Ubuntu's new Unity interface is a geek's paradise: It has fancy eye candy and myriad keyboard shortcuts, and makes it easy to call applications directly from the command line. But is it equally suited to the desktops of "normal people"? Here are some thoughts.

In case you haven't heard -- and if you're not a geek, maybe you haven't -- Ubuntu 11.04 debuted a couple weeks ago, bringing a major change to the desktops of Linux users around the world in the form of the new Unity interface. Traditional GNOME (version 2.32.1, to be exact) is still available as an option at login under the title "Ubuntu Classic," but by default, anyone performing a new installation of the operating system will be presented with Unity.

I've tested Unity in its different iterations since it was first introduced a year ago. Now that I've upgraded my production computer to Ubuntu 11.04 and used it for serious work for a few days, however, I've gained new insight. And the thought that keeps returning to me is this: Have Canonical developers forgotten that not every Linux user is a geek?

Unity for Human Beings?

If you happen to be geek, there's a lot to like about Unity. It invests heavily in keyboard shortcuts, a strategy that arguably makes window management more efficient than in any other desktop interface I've ever used -- provided you learn the hotkeys. Another geek-friendly feature is the "dash," which is well-suited to people who like launching applications by typing their names. And the truly geeky can press alt-F2 to launch a section of the dash from where they can pass command-line arguments directly -- an enhanced version, essentially, of GNOME 2.x's classic "run" dialog.

Features such as these are great, and can drastically improve workflow, provided you're a geek willing to invest time in learning how to use them. If you're not a geek, however, they probably don't appeal to you. Non-geeks generally don't use keyboard shortcuts very often; I know plenty of highly intelligent people who are amazed to learn that the super-D combination exposes the desktop in Windows (and Ubuntu), for example. Non-geeks also don't want to call applications using the keyboard; they tend to prefer pointing and clicking pretty icons.

This isn't to say there's anything wrong with the geek-friendly features that currently comprise the core of Unity. Catering to geeks need not entail the marginalization of non-geeks.  What does seem to me to be a problem, however, is the extent to which Unity appears to expect users to rely on this geek-oriented approach to the desktop, since the interface currently provides few efficient ways of performing tasks without relying heavily on the keyboard.

Sure, you can browse through applications by name to find what you want to launch, but that approach can take a long time because of the relative lack of categorization. And you can switch between windows using the launcher, but with all the different icons competing for your attention, figuring out which one you need to click to give focus to the right application is not always simple.

And last but not least -- though this issue, ironically, might be one that bothers geeks more than normal people, who tend to understand only vaguely what a virtual desktop is -- Unity still lacks a way to add more than four workspaces. I was kind of shocked to discover this. I recalled it being a problem in beta versions of the interface, but I assumed that, surely, someone would get around to addressing it before the 11.04 release. Yet April 28, 2011, has come and gone, and the only way to increase the number of virtual desktops is to edit an obscure gconf value from the command line.

Technology Preview

While I'm hesitant to say Unity is ready for the masses of "human beings" whose PCs Canonical aspires to liberate with Ubuntu Linux, I have to restrict my criticism of the interface for the time being, since Ubuntu 11.04 is not a longterm support release. It will, therefore, be used by geeks more than normal people who stick to the LTS release cycles. In this sense, Unity in the most recent Ubuntu offering remains a technology preview, with plenty of room and time for improvement before the next Ubuntu 12.04 LTS debuts next April.

I will register that I wish traditional GNOME were a bit more accessible in Ubuntu 11.04, for the benefit of those who upgrade and find they don't like Unity. Hiding GNOME under the title "Ubuntu Classic" seems a bit disingenuous, as if Canonical is afraid of using the G-word now that Unity has become the official face of Ubuntu; moreover, it's not exactly obvious that "Ubuntu Classic" is even available until one goes sifting through the session options in the corner of the login screen -- an activity one does not generally do if one is not a geek.

All the same, Ubuntu developers deserve credit for remaining committed to GNOME 2.32 as an official alternative interface in this Ubuntu release. They're also to be commended for bringing Unity as far as they have in the short year that it's been in existence; despite the fact that it may cater at the moment to geeks more than the general audience, it has some great, innovative features and I look forward to seeing where it ends up at the conclusion of the next development cycle.

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