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Posted on May 16th, 2011 by Stuart Turton

Why Unity made me fall out of love with Ubuntu


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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30 Responses to “ Why Unity made me fall out of love with Ubuntu ”

  1. Omahn Says:
    May 16th, 2011 at 10:19 am

    Check out Gnome 3 for another take on the future of Linux desktop.

  2. Will Damien Says:
    May 16th, 2011 at 10:56 am


    Gnome 3 looks like all the best bits of Windows 7 and Mac OS 10.7 Lion mashed together into one OS… I wonder if MS and/or Apple will take issue with some of the borrowed ideas?

  3. Paul Fairhurst Says:
    May 16th, 2011 at 11:09 am

    “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. What Canonical are trying to do is create a FREE, INTUITIVE operating system for the MASSES. To do this they need a consistent interface – hence Unity. What you desire is a hobbyist’s interface which is a starting point of something you can build on and customise.

    You are right about one thing – it is not what you had hoped it would become.

  4. KevPartner Says:
    May 16th, 2011 at 11:25 am

    I’ve tried Unity and I hate it. I seem to be in a minority in having had no problems at all with Gnome: it makes shifting between operating systems easy because it’s familiar. So I’m back with Gnome now.
    My reasons for liking Ubuntu are:
    1) it runs FAST on all hardware and feels nimble
    2) it boots up very quickly
    3) it has multiple desktops built in
    4) it’s free!
    This, for me, is enough innovation. Unity was just too hard to get working as I wanted it – a fast, free alternative to Windows and OSX ought to be a winner.

  5. Josh Says:
    May 16th, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    The ironic thing is, while we’re all looking for a good, modern desktop environment there’s one that’s been staring everyone in the face: KDE 4.6.

    More people I feel should try it. =)

  6. Aitch Says:
    May 16th, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    Similar sentiments here. I’m a 15yr Un*x vet and I use Ubuntu on my work desktop and netbook and as a VM on MacOSX. It’s always been very convenient, fast and stable. I’m seriously evaluating alternatives now as I’m not happy with where Canonical seems to be going as hinted at by the article.

    I’m quite taken with the different Mint versions based on Debian that seem very well put together and remove some of the faffing alluded to in the article also. I’ve already got it on my netbook for an extended play.

    @KevPartner, add 1 to your minority. I like Gnome the way it was, clean efficient, quite minimal and discrete. I’m using Gnome Classic now but not sure how long it will be supported on Ubuntu.

    Right now, although I’m not struck particularly by Gnome 3 it seems the lesser of 2 evils.

  7. extar Says:
    May 16th, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    Actually canonical has explained the lack of flexibility before. It’s because they want to ensure the very first version of Unity can be polish enough for actual use. So when it comes to round two. Unity will get the ability of customizing. Like lenses and quicklist and so on. So don’t be sad for or hurt by Canonical’s decision. After all if you don’t want to rush into Unity. You can still stay with the 10.10 version and wait for the next release. Cheer!

  8. Anon Says:
    May 16th, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    I agree with extar on this one. The Unity of 11.04 seems like a rush job to me. They were just trying to get something that would work ready to ship in time. There’s already a lot of improvements and redesigns planned for the 11.10 release.

    I tried Unity too. I doesn’t feel broken, per se, just clunky.

    Just do what I did: Install 11.04, log in to the Ubuntu Classic session, and enable Compiz but not Unity. That way you have the same kind of desktop you’ve had in previous versions of Ubuntu, and you’ll have 18 months of support on 11.04. In that time, a new LTS will be out, and Unity will have had more time for polish and improvement. Not to mention that as of 11.10, Ubuntu will be fully migrated to Gnome 3 libraries, so that running Gnome Shell will also be an option.

    So just do that, and within 18 months Unity will be improved, Gnome Shell will run on Ubuntu, and you’ll be able to compare both interfaces after they’ve had a little extra polish time.

  9. simon Says:
    May 16th, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    do like the idea of customization section. like the old installers which let you choose your own packages. the only issue i can see with this is that i imagine that canonical spend alot of time testing and intergrating their selected software into ubuntu. to offer this level of testing and integration to a greater range apps may be too much even for canonical.

  10. Synaptic_Fire Says:
    May 16th, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    Your customised version of Ubuntu must have been very unstable. As a Liverpool fan, you should often be wearing red.


  11. David Staples Says:
    May 16th, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    I tried to give Unity a try but the upgrade process keeps failing on me. Never had that before with Ubuntu.

