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03 January 2011, 09:52

Ubuntu and the price of Unity

by Richard Hillesley

Canonical's decision to go with the Unity shell on GNOME may be a game changer for Ubuntu, but it doesn't come without risk. Mark Shuttleworth's declared aims are to unite design with free software. He hopes to blur the line between the web and the desktop, to create an intuitive Linux desktop that is a thing of beauty, and to make Ubuntu and free software popular among the kinds of user who have never heard of free software before.

Jeff Waugh expressed the view of GNOME developers: "Unity as default shell == brand before community, differentiation before collaboration." Unity is a replacement for the GNOME Shell, and is being developed by Canonical without the blessing or input of the GNOME community.

Waugh's observations are significant because he was one of the founding group of a dozen or so Debian Developers who met in Mark Shuttleworth's London flat in April 2004 to map out Shuttleworth's project to create a distribution that was capable of taking Linux to the masses. Waugh won the 'Best Evangelist' award in the Google-O'Reilly Open Source Awards at OSCON in 2005 for his efforts to spread the word about GNOME and Ubuntu, but left Canonical in July 2006, to dedicate his time to working with GNOME.

"It seems like an insane time to step off the merry-go-round," he wrote, "considering the ever-rising crescendo in the Ubuntu community, and the incredible progress I have been privileged to watch within Canonical – the juggernaut is in fifth gear, heaving and chomping at the bit to shift up to sixth..."

"I'm excited about Ubuntu, passionate about its mission, confident in its future, and have thoroughly enjoyed being part of it from the very beginning... But ultimately, my heart lies with another, and I have to take that chance, face that risk, while my family commitments and responsibilities allow it."

Waugh's significant other was GNOME.

Footsteps of the Gnome

Disagreements about the shape and form of the free software interface, and issues around the politics of licensing are not new. GNOME itself came into existence in the late 90s when problems were identified with the licensing of the Qt toolkit used by KDE, which was the first truly integrated desktop environment for Linux.

Qt was open source in the sense that the code was visible, but the license wasn't approved or compatible with the GPL. Since nearly all KDE applications were written under the GPL, this meant that the applications were in violation of their own licences.

Miguel de Icaza, at that time a rising star of the free software movement and co-creator, with Federico Mena, of the GNOME project, expressed the mixed feelings of many users and developers. "KDE was an inspirational project," he told Linux Journal, "but at the time, the Qt toolkit on which KDE was built was a proprietary toolkit."

"It was a disgrace," he said, "that everyone in the community had worked so hard to create a fully open-source desktop (a legacy to all humanity) that we would give up in the end because of the lack of a free toolkit."

GNOME was the direct response of the free software community, and was based on the Gtk toolkit developed by Peter Mathis and Spencer Kimball for GIMP. Qt later went through a variety of licence changes. The issues between KDE, which had been the subject of a protracted flame war, and the free and open source software community, have long since been resolved, and KDE and GNOME have evolved into very different desktops.

GNOME, influenced by the GNOME Human Interface guidelines, makes a tidy and accessible desktop, and has tended to be more successful with commercial distributions. KDE is known for its expansiveness and extreme configurability.

Both have been engaged in their different ways in rethinking the parameters of the desktop. Both have encountered resistance from users.

A work of art

Apple is the touchstone by which Shuttleworth has chosen to measure the success or failure of the free desktop. Apple is the deliberate expression of style over substance, and utility over expression. Apple hardware is clean and simple, transforming utility into an art form, and Apple trades on the style and excellence of its products, as much as their usefulness.

The presentation of Apple software follows simple rules which have been more or less consistent since the Apple Macintosh of the 80s. Its strengths are simplicity and conformity. Apple can impose a style because it is archetypally a proprietary company with rules imposed from above, and Apple does it well.

The iPod, iPhone and iPad are instantly recognizable for their Rams-like cleanliness and simplicity. They reduce complexity and anticipate the needs of the user. If Unity is to be everything that Shuttleworth wants of it, it has to achieve a similar conjunction between utility and simplicity, aesthetics and purpose.

"I think the great task in front of us in the next two years is to lift the experience of the Linux desktop from something stable and usable and not pretty, to something that's art," Shuttleworth told OSCON in 2008. "Think of the way the iPhone uses a pure software experience, it abstracts away all the hardware," he said. "You can paint anything on the screen because it's all software."

Shuttleworth has a personal vision of a desktop that is a 'work of art' that synthetizes all the objectives and appeal of free software into an easy-to-use desktop. The virtues of KDE and GNOME are their ambition and versatility, but they lack the integration and simplicity to satisfy Shuttleworth's goal of a desktop that is both aesthetically pleasing and accessible to all.

Design is a problematic area for free software, partly because communities don't always work well towards 'goals'. Some areas have always been just 'good enough'. Sound was an issue for years. Latency is still an afterthought. Some issues have been left behind because the kernel developers have been more interested in server-side issues. X is loved by some, but isn't best suited to the simple demands of the home user. The chapter on X in the 1994 Unix Haters HandbookPDF is subtitled 'How to Make a 50-MIPS Workstation Run Like a 4.77MHz IBM PC'. A programmer's instinct is to maximize the available options. A well designed tool or interface is about simplicity, responsiveness and a minimum of keystrokes.

"It is very clear that in order to challenge Apple we're going to have to make a lot of changes", Shuttleworth has said. "Nobody would make the case that the free software environment, whether on Ubuntu or any other distribution, is a world-beating experience from a design and user perspective. It's world-beating for other reasons, right? But it certainly doesn't win from a design and user perspective."

Next: The workbench and the web

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