Over the last 18 months Ubuntu, the Linux world’s most widely recognised distribution, has undergone the most intense period of development of its eight-year existence. This period of transition hasn’t been easy for Canonical, which has taken on the monumental task of reinventing Ubuntu’s GUI in the face of vocal opposition from a sizeable portion of its user base.
When we recently interviewed Canonical CEO, Jane Silber, she spoke quite candidly about the run up to Unity, not to mention the perception of arrogance to their approach. Encapsulated within just a few sentences she also managed to touch on what some consider being the company’s biggest triumph, and others its most fundamental flaw.
On the plus side, Unity proves that open source software development and UI design don’t have to be disparate or incompatible disciplines. “If you go back three years nobody was talking about design, nobody was doing user research,” said Silber. “It is actually something we have had great influence on, by calling attention to it and putting our efforts there.”
There’s no doubt that design, ergonomics and usability are pillars of modern software design and key areas in which open source has lacked any real focus in the past. As Unity’s many critics might argue, however, focus is exactly what Unity lacks. And this is all but confirmed in Jane Silber’s next sentence:
“I think, whether you like Unity or not, its existence has helped raise the bar across a number of projects.”
Silber is, of course, referring to the recently announced Ubuntu TV and Ubuntu for Android projects, probably not to mention an unannounced tablet offering among other plans. This is where the real focus of Unity lies, not the product we’re evaluating today.
For these particular projects Unity makes perfect sense and we’re excited about what Unity can offer in touch-screen, TV and small form factor scenarios – it opens up a whole new world of possibilities, but this long-term promise comes at the cost of their flagship desktop offering.
Having already weighed up the core features of Ubuntu 12.04 from both positive and negative perspectives, we’ll save you from the already heavily publicised minutiae. Speaking in broad strokes Unity does little to improve usability; conversely, it’s actually quite detrimental in some areas. While it is no doubt a marvellous test bed, most desktop users aren’t reaping any kind of reward for this. Ubuntu has lost its focus.
Unity is almost as relevant to Ubuntu 12.04 as ASIMO is to Honda’s latest hatchback. It’s a technical exploration of a future problem – a concept destined for products still some years away from mainstream availability.
When you boil Unity down to its most basic premise, one core complaint that existed in 11.04 still exists today and is summarised quite nicely in a passage from Linux User’s Ubuntu 11.10 review:
“There’s a fundamental flaw no measure of tweaking and iteration can truly remedy: it’s too difficult and time consuming to find what you’re looking for.”
Ultimately Ubuntu12.04 is not a pleasant experience for home office or professional users requiring either more mouse clicks or time away from the mouse typing searches.
It puts us in mind of Sir Clive Sinclair’s C5 personal electric vehicle. It was a product arguably 30 years ahead of its time, but Sinclair’s quintessentially British electric three-wheeler, with its canopy permanently open to the elements, simply wasn’t compatible with the quintessentially British weather. Once off the production line no amount of iteration could have saved it – it was never going to work.