The Post Penguicon Unity Unification Story

Desktops: There can be only one.

This past weekend, I was a "Nifty Guest" at Penguicon. Being a nifty guest is both an honor and a curse. On one hand, you get that fancy "NIFTY" on your name badge, but on the other hand you need to dance like a monkey whenever asked. Thankfully my dancing was held to a minimum this year.

I did a session on backing up, which I'll be posting as a video presentation here on our website later this week. I also got to have a battle to the death with Jorge Castro from Canonical about Ubuntu's new Unity interface.

I've known Jorge for a couple years, but I was surprised to learn that he was heavily involved in the transition to Unity. It made my disdain for the new interface a little awkward, but at the same time, who better to address my concerns?

I still don't really care for Unity, but I'll admit the panel was very helpful in my attempt to deal with it. Here are some highlights. Please note the questions and responses are based on my recollection of the panel, so I've taken some liberties. These should not be taken as quotes:

We're waiting for one of our heads to explode, like in the 80s film

Shawn: I'm of the opinion that if something ain't broke, don't fix it. What was so inherently wrong with Ubuntu that a complete rewrite was required?

Jorge: While there were certainly some things wrong with Ubuntu, it wasn't because of some horrible failing that we decided to transition to Unity. As we've matured both as a company and a distribution, we have hired design and desktop experience people. We felt we'd be able to bring a new interface to users based on design-centric concepts and user testing feedback.

Unity has been designed from the ground up with accessibility, multitouch, and hardware acceleration in mind, which is great for OEM relationships. If our goal is to get more systems pre-installed with Linux, Unity will be a big step in that direction.

S: While there are plenty of things I don't like about Unity, there were also things I didn't like about the traditional Ubuntu desktop. The difference is that with the old desktop, I could tweak it to be something I liked. With Unity, we're forced to compute the "Ubuntu Way" with very little if any customization available.

J: Yeah, I wish we would have included at least a few simple customization options for Unity. Unfortunately, they just weren't quite ready and bug tested for release. The good news is there are some customizations that can be done, and in the future we'll see more and more things to change and customize. [NOTE: I'll have a link to those customization options at the end]

With the 11.04 release, we concentrated on making sure things worked well out of the box just as they are. Now that Unity is in the wild, we'll start seeing many other customization options start to be written. Getting a stable, consistent interface out the door was our main objective this release cycle.

S: Why do you hate menus so much? Did someone beat the design team with take-out menus or something? The new "dash" interface for launching applications is cumbersome at best.

J: I must admit, I didn't notice the concerns with the dash as much as some people, because I'm used to the Gnome-Do method of launching apps. I personally find it easier to hit the Super key and start to type the name of an application. If you are used to using the menu system to launch apps, yeah, I can see how that would be a problem.

The application lens [NOTE: "Lenses" are Unity-speak for programs that attach to the new dock/launcher and provide services] really needs a lot of work. It does some things really well, but some things are more difficult. That's one of the biggest things I'll be talking about at UDS the week after next.

S: You keep talking about lenses, what does that mean?

J: Lenses are really cool. Basically they are Python or Vala scripts that interact with the launcher to allow quick access to basically anything the developer wants. [Jorge demonstrated a "Books" lens that instantly retrieves book information from Google Books, and provides metadata and links to read the book]

Anyone can write a lens, and they can be distributed via PPA. If the lenses are popular, we can put the in the extras repository and make them available to everyone. I'm really excited about lenses!

S: Would it be possible to write a curmudgeony-old-man-application lens for people like me that want the old style menu instead of the "dash?"

J: Absolutely.

S: Jorge, I want to close with 3 questions. Where should people go with questions specific to Unity? Where do we go for information on tweaking and customizing Unity? And where is the proper place to make suggestions or wishes to the developers?

J: You can find lots of information on the web, find users on, your local Ubuntu team, or ask a question on There's also an askubuntu lens available for accessing that website directly from your Unity desktop.

I think the best place to get information on tweaking is my "Power User's Guide to Unity." I've included links to the most commonly asked questions, and information on tweaking your desktop.

As far as feature requests or wish lists go, honestly the best way to do that is with bug reports. How do you do that? Well, here's the answer from!

As it turns out, Jorge and I didn't battle to the death. It was early, we were tired. Maybe next time. I will probably still use the Ubuntu Classic option for 11.04, but after my panel with Jorge, I'm hopeful for the 11.10 release.


Shawn is Associate Editor here at Linux Journal, and has been around Linux since the beginning. He has a passion for open source, and he loves to teach. He also drinks too much coffee, which often shows in his writing.

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