Divided Over Ubuntu’s Unity

I find it very ironic that one of the most divisive things that ever hit the Linux scene is a Desktop Environment called Unity. For those of you who are late to the party, Unity was introduced by Canonical in 2010 and became the default desktop experience on Ubuntu with the release of Ubuntu 11.04. Unity is both loved and hated, depending on who you’re talking to at the moment, and all you gotta do to start a lively discussion is bring it up in mixed (Linux minded) company. Opinions about Unity range from absolute disdain to unabashed “fanboyism.”

I’ve been torn over the whole thing for years. I neither love nor hate Unity, but there are some things about I really like and others I do not. I like its ease of use but detest the fact that’s it’s not easily customizable. You can’t make the top panel do anything at all, including go away, the Launcher can get annoying and the Dash is nice when it works but if it’s misbehaving it can be a real pain. You can get a bit more control by installing the Unity Tweak Tool that is available in the Ubuntu repositories.  From an administrator’s point of view, Unity is probably the most easily setup DE out there, though. Spinning up numerous user accounts is just not that big a deal since there are so few settings to contend with in the first place. That also makes it hard to break. The novice user has fewer options to choose from in the settings menu and, therefore, you’re less likely to hear them say, “Oops! I clicked something and now I broke it. Help!”

Another thing I like about Unity is how it integrates with the LightDM Desktop Manager. Unlike many other many other Linux desktop experiences, the Unity/LightDM combination is almost seamless. Login screens are not that critical to those who only have one account on their personal computer but if you start adding more accounts they become rather important. One of the things I like about LightDM is that it will put a laptop to sleep even when no one is logged in if the lid is closed. I have not had good experiences with other DM’s in this area. Most notably, the Mint Desktop Manager (MDM) does absolutely nothing if the lid is closed and no one is logged in. The computer continues to run. I have sought answers to this troubling issue with little success. Other Mint users have complained of the same thing as well but I have never found anyone with a solution. It doesn’t seem to be a big priority for the Mint developers. LightDM performs this task flawlessly.

Why is this behavior worth worrying about? Well, If you were to close the lid and put the laptop in a bag, thinking all the while that it was sleeping peacefully but it wasn’t, the machine would quickly overheat and that just might cause irreparable harm to the computer. Actually, I had this very same problem with Manjaro while I was giving it a test run. My daughter logged out, shut the lid and left the computer on the couch. When I picked it up a few moments later, It was hotter than a firecracker. More on that later.

My first encounter with Unity was when I decided to take the plunge and load Ubuntu on an Acer laptop right after Ubuntu 12.04 was released. This little machine had been running Windows 7. With Windows, it was only semi-useful because it ran slower than molasses in January and crashed quite frequently. Ubuntu brought new life to the dumpy little thing. This was the very first time I put Ubuntu on a machine by itself and just let it run. I’ve been hooked ever since.

At that time, I was feeling my way around Unity and grumbling just a bit about how I wanted Gnome 2 back when this magical thing happened: I let my then five-year-old son take a look and he figured out how to run the computer in all of 30 seconds. He had a browser up and he was watching a Thomas the Tank Engine video. I grabbed my video camera and captured the moment. I was amazed.  After that experience, I started looking at Unity in a different light. Maybe Canonical was on to something after all.

That was nearly four years ago now but this past Sunday I was reloading the kids’ HP laptop with Ubuntu 14.04 and setting up Unity for them. I had tried Manjaro Cinnamon on that machine and it was not well received. My kids love Unity; they would rather use it than any other desktop. They wanted Ubuntu back and so I obliged.  The install was smooth compared to a couple of nightmare EzeeLinux client installs I had done earlier in the week and I found myself feeling very much at home with Unity this weekend. It hasn’t changed much since 2010 and I’m beginning to appreciate more and more why that’s a good thing.

I have commented in the past on how the needs of the average computer user are sometimes at odds with the wants of the power Linux user. Linux nerds revel in the myriad choices while new users are dazzled and confused. Canonical came up with an environment specifically catered to the novice. It doesn’t change, it doesn’t overwhelm them with choices and it doesn’t get in the way. Sit one of these folks down in front of KDE, Cinnamon, MATE or even the simplistic Gnome 3 and they are just lost. I’ve seen it time and time again. When I put someone in front of Unity, they start clicking icons in the launcher and they say, “OK, this is how I find programs… There’s my browser… Here are the files… Oh, that’s settings… Cool.” They’re good to go and don’t care one bit about the lack of customization or the relative speed of the desktop. They can get to their stuff and that’s all that matters to them. Period.

After all these years, I can finally say that I like Unity, even if it’s out of familiarity alone. It’s definitely a good place to start and with all the new enterprise users moving to Ubuntu, millions of people will be getting to know it in the coming years. No, this does not mean that I’m going to go around and reload all my computers. I love Linux mint with Xfce and Cinnamon on my desktops… But, I will most likely stop trying new DE’s and distros on the family laptop. They like Unity and I’m cool with that.

Now that we have that cleared up, I can finally move on to figuring out the meaning of life. I’ll keep you posted.

Have fun!

Featured Photo by LinuxAndUbuntu

Joe Collins
Joe Collins worked in radio and TV stations for over 20 years where he installed, maintained and programmed computer automation systems. Joe also worked for Gateway Computer for a short time as a Senior Technical Support Professional in the early 2000’s and has offered freelance home computer technical support and repair for over a decade.

