Ubuntu dropped a major news this April. They are gonna leave all their dreams of convergence (Ubuntu phone, Unity 8, Mir) and take a more desktop first approach, however they are also gonna leave their polarising desktop environment Unity 7.x.

What?? Seriously they are dropping their rock solid, ultra stable, beautiful looking, modern, keyboard centric and extremely space utilising desktop environment.

Unity 7

Unity 7 on Ubuntu 16.04

Sure the above compliments may sound too much for some folks out there however these are my personal thoughts. And I am not saying it’s the perfect desktop environment, oh no no it has a lot of pain points.

Since Ubuntu 17.04 which got released just round the corner which may be the last version we see Unity 7 as the default desktop, I though it would be a good time to give a final look to Unity 7.x.

Unity 7 came into existence with Ubuntu 10.10 when canonical dropped Gnome 2.x for the more modern approach to the computing desktop. The decision was criticised by a lot of people, but ultimately proven correct by Gnome when they switched to 3.x. Gnome 3.x followed on same lines of Unity, being minimal and providing only the essentials.

So let’s look at why we loved Unity:

Stable: Despite few bad initial years Unity became quite stable since 12.04. Seriously it may have a lot of flaws but stability issues was not one of them.

Fantastic screen space utilisation: Dude, seriously I am yet to find a desktop shell which handles screen real estate the way Unity does. The global menus which work flawlessly for all applications just save a lot of vertical space on your display. You may not realise it initially but once you use Unity and then move back to something like Gnome or Mate, it’s then you realise how important that sweet vertical space is. Kudos to Unity there.

Fantastic user experience: The whole desktop looks modern, works best with keyboard shortcut and always stays consistent. This in turns helps in providing an awesome user experience (remember what happened when Windows 8 came out?).

Linux to masses: Ubuntu desktop with Unity was the one that lead Linux into the homes of common audience. Until Ubuntu, all other linux desktop were just too Linuxy, too geeky for general audience to consume and use on a daily basis. It was Ubuntu (Unity) that showed to people that Linux can be used on day to day basis and can be a decent alternative to Mac and Windows. Awesome work there Canonical.

TLDR; it just works! and that’s what matters to most individuals. We who are reading this article are probably not the majority of the audience to which Ubuntu calls to.

So why so polarising comments?

Well every coin has two sides and so does the coin of Unity. Despite of all the advantages there were some major flaws with Unity.

  • Lack of customisations: well in the Linux world of open source everything is approached with the mindset of personalisation. Every other linux desktop environment let’s you customise your computer to your hearts contents (except Gnome which I think is much more similar to Unity then any other). Unity did not provide much in this department. Well you could change icons, themes and that’s pretty much it. No dock movements, extensions, custom menus, panels, widgets etc etc. Nope none of those. The rigid nature of Unity did not go very well with the community.

Power hungry: It’s true, a base install of unity chugs through a lot more ram then most other environments.

Convergence : It never took the direction Canonical intended it to be.  The mobile market was monopolised by iOS and Android, no matter how many Linux enthusiast promote it, they are no match to sheer brute forces of iOS and Android. Then comes tablet, Ubuntu promised a lot but never delivered a concrete product. Unity 8 was supposed to ship with Ubuntu 14.04, but still it’s not the default shell even in 2017 with Ubuntu 17.04. Canonical invested a lot of resources in Unity 8 and in turn left the 7.x child on it’s own. There was no active feature development which slowly led to a boring experience and hence drop offs.

So what’s next?

It’s Gnome all the way now. To be honest no matter how much I love Unity, even I agree this is a move in the right direction. Ubuntu already has a very solid base, and now using a desktop environment that’s loved and maintained by a huge community is gonna be an awesome combination. Until now finding a good Gnome desktop only lead to either Fedora or Arch, both not being so mainstream and unknown to masses. But after ubuntu jumps in the Gnome bandwagon the entire games gonna change. Gnome will benefit a huge with ubuntu’s strong technical background as well as community. And we may finally have a perfect Gnome Desktop – the desktop of the future.
I just hope all this works!!

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Aditya Verma

Aditya Verma is a Tech Geek at heart hence a Software Engineer by profession. When not glued to one of his screens he likes to spend time reading, eating out and chilling. Also a sapiosexual.

  • Frank

    “it’s then you realise how important that sweet vertical space is. Kudos to Unity there.”

    It helped with this on screens with 16:9 aspect ratios but having to shift your focus to another area of the screen to access an app’s menu options was too much for me. It was like they tore apps in half. Like putting the accelerator and brakes on the passenger side. I could never get use to it. In any case, I wish 16:9 screens on document-centric computing devices were vanquished off the face of the earth.

    The minimize/maximize buttons on the left side was also a UI issue for me. Not even sure if that was configurable. For right-handers, it was like having to cross your arms over the screen. Also… no categories. I have tons of stuff installed and accessing a little used app helps me find it with a proper “start” menu. A desktop should help you organize your stuff and empower you in the process. You can still have embedded search with a proper category-based hierarchy for apps working together.

    When I switched over from Windows, I wanted something efficient. I spent a month with Ubuntu/Unity and found myself trying to constantly tweak it for usability. It was like being on Windows and spending all my time trying to tame it. I’m glad Unity is dead (speaking for myself, obviously). It was a usability nightmare and not unlike Windows Metro.

    Depending on how usable gnome is, I may give Ubuntu another try as my primary. I have a preference for distros that are well supported by a large and cohesive team. Hope that Canonical doesn’t do anything that ruins the Desktop experience again. I’m afraid they’re going to bloat the system with server and cloud-based code. It’s clear that this is where their thinking is.

    • coderadi

      “It helped with this on screens with 16:9 aspect ratios but having to shift your focus to another area of the screen to access an app’s menu options was too much for me.”
      You could have always switched back to local menus rather than global. But it’s true that Unity did not provide any sort of customizations and your grudges with are genuine. Hope you find yourself at home with Gnome (it has the minimize/maximize button on the right 😛 )

    • Tom

      Unity had app categories. Pretty sure global menu and window buttons were customizable too

  • GizmoChicken

    From your article on:

    “But after ubuntu jumps in the Gnome bandwagon the entire games gonna change. Gnome will benefit a huge with ubuntu’s strong technical background as well as community. And we may finally have a perfect Gnome Desktop – the desktop of the future.”

    I hope that, as a welcome gift to the incoming Unity users, GNOME will accept some patches to GNOME shell allowing users to customize it (using extensions, for example) to reflect more Unity design elements. For example, many Unity users would appreciate having an extension that adds to GNOME shell an option to use a global menu, preferably along with an option for displaying locally integrated menus (LIM) in the window’s titlebar for unmaximized windows, like what can currently be done in Unity.

    For extensions to have the ability to add many Unity design elements, GNOME shell would probably need to allow a few patches to its code. But if extensions could add such Unity design elements without patches to GNOME shell, all the better.

    Absent a welcome gift (allowing patches) from GNOME, then I hope that we’ll see a fork of Gnome shell that includes patches that would add more Unity design elements. Forking GNOME shell would be preferable to forking Unity 7, because, for example, tweaking GNOME shell to look like Unity would be much easier than rewriting Unity 7 (which currently relies on Compiz and other aging components) to be Wayland compliant.

    I’ll just add that, for those who want to continue using Unity, Mark Shuttleworth has stated: “Unity7 packages will continue to be carried in the archive. . . . I expect it will be in universe for 18.04 LTS.”

  • Android Rocker

    I completly agree with the discussion here. I feel Google lost a very
    solid opportunity here, hope they make up for it the next time.

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