Ubuntu's Unity puts a face on Unix

People were mad at Mark Shuttleworth two years ago.

Getting people to donate their time and expertise to a project, no matter how much they love it, means they have to believe in your mission, damn, even getting users to stick with your packaging of Red Hat or Debian must be a challenge: with dozens of Linux flavors to choose from for free, and even casual technophiles capable of using practically any to set up a partition from scratch in less than twenty minutes, all it takes is a change in UI direction, a few unpopular bundled-app choices, or the perception of megalomaniacal leadership to send hundreds of thousands of brainiacs fleeing from you into the arms of another ISO torrent.

I, unlike a genuine hacker, am the type of Luser who hates change -- just give me something stable and secure, with solid, configurable DOS emulation so I can run XyWrite in why my dear wife Ruthie calls my "black box of bitterness," and I am happy.  But the reception of Unity was discouraging, especially since I was having some trouble running a few  multimedia apps under Lucid and probably had to upgrade sooner. Was I going to have to ditch Ubuntu?

Hard to imagine a less appeasable user base than Linuxers, who tend to be proud, informed, and impatient, and the condemnation was nearly universal. Never mind that Ubuntu's default UI, the much beloved Gnome 2, had reached its end of development -- Ubuntu users were mightily pissed, and vented against Shuttleworth for turning their computers into WinMac knockoffs and dumbed-down platforms for beta tablet development. Tech blogs and forums resounded with articulate, bilious rage, the sound of a million geeky Beethovens tearing the inscription to Napoleon from the score of the Eroica -- i.e., bolting to Mint.

I was so worried, in February I bought another disk drive to try out Precise -- since it was beta, I wanted to still use my rock-solid Lucid installation for daily work, plus in twenty-five years of ferking with 'putes I've developed the "New software? New hardware!" axiom -- if you've got a new operating system to install, buy new metal to put it on.

The first time through it didn't go well -- in my attempts to modify the Launcher and some of the eye candy (Compiz), I managed to lose both -- a typical bork, I saw by the Ubuntu forums. As I restarted the installation, I decided not to fight Unity, but to humor it instead -- or at least to give it a chance before I went to Cinnamon or Gnome 3.

It was confounding. For a seasoned Gnome 2 user or Windows convert -- probably the most offputting thing about Unity is there is no right-mouse button click -- in the old Gnome 2, a rightclick was all you needed to create or modify a program object. Other than "castrated," there's no way to describe the feeling when nothing happens when you're looking for a menu -- and then the ultimate insult, just having to take the trouble of searching for how to do it definitely means it's a bad idea.

I had the same complaints as everyone -- the move of the close/minimize/maximize window control buttons to the top left, another new one on me. The launcher sunk six feet deep in concrete on the left-hand side of the screen. That a desktop UI for Linux, a system which more than anything is designed to permit a user to tweak each and every element to within an inch of its useful purpose, would carve the critical elements of its features in granite seemed not only illogical but heretical. But a few days of using it -- and doing some digging, because Unity requires a little bit of study -- made me realize that Unity represents not just a revolutionary interface, but a peculiarly excellent Linux-y one.

To begin with, it isn't really dumbed-down. I mean, it is -- for the most casual/uninformed/typical user, who can just click on stuff to get to the browser or the email client or the word processor -- as reviewers have pointed out, sometimes in quite disparaging terms, your mother-in-law will happily use Unity out of the box.

The genius part of it comes in is in the Dash, lenses, and the Heads-Up Display. The ability to find and launch programs, filter files, find commands for the program you're running without having to click through menus and submenus returns the specificity of the command-line to that mousey mess of your old-fashioned smartish opsys GUI.  Unity is a topper, the one-up response to point and click. (The fact that the trigger for the Dash and lenses is the Windows key is the coup de grace. Once I realized that, the conceit of Unity came into focus: imagine your XWindows desktop governed not by clicks, but by textual input. It makes complete sense for Unity to get you looking to the top left of the desktop -- that's just where the command line puts you. If konsole and XP had a baby it would be Unity.