Friday, November 4, 2011

Goodbye: A Linux Distribution Identity Crisis

When Ubuntu 11.04 was first released, Ubuntu fans around the world immediately were split. Some welcomed Unity with open arms and praised its ingenuity while others screamed "blasphemy!" and threatened to leave for another distribution. I've read so many reviews, comments and rants about Unity that frankly, I grew uninterested. Now that some time has passed and I've actually spent some time at work and at home using Unity, I'm ready to counter review all of the blogging professionals (celebrate blogging procrastination!).

First, I should say that I'm a newborn baby to the world of Linux. A little over a year ago, I installed Ubuntu 10.04 on my netbook and decided I should learn Linux. It was NOT love at first sight. Gnome 2 felt dated in comparison to my recently upgraded Windows 7 desktop. The command line was completely new to me and I couldn't figure out why anyone would prefer using it. My wireless card didn't work out of the box and I spend hours blindly launching commands I had found on forums (sudo rm -rf /*.. jerks). Two months later, I installed Ubuntu on my desktop. I had fallen in love. Looking back, I don't know how I ever completed tasks without Linux. The Linux way is the only way. And as far as Ubuntu is considered, it's got an excellent repository thanks to Debian and a huge user support base. Linux is now my safe place - sometimes I launch a shell as root just to feel powerful.

But enough about the past! I could have gotten a lot more hits if I had immediately published this, but let's be honest: there's no way to know if you like interface changes immediately. Sometimes features and changes grow on you, sometimes you grow to hate what you initially loved, and sometimes you start to miss the old ways; geeks are fickle. These days the default Gnome 2 Ubuntu setup looks pretty dated. Windows XP dated (No! Say it isn't so!). Sure, some people like a simple layout without all the bells and whistles, but even I like some extra features and slick GUI's as long as usability isn't lost. Canonical also wants to compete for more desktop users (Linux is still largely viewed as the operating system for web servers).

Enter Unity.

By default, Unity looks pretty slick. The left side application launcher is nice looking and fairly typical of modern day OS X / Windows 7 launchers. The use of vertical space rather than horizontal space is interesting, and the way that applications pile up on the bottom when it starts to fill up is pretty genius.

Out with the old, in with the... left side application launcher?

The quick search feature is similar to the OS X's Spotlight or Windows 7's search bar. It's a welcome addition that I wish was just a tad bit faster. I hated the application lens in 11.04, and I hate it just as much in 11.10. Sure, you can use the search feature for optimal application launching, but what if I'm not entirely sure what I'm looking for? Enjoy large amount of clicking and scrolling - I'm already missing the old style Gnome 2 application menu. Then there's the useless "Most Frequently Used" applications that appear as soon as you click the Super Ubuntu Button.. and guess what? They're all programs that are already on the launcher. So now I have to further dive into these "lens" to find the applications I want. Needless to say, it's my least favorite part of Unity.

The other big change in Unity is the use of global menus. Similar to OS X's implementation, the menu bar is no longer attached to the application but instead sits on the top panel. Global menus are nice because you can always immediately move your mouse to the top panel for their location, as well as the pixel space they save. Unfortunately, the implementation in Unity defeats the first benefit. Instead of always showing the global menu, Unity developers decided to hide the menu until you hover over it. This causes me to spend more time to get to the menu I want. I'm not sure I follow the logic either, since there's nothing else in the top panel, why not show everything? There already feels like there's an excess of wasted space on that top panel! Also, not all apps use the global menus yet.. but I'm sure as developers continue to update their software in the repository this will change. Also, since I'm a dual monitor junky, the space the global menu saves is lost by replicating it on both screens.

But what is my biggest woe about Ubuntu's Unity? The fact that I can't control how it looks anymore. Sure, I could uninstall Unity and rebuild the desktop environment, but one of the things I liked about Ubuntu was how it made Linux accessible without taking away the magic of choice. I personally take Unity as a stab at us power users - it's easier to modify the Windows 7 desktop environment! Also, if I'm rebuilding the desktop environment, I might as well create my entire build from scratch (hello Slackware fans!). And while I'm not completely apposed to the idea, I have too many computers to manage and too
much actual work to be building all my machines from scratch.


And there's so many other great distributions out there.. it time to move past Ubuntu?

Past my first love?

<looks down at my feet, shuffling from side-to-side>



  1. So, I have to know. What next? Have you planned your relationship exit strategy? Poor Ubuntu... "it wasn't me... it was you".

  2. For now, I've moved onto Ubuntu's younger sister, Linux Mint. So far it's working out.

  3. For now, I've moved onto Ubuntu's elder brother, Debian KDE :-) I really switched for the same exact reasons as you ! Never liked Unity or Gnome Hell !

  4. I've been considering moving to Xubuntu, the XFCE edition of Ubuntu, for the same reasons. However, even if Xubuntu was exactly what I wanted, I'm not sure if I would want to use a distribution made by a team that doesn't seem to listen to their real users.

  5. After a long time I decided to go for Fedora, even though it's focus on open software is a hassle at first, it's easy to add a repo that includes non-free software as well. I love it :)