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Linux User’s Ubuntu Column #100 with Mark Shuttleworth

To help us celebrate the 100th issue of Linux User & Developer, Ubuntu founder, Mark Shuttleworth, agreed to take the reins from our regular Ubuntu columnist (Dave Walker) and take us through why he believes it was the right decision for Ubuntu to embrace the future with Unity...

Two years ago we set ourselves a goal: to make Ubuntu the slickest, most modern desktop environment around, and to make sure that all the pieces we used or built to achieve that were free software. This April we’re taking a major step towards that goal with the move to Unity as the default desktop environment in Ubuntu 11.04. It won’t be perfect, but it’s now better than all of our other options, and it’s ready for widespread use. Unity is a huge leap forward, and the timing couldn’t be better for free software or for end-users.

We are witnessing a profound shift in the way people think about personal computing. No longer is it all about work – computing is everywhere, all the time. It happens on your phone, on a tablet, on TVs and of course on your personal computer.

And for the first time, it doesn’t mainly need to happen on Windows. The internet has meant that connected computing can happen on any device at any time, and that means Ubuntu can make a real difference in the day to day computing of a much larger audience.

Touch and games are our inspiration. When we set about designing Unity, we drew inspiration from the world of consumer electronics. We wanted to produce something that felt more lightweight and easy to use than a traditional PC interface. We also wanted to take advantage of the incredible graphics technology that is found in every modern PC.

We studied game system interfaces, like the PlayStation and Xbox. We studied mobile products like the iPhone and looked for ways we could embrace ideas from those environments in the desktop. In particular, we took the view that touch-centric interfaces would come to the PC, and we made sure that key pieces of Unity are touch-friendly. That work will continue into the future, as Unity is an excellent basis for people who want to work on non-PC form factors, like tablets or television interfaces. While we won’t produce a tablet with 11.04, we know that many people are doing their own independent tablet work based on Ubuntu, and we are delighted to be a catalyst for all of that innovation.

Indicators and notifications
One of the first pieces of the Unity interface to be adopted in Ubuntu was work to provide a clean, immediate sense of the status of your computer. In particular, we noticed that the Windows taskbar and Mac OS panel tend to accumulate lots of little icons for independent applications, generating a large amount of clutter. When we tested people, they were often unable to tell what all of those icons were for.
So we designed a set of ‘category indicators’ for things like messaging and online services. Now, instead of having a number of icons for different applications, you can have a single icon that tells you if you have any important messages in any app, and clicking on it gives you a summary of new messages across all the applications which use the system.

Similarly, we have a category indicator for all the apps that you use to play music or which maintain an online/offline status. The effect is to clean up the panel substantially, and give people an immediate unconscious sense of being in control of their PC.

One comprehensive search
Today, people search for information. Rather than maintaining a list of sites for everything they might want to find on the internet, they go to their favourite search engine and find whatever they need right then. We’re bringing the same clean approach to the desktop, too. Instead of having lots of different ways to find applications or files or notes, there is just one great search interface. If we do our job correctly, you won’t ever miss all the old ways of finding stuff, because you’ll always get what you want in a fraction of the time, with a fraction of the effort.

The next version of Unity takes the first steps in that direction. You can find files or applications through the search interface. Members of the Ubuntu community have started developing all sorts of additional kinds of search, though, such as searches through YouTube or searches through Twitter. We call each kind of search a Lens, and we expect there will be hundreds of Lenses in a short time. So you’ll be able to do a lot of that initial searching straight from the desktop, and customise it for the sorts of things you need to find very often.

Beauty is a feature, too
Finally, we realised in 2008 that it wasn’t only about being great on the inside; the desktop of the future needs to be stylish and beautiful on the surface, too. So we’ve put a lot of work into the theming and styling of Unity to make it easy on the eye, as well as easy to spot the important pieces of information.

We chose to focus this work on removing a lot of the unnecessary clutter in the interface, to enable your content and your applications to hold your undivided attention.

The science of visualisation, and of understanding what the eye perceives, was very important for us in choosing what we’ll strip away and what we’ll preserve for this new interface. We’ve taken some bold moves: for example, we’ve hidden menus in the top panel of the screen by default, so that they don’t distract from your attention unless you are specifically looking for them. Also, we designed a new kind of scrollbar, inspired by mobile operating systems but still comfortable to use on a desktop PC with a mouse, that takes up a lot less room and allows you to focus more on
your content.

There is still a long way to go. But this is the most exciting time I’ve ever known for open source software on the desktop. It’s a great time to try it and see what that excitement is all about. I’ve no doubt you’ll find it a liberating experience.

100th issue of Linux User is out now!