  12. istok Says:
    May 16th, 2011 at 11:04 pm

    Ubuntu is built on the backs of thousands of passionate, talented Debian people bubbling over with clever ideas.

    there i fixed that for you.
    very true btw.
    also sorry you can’t have clicky screens on canonical website to build your linux the way you like.
    but you can always download a netinstall (or whatever they call it in ubuntustan – minimal install i think) cd, and do it all the same.
    sans the pictures, i’m afraid. but it’s really worth it.

  13. joem Says:
    May 17th, 2011 at 12:13 am

    I am using Xubuntu since Natty release…I don’t like unity…I think linux will succeed with innovation, not as a result of copycating win 7 or mac osx…

  14. neil Says:
    May 17th, 2011 at 12:27 am


    I’ve had all kinds of problems with Unity and finally decided against it. After hours/days/weeks trying Mint Linux, Bodhi Linux, etc., I finally landed on Xbuntu. Xfce is nice, configurable and I still retain access to the great Ubuntu Community, Documentation, and everything else.

    I hope Unity is a great success.

    But it wasn’t what I wanted.

  15. Tom A Says:
    May 17th, 2011 at 10:24 am

    +1 for giving KDE 4.6 a try. Give it a try with Kubuntu 11.04. Kubuntu has been terrible for a couple of years, but KDE 4.6 is really getting there.

  16. Jon Evan-Cook Says:
    May 17th, 2011 at 11:01 am

    I have toyed with Linux a few times and have found that Ubuntu is pretty good but I did not like Unity. As a relative ‘newbie’ coming from Windows I found the interface was not too my taste and have set up Gnome Classic as my default desktop of choice. I like my desktop clean and minimalist, I even run a Blackbox style ‘bbLean’ Shell on my main laptop.

    I hate cluttered desktops with masses of icons, but I love having a menu system that is easy to learn (and modify as I need, in the case of bbLean) shades of the UNIX systems I worked on years ago. UNITY is a step too far and as for use on netbooks (like the Acer 1 I am using now) I do not want to give up any screen space that I do not have to.

    UNITY is not for me I am afraid!

  17. haydoni Says:
    May 17th, 2011 at 11:12 am

    The majority of people don’t want to configure their own OS (!), they just want it to work.

    The great thing about linux is the wide variety of choice, but for most people – especially those thinking of moving from windows/mac, being shown the sheer volume of choice is scary/pointless.

    You should move to kubuntu, but consider continuing to send new users to Ubuntu.

  18. Upfront Says:
    May 17th, 2011 at 11:44 am

    I tried Unity it’s not good for me. I do love the Classic Ubuntu option. For now I’m happy and hoping Unity develops into something I like. In the mean time I’m scouting and trying other OS in VirtualBox (something I just learned to do). I’ve tried Xubuntu, My old copy of Windows XP (again), Linux Mint and so far non equal my old Ubuntu. Next, I’ll try OpenSuse, PCLinuxOS and Fedora. I just loved my Ubuntu so much! As a forever noob I have to personally say (be that as it may): “It ain’t working for this intended target”.

  19. NJM1404 Says:
    May 17th, 2011 at 11:47 am

    Like many others on here I’m a *nix veteran of many years both at work and home.

    In my view there will never be a ‘one size fits all’ OS because we all want or need something different for one reason or another.

    Like many people I have more than one PC and each does a different job. My main machine is my iMac, it does most of my daily computing very well.

    I can boot into Windows 7 on the iMac to enable me to use software not available on the Mac.

    I have Ubuntu on my Netbook so I can fire it up quickly to check emails, eBay etc. wherever I am in the house without the need to go into the office to use the Mac.

    My Macbook Pro is a mobile extension of the iMac when at meetings etc.

    Although computing nirvana would be nice, I never really expect it to happen. There are simply too many people wanting too many different things. For most of us we have to work to find the solution that fits our needs the best, for the rest, if all they want is email, eBay and the social networks it doesn’t really matter what OS they choose.

  20. David K Says:
    May 17th, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    I am sticking with Ubuntu 10.10 for now, as 11.04 is a new concept but not quite a finished product. I like your idea of making a customised OS on the site before downloading, OpenSUSE have already offered this. If Ubuntu could be more customisable with Unity I would probably use it, but for now I think 11.04 is for those who are new to Linux.

  21. Jack Edelson Says:
    May 17th, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    If you don’t like UNITY, go to synaptic package manager and uninstall it!! Simple as that!! The activate the spinning cube and wobbly windows with compiz

    Unfortunately, Ubuntu has gone the way of the MAC with sparse 3d effects and ease of use….BLA BLA BLA….I have found that MAC users are people who just want it to work and don’t care very much for creativity in the true sense. This is what the UNITY desktop is–An attempt to zoom out to 4 desktops and zoom back in. WOW!!!! Personally, I design alot of systems and find that what really wows customers and THEIR customers is the 3D spinning cube desktop of either GNOME or KDE PERIOD!!!!!!!!!

