Why Unity made me fall out of love with Ubuntu

16 May 2011

I'm falling out of love with Ubuntu, which is strange because it's as good as it's ever been. And no, this isn't one of those blogs. I'm not going to proclaim that it's now too mainstream, or soulless or any other such tosh. It's not. In fact, it's very brilliant in many of the ways that matter, just not the one that matters to me. It's simply not the Ubuntu I'd hoped it would become.

At the root of this statement is Unity. I've read all sorts of complaints about the new front-end, and to my mind they veer from wildly silly to outright daft. Quite frankly if you can't suss out a new scrollbar, then evolution's wasted on you.

My problem isn't what Unity is, but what it represents. It's a flashing neon sign pointing in the direction that Canonical’s taking Ubuntu – which would be very exciting, except that I've already been there. Twice. I currently use four machines on a regular basis. My work PC running Windows XP, my gaming laptop running Windows 7, my iMac running Mac OS X and my travel laptop running the various shades of Ubuntu.

My hope for Ubuntu was a bold new design built on reckless innovation. I wanted something totally different to current offerings -- something fresh and new, something visionary

As somebody who happily straddles the Microsoft/Apple divide, I can say with confidence that I have absolutely no idea why anybody cares which of these last two they use. In terms of features they're comparable; ideologically they're inseparable.

Ubuntu stood apart: not just in terms of execution, but also in potential. When Mark Shuttleworth declared that Ubuntu would one day surpass Apple's design by “doing something different and doing it very, very well,” I took him at his word – and why not? Ubuntu is built on the backs of thousands of passionate, talented people bubbling over with clever ideas. These are people dissatisfied with the Windows and Mac OS X treadmill, who are looking for something different, and are capable of creating it.

Design visionaries?

The day Shuttleworth told us he was “hiring designers, user experience champions and interaction design visionaries” was the day Ubuntu became a permanent fixture on my laptop, because I wanted to see what they came up with the very moment they came up with it. This was an experiment I wanted to be a part of.

And they came up with a dock. Not even a pretty dock. Not even a dock that was better than the one on Windows 7 and Mac OS X. Really, can anybody tell me which parts of Unity are the work of “design visionaries”?

Again, the caveat must be hollered because otherwise it'll be ignored. I'm not saying Unity is bad, nor am I saying it's not a step forward for Ubuntu. The old GNOME desktop couldn't have been any uglier if the default wallpaper was Gary Neville's gurning Manc face (Liverpool fan, sorry). It does a lot right -- most notably the context sensitive menu bar and notification applets -- but by taking its design cues from its two better known siblings it inevitably opens itself to unfavorable comparison.

My hope for Ubuntu was a bold new design built on reckless innovation. I wanted something totally different to current offerings -- something fresh and new, something visionary. I love Scrivener because it took a category of software I thought I knew and showed me that I really didn't. Firefox pulled the same trick with browsers, as did Chrome. If Ubuntu doesn't exist to do the same with the OS, then why on earth does it exist?

Build your own OS

What really puzzles me is that Canonical isn't building on Ubuntu's best feature: the ability to basically create your own OS. My copy of Ubuntu 10.10 was personalised with the AWN dock and Gnome Do, while the main menu bar was shrunken to one pixel, so that it was all but invisible.

I ran Scrivener and Office 2007 through Wine, and immediately installed Chrome, Dropbox, Calibre and Tor. It was an absolute arse to set up, and tended to break whenever the weather was inclement or I wore the colour red, but it suited the way I worked.

I always hoped that Canonical would take this idea – this sense of freedom – and make it central to Ubuntu

In my heart of hearts, I always hoped that Canonical would take this idea – this sense of freedom – and make it central to Ubuntu. Imagine being able to visit the Canonical website and tailor your own OS: so the first screen would ask whether you used your machine for web browsing or photo and video editing, or office work perhaps, with a separate option to discover what kind of machine you used. This information would be used to decide what software should be automatically installed.

The next screen would then offer a design screen with a visual interface allowing you select the elements that would appear on the desktop. So there'd be a picture of a dock with an explanation, or a Gnome Do-type text interface, or a menu bar, or something utterly radical that Canonical's big development brains had thought up, and you'd be able to tick a little box specifying which of these you wanted. After that, you’d just click a button and your brand new, personalised desktop would be downloaded direct to your machine – and just work.

This is something Ubuntu with its wealth of free software is perfectly equipped to do, and something Windows and Mac OS X will never, ever offer. And this doesn’t have to be complicated. Throw in a few pictures and even my dad would get it. It's one idea, possibly unworkable, but at least it's different. It would mark out Ubuntu as distinct, interesting -- not merely treading old ground.

Basically, what I want from Ubuntu is whatever Microsoft and Apple will never give me. I want a totally unique experience that's true to the promises Mark Shuttleworth made.

Ubuntu could change everything; could still become the OS I always hoped it would grow into. But it can't do that with Unity, and not because it's too bold a reinvention, but because it isn't bold enough.

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