The big news in the Ubuntu community is that someone was lying when earlier it was asked if there was going to be a switch, or fork, to Unity.

It appears that the last version of Ubuntu with GNOME as the default shell was the just released Maverick Meerkat. The next version, dubbed Natty Narwhal, will be sporting the Unity interface, which was developed for netbooks.

The comments section of NetworkWorld, where the story I read appears is lit up with lots of disagreement with the decision, and the usual number of statements of leaving Ubuntu behind, and switching, rather than getting into some exasperating fight, or a problem with switching back to GNOME once the installation is complete with Unity.

The big news at the Ubuntu Developer Summit? Moving to Unity as the default interface for Ubuntu Desktop with Natty Narwhal (11.04), rather than GNOME Shell.

Earlier this year, Canonical representatives had to deny that they were forking GNOME with the work on the Unity interface. (Quick disclaimer, I’m a GNOME Member and help out with GNOME PR.) Unity is a Canonical-sponsored project that was initially delivered for the Ubuntu Netbook Remix. GNOME Shell is the interface being developed for GNOME 3.0, which was delayed to spring 2011.

Apparently, Canonical were being asked the wrong question. During the opening keynote, Mark Shuttleworth has announced that Canonical is committing to making Unity the default desktop experience “for users that have the appropriate software and hardware.” Unity requires compositing to work properly, which means users need functioning 3D support to use the interface.

Still, why not be upfront and completely honest about it – that has always been the way, and that is how you maintain trust.

Unity will require quite a bit of work between now and April, 2011 to get Unity into shape as the default desktop. While the Ubuntu desktop 10.10 received glowing reviews, the netbook release much less so. Canonical partner and system integrator System 76 chose to stick with the 10.04 LTS release on its netbook line, saying the interface was “slow and in many ways confusing to use.”

What happens with GNOME at this point? Shuttleworth says that Unity is “a shell for GNOME, even if it isn’t GNOME shell.” He added that he thinks it’s good to have “competition” between GNOME Shell and Unity, and referenced Monty Python’s Life of Brian as an example of factionalism in a community. Shuttleworth says “we’re all in this together,” even if there’s differences of opinion.

It will be interesting to see how the larger community reacts to this. I’ll be covering this more extensively throughout the week, so stay tuned.

Unity may or may not be worthwhile. One thing is certain, it will have to change because not everyone using Ubuntu is doing so on a netbook. Besides, if, as we are told above, it requires some graphics horsepower, that will take the completed effort away from netbooks, and all underpowered machines.

That begs a couple of questions.

Will Ubuntu Natty Narwhal be the Vista of Linux, because of a porcine interface that is slow and takes up too many resources?

and

Whatever happened to the cry of Linux being lightweight and efficient, allowing it to run well on older hardware?   – that idea seems to have gone out the window with the bathwater of a few years ago.

The next six months will be interesting, and I certainly hope that Ubuntu isn’t going to lose its preeminent status among Linux users because of some stupid interface decisions, that would be too much déjà vu for me, as I would be transported back to January 2007, and the release of another operating system that was said to have so much promise.

I’ve always preferred the KDE interface anyway.

~~~~~ some time passes ~~~~~

Since I had not published this yet, I was looking for still other ideas on the subject, and hoping to get Stephen J. Vaughan-Nichols’ take on it [because, to me, he is the John Dvorak of the *ix community], but unfortunately he was writing about the Wi-FI Direct testing that I was talking about earlier today. So I looked a little more,  and saw a response from Larry Dignan. Dignan talks about the other opinions voiced, and then pronounces them wrong, adding his own –

Canonical’s Mark Shuttleworth on Monday detailed how Ubuntu will split from the GNOME user interface for Unity, which is its netbook approach. Simply put, Ubuntu will have a custom user interface.

Unity interface on Ubuntu 10.10 Light

Unity interface on Ubuntu 10.10 Lite

The reaction to various press reports from Computerworld, Ars Technica and others has gone to extremes:

  • First, Canonical could be portrayed as evil because it’s flipping its middle finger to the open source community.
  • Others say that GNOME was hard to work with.
  • And then you get your Unity sniping.

Don’t expect much unity in the open source community over Ubuntu’s very significant change.

The reality: If Ubuntu really wants to be a player on the desktop it will have to have more control over its user interface. Meanwhile, it makes no sense to have a UI for netbooks and PCs. In fact, the UI is everything. And as Apple has shown you can’t really do interface by committee.

Shuttleworth acknowledged Ubuntu has a lot of work to do. Ubuntu OS needs to rethink everything from windows management to what the interface should look like. Ubuntu’s decision to go to a UI over GNOME (GNU Network Object Modeling Environment) is risky. However, if you can take a shot at broader adoption you do it. The Ubuntu interface (right) isn’t going to get the masses excited.

In other words, this split from GNOME looks like a solid decision to me. Dell is selling Ubuntu laptops and if Ubuntu wants other PC makers to follow it needs a hot interface. Let’s face it: If the best thing Ubuntu can do is mimic the interface of Windows it will never get beyond the enthusiasts. Show us something innovative via the Unity pragmatism and maybe you’ll sway others to Ubuntu.

At first, I dismissed the opinion of Dignan as just another ZDNet hose head in the Ed Bott-mold, but after some further ruminations, I see what he is speaking of, and he could be right.

However, it is a very big gamble, and may lose much of the company’s status in the process, if unsuccessful.

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