    UNITY is designed to impress MAC people.

    I have been in the open-source business for 30 years and believe me, Microsoft was very nervous about UBUNTU at some world conferences I attended.

    Now Microsoft can sleep well again

    Everyone, come on!!!! The only reason Microsoft is going mostly open-source is so millions of people can improve on their code and make the operating system look as good as GNOME OR KDE!!! NOT UNITY……

    Until UNITY is improved or works better with the gnome shell….

    Steve Jobs can sleep better at night too!!

  22. A.Lizard Says:
    May 19th, 2011 at 7:16 am

    So try Kubuntu 11.04. Same great Ubuntu back-end, KDE4.6 window manager. I think Unity-style interfaces are perfect for tablets and smartphones… but if one is using anything with keyboard and mouse/touchpad input for productivity, a conventional desktop layout works best. Qhich is why when the installer sensed I was running a netbook and thought I needed unity, I spent 10 minutes looking for the option to revert to KDE.

    I’d seriously consider replacing my Android tablet with a Ubuntu-unity tablet if I could find one.

  23. keithjrider Says:
    May 19th, 2011 at 8:44 am

    I was looking forwards to the new.NN. I run 10.10 MM on my desktop and the netbook version on my old IBM Thinkpad. I have been using Ubuntu since the ‘Boozy Badger’ and each time it has got better. Both 32 and 64 bit versions.

    I have tried the Nasty Narwhal four times, and on different PCs, and each time, after a brief run, it has crashed – something I have never had before.

    I think I will leave it until the next variant, and hope it will get better.


  24. John McCormack Says:
    May 19th, 2011 at 9:19 am

    I have no problem with Unity as such, its a good idea executed badly and the dock is so chunkily ugly I am convinced the original design was done in crayon.
    What annoys me most about 11.04 is that it broke some of what worked so well for me in Ubuntu 10.10 such as my desktop’s dual monitor set up. It just wasn’t ready for release.

  25. JulesLt Says:
    May 19th, 2011 at 11:42 am

    The problem with a configurable OS is the usual problem of compatibility testing X by X by X components.

    It’s fine for me to replace my virtual desktop manager, or Launcher/Dock. But it’s quite likely that if I do, the two things won’t work properly together. But that’s my problem (I ‘mucked around’).

    But if my OS vendor offers a choice of components, I expect them to work together properly.

    That gets easier as common APIs are developed – but at the same time, that reduces the functionality down to the common APIs.

    Jack – quit with the patronising stereotypes of ‘Mac’ people. I find that they vary – although you are right, they do mostly want something that just works, rather than needs configuration.

    But at the end of the day, it’s a BSD-based Unix, which you can hack and modify like a Linux environment if you actually want to.

    Personally – I prefer a good stock environment.

  26. Rawdevon Says:
    May 19th, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    It all depends what you think your target USER wants.
    If you want to get a large portion of the OS market then you need to design for the 90% of people who are computer USERS and don’t want to have to configure anything – it should all work ’straight out of the box’ & look good.
    Linux had a good chance to do this when the first netbooks came out and unfortunately failed, but they have done much better in the smartphone market.
    But also the door should be left open for the rest of us who want a configurable system.
    Most of the problems arise in getting this balance right.

  27. Lorribot Says:
    May 19th, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    I just wish they would sort out all the driver issues.

    Either include driver for all the hardware like networking and graphics or make it very simple to obtain and install these, preferably working with manufactures like Intel and Nvidia to provide ubuntu specific ones.
    My Del D620 laptop won’t work fully as the Nvidia drivers don’t work, nor the wireless which is a bit of a blow on a laptop.

  28. Kevin Holland Says:
    May 21st, 2011 at 2:57 am

    Those of you that dislike the Unity desktop should give Linux Mint (10 – Julia) a try.

  29. MR SMITH Says:
    May 23rd, 2011 at 9:53 am


  30. Ysbrand Galama Says:
    June 9th, 2011 at 9:13 am

    Has anyone noticed what happens if you use Unity with a second monitor? I have a second monitor, and my Unity menu bar is on both screens, however the menu options are completely on the left of the left monitor. So if I have an application window on my right monitor, I have to reach for the menu’s all the way on the left.

    VERY INCONVENIENT. I tried to like Unity, but I go back to 10.10 now :(


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