Joe is a fan of Ubuntu Linux and Open Source software and recently started offering Ubuntu installation and support for those just starting out with Linux through EzeeLinux.com. The goal of EzeeLinux is to make Linux easy and start them on the right foot so they can have the best experience possible.

Joe lives in historic Portsmouth, VA in a hundred year old house with three cats, three kids and a network of computers built from scrounged parts, all happily running Linux.

17 thoughts on “Divided Over Ubuntu’s Unity”

  1. “Most divisive”? Did you forget the classic vim v/s emacs fight that still rages on? Or the divide between KDE and GNOME fans? Or more recently, the whole debate around systemd?

    The Linux community has always been divided as far as I can remember – and in some ways, that is a good thing. Google’s philosophy of “be together, not the same” comes to mind.

  2. Unity is great, but in my opinion it needs to be more of a performer and do more for customization and themes. I hope the new Qt based Unity/Mir combo really shines. It looks a lot better that’s for sure.

  3. I don’t think Ubuntu (with Unitiy, not the other alternatives like Lubuntu, Xubuntu, etc) it’s “for novices”.It’s the most solid distro out there that “just works out of the box”, providing the user with the same graphical user experience they enjoy on macs or windows.This has to do with a million packages ready to be installed with one click and that just simple wokrs 99.9999% of the time.I use it as my only everyday desktop (3d design with Blender, 2D with inkscape and then 3D-printing with KISSlicer; bluetooth mouse & keyboard just works out of the box and overall a solid and enjoyable desktop experiencie).I mean, real work, not just watching youtube.

  4. I have been running Ubuntu-Mate for a while now. A couple of weeks back I moved the launcher to the left and inadvertently recreated Unity look. I think when 16.04 comes out I might just return to “regular” Ubuntu. With the changes they have planed it might just be the right time to give Unity another go.

  5. One of the problems with Unity, and also Gnome and KDE in recent versions, is that they represent somebody’s idea of what a desktop environment should be like. If your ideas are similar, great; if not, it is the desktop’s way, or the highway. Another problem is that these paradigms are solutions in search of a problem.

  6. Is the “linux scene” all united otherwise ? If unity were to disappear, would there be one repository, one distro, one toolkit, one version of the kernel distributed, one system level API ?

    Why is it that in the context of everything else, “choice is good” is the mantra except when ubuntu “deviates from the norm”, it is divisive ? Who decides that ? Is there an establishment in the so called linux scene that sets the ‘standards’ ? If so, who are they ? And why is any deviation divisive ?

  7. Been using Ubuntu Unity from its early days, I use other distros like Arch as well but the most I miss when using the other is the functionality of UBUNTU. Every person I have converted to Ubuntu from Windows also feel the same after using it for a while. Unity makes Ubuntu functional without much of the annoying interjections. Otherwise for my Arch I use XFCE and use the dock to make it close to Unity.

  8. I guess I am a “power Linux user” but I don’t revel in myriad choices. All I need is a pile of Xterm windows and a large virtual workspace with the ability to flip among them rapidly (i.e., edge flip). A single panel with some launchers and pop-up menus is also nice. Something that Red Hat mastered about 15 years ago. It’s been downhill ever since. Unity is a complete zonk. Thankfully xfce seems stuck in a time warp and works just fine. How long will it last?

  9. Desktop enviroments are all different. Windows, Mac, KDE, Gnome, Unity etc. Macs are supposedly ‘easy’ and OSX is still weird and difficult to me.

    If you can find someone who has never used a computer before they would find any Linux Desktop easier to use than Windows or Mac.

  10. I, like others here, disagree with the “for novices” idea. Unity is built on solid ground and is as good for power users. Take, for instance, the all-keyboard approach. There’s no other DE you can fully use without a mouse, including accessing app menus (HUD).

    Customization is not a power user thing, it’s a nerd thing. Linux used to be a nerd thing too. Those of us who actually do some daily work on it, are fine with an easy and fast DE like Unity. Distro hoppers, KDE users and, in general people who enjoy tinkering, can’t be, but that’s understandable. It wasn’t designed with them in mind.

    I would improve a number of things in Unity (active notifications, unhiding menus by default or no compromises hidpi support, among others) but I’ll save my criticisms for Unity 8, since Unity 7 is basically in maintenance mode.

  11. I use Unity from the very beginning for daily use (web development) and must say that its functionality is great. A long time ago it was buggy, but now works as a clock.

  12. People need to stop writing the old and tired out, “Unity Is Divisive” articles. Unity has finally settled in and is here to stay on Ubuntu. With the other flavors like gnome, mate, Lubuntu, Kubuntu and Ubuntu-based distros like Elementary, Mint, Zorin….the argument is moot. Pick your favorite version and be happy using it.

  13. I have a problem with Unity, but its a point you hit only tangentially in your article: Unity remains synonymous with Ubuntu.

    Despite being open source, Unity remains so closely tied to other Canonical-sponsored projects and Ububtu-esque ways of doing things that it is practically impossible to use Unity on any other distribution. This creates a silo’d experience more akin to Windows and OS X than other Linux flavors, and that’s something I just can’t support.

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