Thursday, 5 April 2012

Precise Pangolin, Gnome Shell and Don't Mention the War

Ubuntu 12.04 LTS Precise Pangolin is just a matter of weeks away with the launch date of April 26th synced on our various calendar applications, so as long as some nasty 'show stopper' does not bother our rugged pangolin we just have to concern ourselves with the upcoming release parties. I have been running Precise Pangolin on a laptop since the Alpha 1, the first time I have ever jumped into the development cycle so early, and it has been a very smooth ride. This will be mainly due to the fact that there are no huge improvements to be made, anything significant has already been added in the period since the last LTS and now we are just polishing what has survived the last two years of development.

My current Precise desktop with running Gnome Shell and some extensions
Ubuntu's 'elephant in the room' has been the development of the Unity interface, forking away from Gnome's own Gnome Shell. I do not pretend to know or even understand all the reasons as to why Canonical and Gnome went their separate ways, with respect to the interface, but no conversation about Ubuntu is complete without someone mentioning 'the war'.

Do not want to press 'alt' to power off? There is an extension for that
My own first experience with Unity was when they rolled it out and got rid of Ubuntu Netbook Edition (UNE), and I did not enjoy it. The Desktop Edition of Ubuntu ran much smoother compared to Unity and was much easier to tweak, however I was upset with what effectively ended UNE and began the thrust to unify the Ubuntu experience with one familiar look. When Unity was then made default on the desktop, and mutter made way for compiz, everything started to make sense. Unity felt more responsive and began to become useful, and the real potential was apparent. I was happy to dive in and embrace it, I did miss being able to easily drag and drop items to the panel and launcher, but I soon got used to it.

Most of the time its just me, chrome and a brew
But it was also around this time that it became obvious to me that the interface did not really matter, I was spending more and more time in Google Chrome, never really needing to return to the regular desktop except for media handling duties. That is not to say the OS is dead, the luke warm response to Chrome OS has shown that that we are not really there yet, and I was even one of those lucky one's to receive the first batch of Cr-48's in December 2010. I also kept reading more and more about the various positions in the interface war, and seemingly every comment stream included users dismay at Unity or Gnome Shell and how they were setting off for greener interface pastures. Not having spent any time with other interfaces last year I set out to try out the alternatives.

Gnome Shell's Overview, this the Window view
In the last development cycle I tried out all the Ubuntu derivatives and found that they all had their merits, but I was always happy to come back to Unity after a few weeks with each. Then finally I got around to sampling Gnome Shell and for the most part I really liked what I saw, though having to Google how to turn off my computer was probably not the best introduction. Around that time the Gnome Extensions website was also launched, but running 3.2 on Ubuntu was not the most convenient of experiences as extensions could not be automatically updated and the few bugs that  did exist were not going to be fixed until 3.4 rolled out in March 2012, so I set aside Gnome Shell and returned to Unity.

Overview again, but the Applications view
And here we are with Precise Pangolin Beta 2 and a very enjoyable Gnome Shell running hassle free. I do love Unity, but some features of it do frustrate me slightly. Finding applications, or anything really, is not as easy as it should be. I have converted several friends and family to Ubuntu and they have no problem jumping straight in and using the desktop, usually having used Windows previously (only one Mac convert thus far). While the Dash is a good tool it still lacks the sophistication it needs to be an excellent tool. Typing what you want more often than not leads to a blank page or applications you are not looking for, and this happens to me regularly, never mind new users. A simple misspelling of 'shutter' by a single letter should not leave me with zero results, I am sure in time it will be able to guess what I meant. Likewise typing 'email' can lead to zero results, rather you should look for 'mail' or 'thunderbird'. While we roll our eyes at having to press 'alt' to power off in Gnome Shell, Unity could do without such a steep learning curve also.

A quick search for 'shuttle' returns surprising results!
That said, Gnome Shell is really perfect for those who subscribe to the Bauhaus style of functionality and simplicity, however it takes a while to get used to. I dislike a cluttered desktop, I try to keep it as organised as possible so I do prefer the style, but that said it also lacks some of the functionality that I like. The overall look compared to Unity also feels more 'joined up', and I prefer the glassy black to the charcoal of Ambiance. Having to jump back and forth into overview to find things soon gets tiresome, so to address that I have taken to using Docky together with Gnome Shell and find that they make a really good team. Also the Gnome Extensions website is now much more robust, you just log in, turn the extensions you want on/off, access the settings for those that can be tweaked, update them easily and thus tweak your interface as much as like. Dare I say even more so then the regular Unity. Its not perfect, but it works. Likewise the overview is much more user friendly, simply clicking into 'applications' and scrolling down, or clicking a filter on the right.

Docky in action
What is obvious is that no interface is perfect. While I make criticisms against both Gnome Shell and Unity, I believe they are both setting the standard for all the alternatives. Its good to point out what needs to be addressed as that only leads to a better user experience and while the end-user should remain open to change and considering new ways of doing things, developers should avoid change for the sake of change alone. I have read on the mailing lists that some have considered a Ubuntu community maintained variant of Gnome Shell, however I am not convinced that is the way to go, Gnome Shell already has everything it needs and does work really well in Ubuntu. If anything Ubuntu  developers reaching out and making sure things stay that way might be a progressive way forward for both parties. The Unity launcher working under Gnome Shell, minus the dash and so on, might be an interesting alternative to a regular dock, but of course I am just an end-user with opinions!

An extension in action, easy access to my 'places' and removable drives
Once Precise is done and dusted I am sure the very clever boys and girls in Canonical have some really fun new stuff they can not wait to release. We have seen Ubuntu TV and Ubuntu for Android yet these will probably be the tip of the iceberg, while at the same time Ubuntu attempts to break into new markets. The future for Ubuntu looks bright, even during these tough times, and more importantly regardless of what interface you use with it.

Peace.


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