designed for a more complex environment where users are doing multiple activities simultaneously.

Personally, I really like GNOME Shell on a desktop or laptop PC. My impression is that Unity will be a good choice for small touchscreens, but I'd rather have GNOME Shell or even GNOME 2 on a larger display.

But, that's just my preference. If you want something different, your ideal setup is only a few clicks away.